Paper: Designing Effective Serious Games

Designing Effective Serious Games: Opportunities and Challenges for Research
F. Bellotti, R. Berta, and A. De Gloria [2010]

The research done for this paper is extensive (over 100 references) and extremely informative. The topics range from the very basic "What is a Serious Game", to actual "game design" of serious games and possible research that can be done in the future. I'll write a summary of the topics that caught my attention, but this paper deserves a read on its own.

Serious Games are gaining more and more popularity do to the fact that they effectively address several e-learning problems. Games can present users with realistic and compelling challenges, they provide the player with immediate feedback, they allow players to explore different courses of action and more importantly, they place the learner in an active role, which allows them to remember up to 90% of the information presented, but games also have some limitations. For example, the 'suspension of disbelief' that is required in a game can negatively influence the learning process. Also, game features like difficulty level, duration, aesthetic, etc. can hinder the instructional goal. "There is a need for scientific and engineering methods for building games as means that provide effective learning experiences".

The term "Serious Game" was firstly used in 2002 with the start of the Serious Game Initiative. They were initially conceived to train people for specific tasks in particular jobs. Now they span everything from advancing social causes to promoting better health to marketing.

Serious Games do not target exclusively hardcore gamers, they also target casual gamers which is an emerging market thanks to the brain training games, virtual pet games, and the like.

The use of Virtual Worlds in Serious Games is becoming more and more common, as they allow to overcome the barrier of time and space for geographically distributed users. The success of Second Life is proof of this.

To properly design a Serious Game, it should be strongly grounded in proper educational foundations. It must incorporate sound cognitive, learning, and pedagogical principles into their design and structure. Something that is commonly ignored in some of the current "unguided or minimally guided" instructional approaches. It has been proven that guidance in general only looses it's usfulness when the learner has sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide "internal guidance". Also, the use of FWE (Fading Worked Examples) is something that can be used to develop Serious Games, even if they have not been fully explored as a learning tool in games.

Intelligent tutoring has proven effective for learning, but its application in the field of gaming is more difficult, because games need to be appealing and meaningful.

Among the different tools and methodologies for the development of Serious Games are:
Delta3D (a Game Engine that supports efficient AI-enhanced Games), StoryTec (a storytelling platform), ALIGN (architecture designed to maximize re-use in developing adaptive Serious Games), RETAIN (a SG design paradigm), SeGAE (an environment that allows the modification of the game design), The Experience Management Framework (allows semi-autonomous characters that show believable behaviours), Thespian (an interactive drama system), Emergent narrative (a narrative framework), FAtiMA (an agent structure), OCC (theory of emotions), etc.

Regarding game mechanics, the author states that players should be able to learn simply by trying to overcome the game's challenges, but still, care should be taken to not create an "eccessively compelling" game, asi it might prevent a player from concentrating on the instructional material. Interestingly, if a game's mechanic is sufficiently interesting, it doesn't need a detailed story specification, as this leaves more space for knowledge adquisition.

Many other topics need further research as we currently don't know how they affect the effectiveness of the different types of Serious Games. What we do know, is that serious games provide a different learning experience, that is far more effective than traditional e-learning experiences.

Read the paper here. [You need to be registered to read it (free)]
Bellotti, F., Berta, R., & De Gloria, A. (2010). Designing Effective Serious Games: Opportunities and Challenges for Research. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, 22-35.

Article: Theta*

Theta*: Any-Angle Path Planning for Smoother Trajectories in Continuous Environments
Alex Nash [2010]

A* is commonly used algorithm that involves searching the shortest path in a given grid. Although this works well, it has some problems, one of them is the unrealistic looking paths that it creates. This happens because it is restricted to the actual grid. There are several aesthetic optimization that can be done to the algorithm, but they can make the process slow or create a sub-optimal path.

To solve this problem, Nash developed Theta*, which considers paths that are not constrained to grid edges. The main difference is that Theta* allows the parent of a vertex to be any vertex, unlike A* where the parent must be a visible neighbor.

[Note: Theta* algorithm is described in the article and original paper]

A* Path (Red) vs Theta* Path (Blue)

They tested the Theta* algorithm with a square grid in several different maps (game-based and random) and they found that on average, the ratio of the lengths of the paths found by Theta* were 1.007 on game maps and 1.002 on random maps, which were better than the 1.04 ratio of A* paths. In other words (their own words, actually), Theta* is orders of magnitude faster than standard implementations of A* searches.

Theta* is a good alternative when A* is not enough for a realistic "shortest-path".

Nash, A. (2010, September 8). Theta*: Any-Angle Path Planning for Smoother Trajectories in Continuous Environments. Retrieved February 28, 2011, from AiGameDev.com: http://aigamedev.com/open/tutorials/theta-star-any-angle-paths/

Journal: International Journal of Emerging Technologies

This interdisciplinary journal aims to focus on the exchange of relevant trends and research results as well as the presentation of practical experiences gained while developing and testing elements of technology enhanced learning. So it aims to bridge the gape between pure academic research journals and more practical publications. So it covers the full range from research, application development to experience reports and product descriptions.

Click to visit journal.

Paper: State of the Art Report on Serious Games

State of the Art Report on Serious Games: Blurring the lines between recreation and reality.
Eirik Vik [2009]

In this paper, Eirik gives a broad overview of Serious Games in general as of September 2009. Aside from general considerations like the target audience and advantages of using games to teach, what I found most interesting were two sections: The Serious Games Taxonomy and the AI , Character Development section.

In the serious games taxonomy, Eirik references a table constructed by Ben Sawyer, in which it is extremely easy to see the different types of genres and sectors in which serious games can be used. The genres he proposes are:
  • Games for Health
  • Advergames
  • Games for Training
  • Games for Education
  • Games for Science & Research
  • Production
  • Games at Work
This table includes how these genres can help in different sectors, which is helpful when trying to define the scope of a game to build.

In the other section (AI, Character Development), he talks about the evolution of human representation as NPC (Non-Playable Characters) in games. A representation model that has been trending is the OCEAN model, which divides a human persona into 5 different traits:
  1. Openness
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Extroversion
  4. Agreeableness
  5. Neuroticism
A character can have different degrees of each trait, with one being the primary trait. These dictate how someone reacts to certain events.

Also, combined with this model is the dyadic model (gossip model) which is a form of artificial intelligence in which player actions create 'ripple effects' thorugh the virtual world. This means that after the player interacts with a NPC, that NPC might 'talk' about the player with other 'NPCs'. This effect makes NPCs who have never interacted with the player to have some sort of opinion about the player and also allows for characters from same groups or factions have different opinions, which makes the game more believable.

The paper provides a bit general but interesting read.

Vik, E. (2009). State of the Art Report on Serious Games: Blurring the lines between recreation and reality.

News: Sony Ericsson Announces PlayStation Phone Unity Support

Unity has implemented a special API specific to the Xperia PLAY in order to offer developers an easy way of implementing the Xperia PLAY’s gaming controls and optimizing their games for them. This is the first such device Unity has supported in this way, and Unity is the only middleware company Sony Ericsson is working with in this depth. It will be interesting to see if other manufacturers will follow Sony Ericsson's lead.[...]

Article: Do Girls Play Computer Games?

Do Girls Play Computer Games?
Anna [2009]

In this interesting post from Anna's Serious Games Interactive Blog, she discusses the importance of gender when designing a game. She also talks about the unbalanced gender representations in games.

Anna says that there is a social preconception of computer games being for boys, and while it's true that boys generally play more games than girls, that is no reason to completely forget about the female gender while designing a game.

One important aspect to consider which is often overlooked, is the gender of the avatar. While it might not seem important when compared to other elements like graphics, music and engine considerations, it can be a very important issue for female players. As an example, she talks about the game she's been developing "Playing History: The Plague" in which the main character is a non-gender specific mouse, which can be customized by the player. This means that the player can give the avatar gender specific traits, so both genders can be interested in the same avatar.

She also talks about the issue of marketing and packaging, in which she interestingly found that educational games were regarded differently from other genres. Educational games are regarded as 'good for you' games while every other game is regarded as 'fun games'. Also, girl-oriented games are shelved with the educational games, reinfocing the idea that computers are tools, while boy-oriented games are shelved in the 'fun' shelves.

Care should be taken when designing the game, as to not overlook these important aspects.

Anna. (2009, April 11). Do Girls Play Computer Games? Retrieved February 25, 2011, from Serious Games Interactive: http://www.seriousgames.dk/da/node/370

Paper: Methods for Evaluating Gameplay Experience

Methods for Evaluating Gameplay Experience in a Serious Gaming Context
Lennart Nacke, Anders Drachen and Stefan Göbel [2010]

The authors of this paper make a great description of what methods are being used for measuring the user experience in digital products. From Maslow's motivational model of human needs to Fabricatore's use of the opinions of players to develop design guidelines, but the fact that there are so many different methods, is because it's quite difficult to create a framework that correctly measures the user experience regarding digital content, especially games, because there are a great number of factors that need to be taken into account, like the social context of the user or the number of times someone has used the software.

They concluded that a good user experience evaluation has to be done taking an 'inclusive' theoretical stance with focus on the game system, the player, and the context of play.

To assess the game system, regular software and traditional game testing can be used: Unit testing, stress testing, soak testing, compatibility testing, localization testing, gampelay metrics, etc.

To asses the individual player experience different kinds of testing can be used: Psychophysiological player testing (electromyography, electrodermal activity, magnetic resonance imaging, etc.), eye tracking, persona modeling, player modeling and RITE testing.

Finally, to asses the player context experience some methodologies can be used: Ethnography, cultural debugging, playability heuristics, qualitative interviews and multiplayer game metrics.

[Note: The methodologies and testing procedures are described in the paper]

These methodologies allow balancing and tuning of the game during and after game development to improve the overall experience the game can provide to its players.

Nacke, L., Drachen, A., & Göbel, S. (2010). Methods for Evaluating Gameplay Experience in a Serious Gaming Context.


Paper: Hyper-Ludicity, Contra-Ludicity, and the Digital Game

Hyper-Ludicity, Contra-Ludicity, and the Digital Game
Steven Conway [2010]

This paper focuses on the difference between ludicity, contra-ludicity and hyper-ludicity in different generes of videogames.

Ludicity is the degree to which digital games allow play (the possibility to act or have an effect upon the gameworld). When ludicity is heightened or lowered, hyper-ludicity and contra-ludicity can be created and they play an importat role in making a game FUN.

Hyper-ludicity involves granting the player with superior strength or abilites that break the rules of the game, which is usually accompanied by visual effects and audio-cues that clearly identify the start of a hyper-ludicity state. Examples of this can be obtaining the Star item in Super Mario Bros., the 'gamebreaker' mode in FIFA Street, performing a 'Final Smash' in Super Smash Bros. Brawl or eating a 'Power Pellet' in Pac-Man.

Contra-ludicity involves making the game experience harder by taking away some abilities from the player, increasing the number or strength of the enemies or limiting the possible options a player has. Examples of this can be the increasing speed of falling tetrominoes in Tetris, the lack of items/strength/abilities in the beginning of an RPG game or the increasing waves of enemies in Gears of War's 'Horde' mode.

A good example of a game that utilizes hyper-ludicity and contra-ludicity to create an amazing gaming experience is Goldeneye 007 with it's 'The Man With The Golden Gun' mode. In this mode, one of the players is lucky enough to acquire the Golden Gun, which can one-hit-kill other players. This places the holder of the golden gun in a hyper-ludic state which gives that player the pleasure of overpowering everyone else while the other players enter a contra-ludic state which forces them to team up to take down the golden gun holder, which also functions as a 'social lubricant'. The quick changes in ludicity makes this game mode interesting and a great example of ludicity balancing.

The most important thing to note when designing a game with hyper-ludicity and contra-ludicity in mind, is to be careful of having a good balance between them. Too much hyper-ludicity and the game will become stale and boring, too much contra-ludicity and the game will become frustrating and annoying.

Conway, S. (2010). Hyper-Ludicity, Contra-Ludicity, and the Digital Game. Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture, 135-147.


Paper: Serious Games for Language Learning

Serious Games for Language Learning: How Much Game, How Much AI?
W.Lewis Johnson, Hannes Vilhjalmsson, Stacy Marsella [2005]

The serious game approach to learning is that games promote learner states that are conductive to learning and game AI can help considerably when implementing the design of a serious game, but care must be taken to not compromise game design principles, in order to maximize the learning experience.

The authors of this paper were designing and implementing a Tactical Language Training System in the form of a serious game that helps people learn foreign language and culture. They analyze six main areas which are:

  1. Gameplay
  2. Feedback
  3. Affordances
  4. Challenge
  5. Fish tanks and sandboxes
  6. Story and character identification
  7. Fun and learning orientation

AI facilitated gameplay in their game by promoting rapid interaction with nonplayer characters and the fault-tolerant speech recognition system provided players with an easy and adjustable learning experience. Also, they took care to not interrupt gameplay with constant corrections from an intelligent tutoring system.

They also discovered that a high amount of feedback eliminated the need for an intelligent coaching as the learners could quickly recognize when their actions are working or not. This is excellent because it replaces a complex intelligent coaching system with a simple visual feedback and achieves the same or better results.

Also, they managed to create a good sense of challenge with different levels of difficulty that could be changed without overly modifying the original gameplay (speech recognition becomes more strict, npc's react more to disrespecful attitudes, etc). They also provide fish tanks (stripped down versions of the game) and sandboxes (a version of the game with less likelihood for things to go wrong) to support the learners if they got stuck.

Finally, they realized that the part of their game that was mostly regarded as 'less fun' was the 'training' section which resembles a teacher-student situation, whereas the missions section was considered extremely fun. This created a good balance of learning and fun because players could switch from one to another, allowing them to use the software for long periods of time without feeling ennui.

Johnson, W., Vilhjalmsson, H., & Marsella, S. (2005). Serious Games for Language Learning: How Much Game, How Much AI?


Journal: Computer Game Education Review

Computer Game Education Review (CGER) is designed to facilitate computer game education research and provide a research compass to the community at-large.

Initially, CGER will be an annual publication. We will consider a more frequent publication schedule should the level and quality of submissions suggest it.

Note: This journal is new and is still accepting submisions for it's first issue.


Journal: Games and Culture

Games and Culture (G&C), peer-reviewed and published quarterly, is an international journal that promotes innovative theoretical and empirical research about games and culture within interactive media. The journal serves as a premiere outlet for ground-breaking work in the field of game studies and its scope includes the socio-cultural, political, and economic dimensions of gaming from a wide variety of perspectives.
Follow the link to Games and Culture

Journal: Game Studies

Game Studies is a crossdisciplinary journal dedicated to games research, web-published several times a year at www.gamestudies.org.

Our primary focus is aesthetic, cultural and communicative aspects of computer games, but any previously unpublished article focused on games and gaming is welcome.

Follow the link to Game Studies


Journal: Eludamos, Journal for Computer Game Culture

ELUDAMOS is an international, multi-disciplined, biannual e-journal that publishes peer-reviewed articles that theoretically and/or empirically deal with digital games in their manifold appearances and their sociocultural-historical contexts. ELUDAMOS positions itself as a publication that fundamentally transgresses disciplinary boundaries. The aim is to join questions about and approaches to computer games from decidedly heterogeneous scientific contexts (for example cultural studies, media studies, (art) history, sociology, (social) psychology, and semiotics) and, thus, to advance the interdisciplinary discourse on digital games.
Follow the link to Eludamos

Journal: International Journal of Computer Games Technology

The overall aim of the International Journal of Computer Games Technology is to bring together both the research and development aspects of games technology (algorithms, software and hardware) for entertainment computing and interactive digital media. The focus will be on three research and development frontiers: first, to expand the technology frontier in terms of both hardware and software for games, second, to validate innovative procedures including algorithms and architectures for games, and finally, to explore novel applications of games technology both for entertainment and serious games.

Website: AAAI.org

Why are games fun? In part, because they challenge our ability to think. Even simple games like Tic-Tac-Toe, Nim and Kalah, or puzzles like the Eights Puzzle, are challenging to children. More complex games like checkers, chess, bridge, and Go are difficult enough that it takes years for gifted adults to master them. Nearly all games require seeing patterns, making plans, searching combinations, judging alternative moves, and learning from experience, all being skills which are also involved in many daily tasks.

It's no surprise that Alan Turing proposed chess playing as a good project for studying computers' ability to reason. In many ways, games have provided simple proving grounds for many of AI's powerful ideas [...]


Game Engines

Game Engine comparative (in progress)

Game Engine Page

Interesting Resources To Consider


Serious Games Initiative

Serious Games.es

VS Games

Serious Game Conference

Serious Games Institute


Institute For The Future

XEODesign (Nicole Lazzaro's Presentations)


Do Serious Games Work?

Serious Games Entertain, Educate Employees

Serious Games: Online Games for Learning

Entertainment Game AI vs Serious Game AI

Serious Games


Gaming Can Make A Better World

Research directions for Educational/Serious Games