A brief history of serious games 🧠

Drimify
4 min readMay 5

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Serious games are games designed with serious purposes at their core. They’re related to gamification, the application of game mechanics to typically less playful tasks, but are a distinct concept under the gamification umbrella in that a serious game is a game. It’s not a process which has had a leaderboard or badges applied. It’s a simulation: an interactive environment in which a player can learn, practise skills, and develop. If anything, the serious purpose has been added to the game mechanics.

Serious games have numerous applications across business, human resources, fitness and leisure, and education. Serious gaming provides simulated experiences in which a player or participant can interact and experiment with new concepts. They also act as an educational medium through which employers can encourage desired behaviours and knowledge acquisition in employees, getting constant data collection and analytics to monitor performance and progress. But where did they originate? How did this concept, now mostly centred around the online video game format, get its start?

Earliest known uses of serious games

This is obviously hard to pinpoint. Technically, the term “serious game” as we understand it today, as a medium for training and education, appeared in 1970, and it was further popularised in the early 2000s. However, there’s an incredibly broad history of non-digital games being used for what we could consider serious purposes for centuries, possibly millenia, definition-dependent.

Some precursors to chess, for example, developed as far back as the 7th century, are acknowledged by historians to have militaristic metaphors applied. These could be looked at as foreshadowing the use of serious video games by militaries to train their soldiers for combat.

The notion of games with a serious purpose can be documented as far back as Ancient Greece through Plato. He suggested that “play” could be used as practice by children to train at the function they would fulfil as adults. Such as with miniature tools if they were to grow up to be a blacksmith or a builder, and so forth.

Development of serious games in modern society

The term “serious game” and our modern notion of gaming for training and learning was coined in 1970 by Clark C Abt in his book, Serious Games — although the US military had been experimenting with games and simulation as training apparatus for at least a couple of decades prior. Abt was a US researcher who worked during the Cold War, with an interest in training and education through games, even creating some serious educational games to help train military officers for the cold war. Just 12 years later, Microsoft Flight Simulator, perhaps the most well known commercial serious game of all time, was released. Central to its design was the serious purpose of being a comprehensive simulation of civilian aviation.

In the 2000s, and even more so in the 2010s, the use of serious games for various applications in numerous sectors exploded. In 2002, America’s Army was launched. This delivered virtual experiences simulating working in the United States army. This was a US government-funded serious game for recruitment. In 2006, serious games were even used in journalism, with the release of Darfur is Dying. This Flash-built “news game” had over 800,000 players and brought awareness to the war in Darfur, and the subsequent humanitarian disaster.

Over this period, various large multinationals started incorporating serious games into recruitment to identify talent and whittle down applicant lists. They also created bespoke serious games as parts of e-learning programmes to simulate business scenarios for employees to train through and learn from. These programmes of serious game training immersed employees in a low stakes environment where mistakes were learning experiences rather than costs to business.

An accessible innovation for all businesses

Different types of serious games serve different functions. They can be used for educational purposes to transfer knowledge, train skill development, encourage desired behaviours, and even to increase motivation and call people to action.

With developments in technology, both regarding internet speed and the functionality of modern devices, customising serious games for marketing, commerce and HR has become an attainable innovation for small and medium sized businesses alike, as well as industry titans. Utilising gamification platforms like Drimify, it’s now easy to customise serious games as training tools for almost any application.

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Drimify

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