Dec 8, 2012

Getting serious - a look at serious games for archives and records..

This is an essay I did for University. All the links to original screen captures are below the images.  Hope you enjoy gaming as much as I do.
 Kate xx

What are serious games?

By definition a game is about “playing”, and therefore usually associated with leisure and non-serious pursuits. A child would consider a game to be something they do separately from learning or school, perhaps at play time or after school. So, as Breuer & Bente (2010) note, the title of “serious games” appears to be an oxymoron. Although we all know at least one gamer who takes games very seriously, most people consider them to be a pastime or hobby to be pursued during leisure.

The popularity of digital games, is seen by some as an opportunity to produce games where the main objective is education and educational pursuits. These education based digital games have been given the title of “serious games”, although I'm not certain that is meant to imply that other games are seen as it's polar opposite and therefore “non-serious”. It's just that the primary purpose of other games is not necessarily one of education. It may fulfil other human needs such as the need to de-stress, the need for community, the need for order (thus the popularity of games like Tetris) and the need for relaxation.

Educators and those involved in community arts and heritage programs have used games (although of the non digital variety) for many years, with the hope of peaking the learner's interest and engaging them in some education whilst having fun. That is to say, it is not a new concept, but rather one that has been transferred to a new arena.

Having been involved in education for over twenty years, I have memories of the early education software, such as Math Invaders and Spellbound. These games, in my experience, had learner's eager for a turn on the computer, which was a precious and rare opportunity. So in principal, at least, it makes sense to seize the opportunity of digital consumers waiting like hungry birds for a bite at the new worm.

However, young people, and indeed the general public, have much higher expectations as consumers, than my students of many years ago. There is a delicate balance between creating enjoyment to keep the learner engaged and maintaining the integrity of the learning outcomes and educational purpose of the game. This is one of the reasons why the jury is still out on the amount of time and money that should be spent on the pursuit of these games in the wider educational and cultural arenas.

During the research for this paper, I came across several periodicals and a conference asking for submissions on the topic of serious games. This is a hot topic in both education circles and archives/records realms, and it's only going to get hotter.

Case studies

Serious games may fall into two categories as far as development goes. So I will discuss one from each category as an example. As with any computer software the games can range from very bad to very good. These two categories are by no means definitive and there are times when games may appear to cross over the categories or fit neither. I merely point out that with different budgets and different agenda, it's unwise to compare them against each other. There may also be varying opinions about the quality of play versus the educational value, depending upon who is using the game and in what context. It is also important to note, the games development sector is dynamic and sometimes a game for pleasure, such as Minecraft can cross over into the educational realm such as when they developed an urban planner based on the same platform.

The first type of game is a commercial venture. These games are developed by companies involved in computers or gaming already, or those companies willing to invest in this technology. They are usually developed by teams of experts and have bigger budgets, and appear more like the games consumers are used to purchasing either off the shelf or through downloads. They may be either PC games, apps or platform games. They are intended to be used for recreational as well as educational or training purposes and may also be marketed to educational institutions and such agencies. They may be anything from simple to complex, quick play to long play, or individual or team player. Sometimes these games may be criticised for distracting the player from learning in favour of entertainment. There are probably (but not always) more liberties taken with content. That is, the facts matter less, if the player is engaged.

The second type of game is purely an educational venture. These games may be funded by grants, or by individual enthusiasts. They may be funded by public monies set aside for the arts and heritage. They usually have a limited budget. They may rely upon crowd sourcing, or they may be a project for an organisation. The games are generally not expected to make a profit, but are an investment in public education and an experiment into information sharing through serious games. Some of these projects are long term ventures or may remain unfinished or continue to collect data. Some may be used for a particular event or exhibition. These games may be linked to a particular curriculum or framework. They are often rich in educational content and tend to be strict in the adherence to facts or commonly held beliefs of the government and country of origin. Sometimes these games are criticised for being less “fun” to play, especially if they contain a lot of serious content. They may also be criticised for allowing less player control, as the player must follow the morals, philosophy and rules in order to win the game. That is, if there is anarchy, one will not complete the mission. There is much debate about the balance between the level of fun and the level of pedagogy. (see Anderson et. al. 2010)

Rome: Total War is an example of the first type of game. It is commercially available game developed by Creative Assembly. It has often been referred to as the most accurate of the commercially available historical games. Players need to use a mixture of diplomacy using the politics of the time, and battle strategy. They can also build and repair the buildings and infrastructure and make economic decisions. Unlike Age of Empires, some historical knowledge is needed in order to proceed in the game successfully. However, gameplay consists of three factions which is not historically correct and the use of uniform colours is also historically inaccurate, but makes it much easier to tell whose side the soldiers are on when battles begin.

Rome :Total War – one of the Total War series of games.

An example of the educational type game is Time Explorer, a serious game from the British Museum aimed at 9-14 year olds. It has real objects from the museum's collection throughout the game. Gameplay consists of choosing an avatar which then travels back in time to perform certain tasks and rescue artefacts from disasters. It's a good example of where there is a balance between enjoyment and reality. The player gets to time travel like Dr Who and have an Indiana Jones style adventure, but the information and objects are all historically accurate. In some ways I thought it was a bit silly, but in the forums, kids seemed to enjoy it and their biggest complaint was that it was too short.

So what are the options in archives and records?

Some of the options that might be used in designing games with archives and manuscripts, are as follows:

● Simulations – commonly called Sims, such as AE2 Commander, that show the conditions in an historically correct way.
● Virtual Worlds – such as Second Life, but one where players are immersed in an historical world.
● Speculative Histories - such as 1066 which considers if the outcome would be different if you (the player) had been in control of the armies and had made different decisions.

● Applications – The rapid adoption and wide use of applications (apps) on computers, tablets, and smart phones opens a whole new world of opportunities for museums, libraries and archives. Apps could be used to provide access to previously unseen artefacts and manuscripts, as well as enhancing exhibitions and educating the public in all manner of historical and culturally significant material. An example of this is the Eye Shakespeare App. I was able to find apps containing everything from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, to Shakespearean style insults. But the EyeShakespeare App is not only a guide to thirteen key Shakespearean sites, but it gives access to artefacts and documents normally kept in a secure vault. An example is these locks of hair believed to belong to William Shakespeare.

Some considerations that are needed during development of serious games for use in archives and records:

● a high degree of player control over decision making.
● a balance for the player between challenge and success.
● a balance between pedagogy and enjoyment. Consider Csikszentmihalyi's (2008) notion of flow, as integral to learner engagement.
● the player as an active participant rather than a passive receiver of information.
● that the learner may develop their own view of the material presented and not necessarily the view of the authority.
● to accommodate the idea that some learning will take place that cannot be tested.
● some form of feedback as to how the player is progressing.
● Accommodates different modes of learning. Consider Gardner's (1993) Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Gardner's (1993) Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Drivers and Barriers.
Barriers and drivers to realizing the potential of gaming for archives and manuscripts online.

Drivers include:
● The improvement in CGI has meant that realistic simulations and virtual worlds are possible.
● The instant gratification and feedback that the learner experiences when gaming.
● Digital content now allows access to old and fragile material once only available to a select few for fear of damage to the artefacts and documents.
● Tools for development such as libraries and software development kits, means less time between conceptualization and realization.
● Learning through games is more dynamic than the traditional teaching methods and gives the students more opportunity for independent learning.
● The opportunity exists to use serious games as an introduction to a topic, that inspires the learner to seek more information, ask questions and engage in learning beyond the game.
● If a commercial market can make theses games economically sustainable then it becomes self perpetuating.
● Wider acceptance of social networking provides the push for team playing. For example multiple players could work together to facilitate a simulation of the moon landing.
Haptic computing and the development of the Wii, provide more opportunities for multi-sensory learning.

Barriers include:
● People already immersed in a digital world, having yet another digital way to receive information.
Parents complaints of children playing too many digital games, without balancing book work, outdoor pursuits and so on.
● Technological problems are always a barrier when there is limited time, such as a certain amount of time for a lesson, or a show or exhibition. If too much time has to be spent troubleshooting, then this means time is taken away from the educational goal.
● Time taken to learn the game, can be detrimental to overall lesson planning in a classroom or crowd control in a public access area.
● Realism and authenticity are important, but can take a long time to develop if they are to be accurate.
Egenfeldt-Nielsen. (2004) found that serious games may rely heavily on the player following the rules and reading the accompanying material, some experienced gamers prefer to to jump straight in and learn to play as they go along.
● Some serious games are aiming to teach important life lessons such as diplomacy and strategy. Gamers are used to playing games that allow a player to win if they use might or force over diplomacy. This means a new learning curve and can cause some players to be dissatisfied with the serious game and completely miss the lesson.
● Educators and historians, archivists and curators will need to embrace a a new type of history where the notion of fixity is challenged and meaning is constructed by the learner.

The AE2 Commander game

The AE2 Commander game is a university based project exploring the use of a simulation game (that of a WW2 submarine) which references the archives of the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives of Australia.  Gameplay consists of scanning documents for information and clues on how to proceed in the game. The document above give clues as to the time of day (the game begins before dawn) that particular events happened. It also tells of some of the hazards to be expected such as searchlights and mines.

Screen shot of the AE2 Commander archival material

The player receives feedback, which can then be used to proceed further in the game. For example if the sun is up, then you probably are not on schedule. This enabled me to learn and to proceed much further once the controls were learned. There is also a map, to show your location. It helps avoid the beach and gives a good indication of where you are in the game.

Screen shot of AE2 Commander game, example of feedback.

As the player learns to control the submarine, then dangers can be avoided. For example as I learned to manoeuvre the submarine better, I was able to avoid the searchlights, to give the crew time to prepare to dive.

Screen shot AE2 Commander

Although it is certainly very helpful to read the documents, a player with weaker reading skills or different learning styles, could still learn the game and achieve success. This was particularly appealing to me, having worked with students with learning difficulties and literacy issues. It is important that these issues do not hold them back from participating in other learning.

In conclusion, the AE2 Commander game, although made with a low budget, has shown the potential for archives and records institutions to gain new ground in allowing access to their materials both to students and the general public. In the past it was only researchers and archivists who would painstakingly search through archival material and then hope to gain enough interest to ensure it's preservation. Now the digital age has created a forum for showcasing even the most delicate and precious of objects. With a renewed interest in Vintage and Retro in everything from fashion to homewares to original manuscripts and recordings, there is an opportunity to seize the imagination of this new audience. If archives, libraries, museums and galleries are to survive the technological age, and not be seen as musty old records no-one wants to read, then they must embrace the opportunities that serious games has afforded them. As Kee (2009) point out:
Game players are not barbarians; that they choose
historical over sci-fi or contemporary themes – one quarter of PC-based
games that have sold at least one million units have been historically
themed, or employed historical tropes – suggests an interest in the past
that we need to speak to.
Furthermore, the “geek” gamer has a wide influence in social media, and the blogoshpere. They are our “word of mouth” advertising, and their standards are high. Rather than diminish the pursuit of gaming as somehow less than academic history, we have the opportunity to ensure games have the correct content and accurate information that informs the user whole affording enjoyment in the game itself.

1. 1066 from
2. AE2 Commander from
3. Age of Empires from
4. Eye Shakespeare App from
5. Ludos Mundi - The Latest Online News in Gaming from
6. Time Explorer from
7. Total War. from
8. Anderson, Eike, McLoughlin, Leigh, Liarokapis, Fotis, Peters, Christopher, Petridis, Panagiotis, & de Freitas, Sara. (2010). Developing serious games for cultural heritage: a state-of-the-art review. Virtual Reality, 14(4), 255-275. doi: 10.1007/s10055-010-0177-3
9. Breuer, Johannes S., & Bente, Gary. (2010). Why so serious? On the relation of serious games and learning.
10.Brogan, Mark and Masek, Martin. (2011). 'AE2 Commander': Simulation and Serious Games in the Online Cultural Heritage Space. Archives and Manuscripts, 39(1), 85-106.
11.Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience: HarperCollins.
12. Derryberry, Anne. (2007). Serious games:online games for learning. White Paper. Retrieved from
13.Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S. (2006). {Overview of research on the educational use of video games}. Digital Kompetanse, 1(3), 184--213.
14. Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S. (2011). What Makes a Good Learning Game? Going beyond edutainment. from
15. Gardner, Howard. (1993) "Multiple Intelligences: The Theory In Practice." New York: Basic Books.
16. Gunhouse, Glenn. Virtual Worlds for Art History Teaching, from
17.Kee, Kevin. Graham, Shawn. Dunae, Pat. Lutz, John. Large, Andrew. Blondeau, Michel. Clare, Mike. (2009). Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming. The Canadian Historical Review, 90(2), 303-326.
18.Simon, Egenfeldt-Nielsen. (2004). Practical barriers in using educational computer games. [DOI: 10.1108/10748120410540454]. On the Horizon, 12(1), 18-21.
19. Stapleton, A J. (2004). Serious games: serious opportunities. Paper presented at the Australian Game Developers’ Conference, Academic Summit., Melbourne, Australia.
20.Uricchio, W. (2005). Cyber history: historical computer games and post-structuralist historiography.
In J and Raessens Goldstein, J (Ed.), Handbook of computer games studies (pp. 327–328). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.


  1. Interesting article. I've known 'serious gamers' and their lives are totally built around the game. So many seem to live their realities in these games. I have to say, I'm glad I'm not one of them.

  2. Yes, for some people it is very comforting. I'm not that serious as a player and I lose interest in a game quickly and want to move onto another one.
    Of course, as I point out, being serious about games is not the same as serious games (used for education purposes).

  3. Hmmm.

    I may well get back into gaming, at least for learning purposes and not escapism.

    Excellent, Kate!


♥ I love comments. All comments are moderated. No word verification.