Serious & Entertainment Games: A Convergence Analysis

  Author: Chris Miceli
  Dated: 2018-11-22
  Uploaded: 2018-12-06


This report outlines overlapping aspects between serious and entertainment game genres, and analyses how developments in the games industry, caused by both internal and external influences, have led to their gradual convergence over time. The history of serious games is discussed in relation to public opinion on the genre, as well as research & development in the sector. Modern definitions are provided for both genres, followed by a breakdown of the main criteria which have either led to or are leading to increasingly fewer distinguishing factors, a trend which is likely to continue as the gaming industry continues advancing.



Although serious and entertainment genres are closely linked to one another, they are understood to have distinct meanings; one to educate or train and the other to entertain. Throughout their development, aspects which were unique to one have begun to overlap, resulting in less of a distinction between the genres. This can predominantly be attributed to research & development, and advancements in technology. This is the case with immersive technologies, which are managing to push what was once considered to be highly advanced tech into the hands of the average gamer. It is also often the case that entertainment and serious games are built upon the same platforms, if not also by the same development companies; the combination of these factors make it an effective of minimising cost through the assimilation of the genres. In order to properly analyse their convergence, it is beneficial to understand the origins of serious games including the circumstances leading to their demand, development and commercialisation.


Serious Games

The serious games genre encompass all education based games where teaching or training is the primary focus. They manage to be an effective source of learning due to how the engaging properties of  video games are strategically implemented into the achievement of academic objectives. This is done in ways where the player is encouraged to engage in the content and progress in achievement.

They can be classified as ‘stealth-learning’ applications, where the player is learning content without actively realising it (Dr. John R. Rankin; Sandra Sampayo, 2008). Serious games allow experience to be gained in low-risk environments, where investment in expensive equipment is not necessary due to simulation techniques implemented within such games. 


History & Development

The first definition of the genre was given in 1970 by Clark C Abt as “games having an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose which are not intended to be played primarily for amusement”. These originally appeared in non-digital forms, including classroom games such as monopoly; used to teach or reinforce the principles of a subject such as maths or economics. As computers advanced and where technology permitted, computer-based educational games were developed, with the first in the 1960’s being the military computer game: ‘TEMPER’; developed to allow officers to analyse the conflict of wars between 117 nations on a global scale. (Heide Hagebölling, 2004)

The growing consumer demand for faster hardware and better graphics, coupled with constant market competition, led to rapid developments in the gaming industry. This created the potential to further develop the technologies powering hyper-realistic and process-intensive games; not only making it feasible for companies to fulfil demand in the entertainment games sector, but also to generate demand for a serious application of games in other sectors. The Serious Games industry was valued at $2.7 billion in 2016, and with its markets ranging from Education, Media, Defence and Healthcare, it’s projected to grow to $9.1 billion by 2023 (Kalyani Sonawane, 2017). Following these developments, Director of GamePipe Mike Zyda defined serious games as “a mental contest, played with a computer in accordance with specific rules that uses entertainment to further government or corporate training, education, health, public policy, and strategic communication objectives”, implying the broader reach serious games is having on other sectors, as well as hinting at the closer connection to entertainment based games.


Educational & Entertainment Based Games

The foremost difference between serious games and traditional video games is the goal of the game being educational or entertainment respectively. Whilst the primary focus of entertainment games is to engage the player in intractable content which provides enjoyment, serious games are built around the objective of transferring a skill or knowledge through gameplay. Despite the differences between the genres, even the most unsuspecting video games can contain underlying educational properties. James Paul Gee explained that the best entertainment game designs implement complex learning and progression features into the gameplay (James Paul Gee, 2003), characteristics which are prominent in serious games. 


Convergence Over Time

Well developed entertainment games generally contain a well thought out gameplay, tasteful art and engaging interaction to keep the player’s attention. In Zyda’s book on virtual reality and games, he argues that a serious game not only contains these characteristics in order to meet the classification, but also includes the implementation of pedagogy within the structure of the game; effectively conveying knowledge or skill to the player. Various internal and external industry factors are analysed below with reference to their influence on the convergence between the two genres.


Learning Versions of Existing Games

Over time, existing video games have been modified with the purpose of deliberately introducing a new learning or training aspect. These are known as ‘Learning Versions of Existing Games’, and have proven to be an effective tool for introducing new knowledge to the player across a wide range of subjects (Mohamed Ali Khenissi; Fathi Essalmi; Mohamed Jemni, 2014). The relevant target industry makes use of these training tools to provide experience and training to persons in a cost effective, low-risk environment. (Tarja Susi; Mikael Johannesson; Per Backlund, 2007) 

Such modifications and developments would likely aim to follow a modern framework for developing constructive e-learning environments, such as that produced by Imran Zualkernan, an early researcher of serious games who created a learning version of Tetris, used to teach precedence relationships between activities (Imran A. Zualkernan, 2006). Such frameworks and methodologies follow similar structures and formats as entertainment based video games, giving special emphasis given to aspects which comprise the serious elements of the game. 


Immersive Technologies

Since their development, immersive technologies such as motion tracking, virtual & augmented reality, and voice recognition have been integrated into serious games, creating a more realistic and immersive experience for the user through new forms of interaction (Aline Menin, Rafael Torchelsen, Luciana Nedel, 2018). In the past, the technology too expensive to justify sale to commercial consumer markets, and therefore, within the gaming market, it was only used in highly specialised serious game developments. Nowadays, virtual reality and similar technologies are the focus of games development conferences such as ‘Develop’ in Brighton in the UK, and with tens of millions of pounds being funded for research and development, the technology is slowly trickling down into the hands of the average entertainment gamer. (Rebecca Hills-Duty, 2018) This allows for the replication of an immersive setup which was once specialised and almost unique to serious games to be experienced by a growing number of users, extending the possibilities of what can be delivered to the average consumer.



Following heavy funding by the US military in the beginning of the 20th century, Edward Link created the first commercial flight simulator in 1929 used to train pilots prior to World War 2. This allowed for simulations of high risk situations in a digital environment, providing not only the trainee with a safe space to learn, but for the trainer to expose the trainee to a wide breadth of scenarios (Elizabeth Newbury, 2017). Such setups were complex, involving the calibration of advanced cameras and mechanical systems to provide user feedback. Although early applications of serious games used as professional training tools were highly specialised set ups, they are now often designed to run on similar hardware and operating systems as most entertainment games (IEC Medium, 2018). As a result, the integration methods for third party immersive technology is fairly similar when developing for both purposes, allowing for greater compatibility and less developer specialisation requirements. This has resulted in a faster adoption rate of the immersive technologies which were once unique to serious games. The push from the Asian markets for open source technology has also contributed to the gradual merging of the categories as a result of developments being shared, leading to a simplified process of forming global standards. (Keith Bergelt, 2017)


Games Research

Research into serious and entertainment games technologies is shared among many of the same countries who have proven to be leaders in the entertainment gaming markets. They include The US, Canada, The UK, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Germany. Research initiatives into serious games began in 2002 with the Serious Games Initiate founded by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C, and since then, countless institutes and centres have been established across the country. (Tarja Susi; Mikael Johannesson; Per Backlund, 2007)

The Serious Games Institute in the United Kingdom was set up in 2007 with the goal of being a “new initiative designed to transfer the ideas, skills, technologies and techniques used in commercial entertainment games to local Small-to-Medium Enterprises” (Tarja Susi; Mikael Johannesson; Per Backlund, 2007). This statement implies that serious games are ported from entertainment games; adapted in order to meet the learning requirements. This further reinforces the increasing convergence between the genres.



Gamification is used to describe the study and application of various entertainment game elements and how they can be applied to an experience in ways which increase user engagement (Luke Hymers, 2016). The term gained traction in the 1980’s, with the first academic papers and books being published on the topic, containing many references to its application for learning (Viola Lloyd, 2014). Both serious and entertainment games design are benefiting from advancements in gamification techniques, as both have the same core goal of engaging the user and instilling the desire to progress. Deloitte’s ‘Leadership Academy’ is a serious game which incorporates gamification through the use of rewards, ranks, missions and leaderboards, encouraging employees to log on and progress further in corporate training (Sharbori Chakraborty, 2016). As more research is carried out into gamification and how it can be effectively applied to serious aspects, the line between entertainment and educational gaming genres will progressively continue to blur.


The Internet

The internet has facilitated the sale and delivery of video games since the early 1970’s, and has allowed for multiplayer functionality, connecting players across the globe (Dave Spohn, 2017). The requirement for serious games to deploy specialist setups decreased and similarities between development platforms increased, allowing for serious titles to join entertainment ones on internet adverts and marketplaces. Internet browsers have since advanced to the point where they are able to distribute and interface many games of both genres, removing the requirement for installation and ergo allowing for increased accessibility on multiple platforms (Mozilla, 2018). Facebook’s FarmVille was one of the most popular browser-interfaced serious games, educating its 80 million user base on a multitude of underlying skills through farming and harvesting crops whilst expanding land and business (Minhua Ma; Andreas Oikonomou; Lakhmi C. Jain, 2011). There are also a wide variety of services providing millions of browser-based entertainment games, nonetheless a small subset of those games would often be considered to be entirely serious, whilst others may be seen to have underlying serious aspects.



Serious games and entertainment games overlap in many sub-genres such as role play, action & adventure, strategy, vehicle simulation and racing. This is due to the significant advantage gained from programmers who derive inspiration from traditional video games elements such as graphics, themes and interactions. The integration of these characteristics results in a richer learning experience for the end user (Designing Digitally, 2016). Entertainment sub-genres are often chosen based on the desired experience the game intends to provide to the player, whilst serious sub-genres are determined by the most suitable method of instilling the required knowledge whilst maintaining important entertainment aspects.



The value of the serious games industry is projected to triple over the next five years; with both governments and private sectors funding it’s research and development, advancements are continuously being made to improve their effectiveness in a wide range of sectors from military to healthcare. It is evident that the aspects separating serious and entertainment games are diminishing as technology advances, with developments in immersive technologies having had a substantial impact in bridging the gap between them. Both genres are often designed to run on similar platforms, allowing companies who already develop entertainment games to extend functionality of appropriate titles by including educational or training aspects. Studies have proven that regardless of the serious aspect, the necessity for developers to understand the fundamentals of entertainment games design remains crucial to the success and impact of a serious game.




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