Serious Games: What is a game?
May 20, 2009
Elearning | Must Reads | Serious Games

What is a game?


Note: This series of posts is from the handout for a talk on serious games, given at UMHS on May 12.


We all have an idea of what a game is, but it is not so easy to define precisely  what makes games different from other activities. No definition of games is entirely complete, but we can approach an understanding by considering games in relation to similar activities, such as reading stories, watching movies, playing with toys, solving puzzles, and so on, and try to see where the significant differences lie.

Stories, games, toys, puzzles, races, etc. all have some attributes in common, but the proportions of those attributes make some activities more gamelike. Thinking about the role of attributes such as interactivity, representation, challenge, and risk can help us understand the nature of a particular learning game, what types of learning objectives it might be most effectively used for, and what kind of learner might benefit from it.

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Posted by ellen at May 20, 2009 12:00 PM

With these limits in mind, one good place to start is Debra Lieberman's definition: "A rule-based activity involving challenge to reach a goal. Rules, Challenge and Goal are themselves very flexible terms, but they do set up a structure we can work within. We'll be discussing these and other attributes, as well as which attributes seem to most affect learning.

Some game researchers consider the game's rules as the key difference between a game and other forms of narrative, but I think, particularly in health care, the narrative has a privileged role.


Debra Lieberman has served on the advisory board for Games for Health for the past two years. Her extensive expertise in this area has been invaluable in shaping this emerging field. Debra Lieberman is a lecturer in the Department of Communication and a researcher in the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research (ISBER) at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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