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Serious Games in the Humanitarian Sector

A serious game has a different purpose than a traditional game. Serious games use the structure of play and engagement but focus on goals like education, analysis, understanding, and more. It doesn’t exclude fun, but players should get something deeper from the experience. While many fields use serious games as training tools, games haven’t made a huge impact in the humanitarian sector yet. How could this field implement serious games? What benefits and challenges do they have?

What do serious games look like?

Serious games are a type of learning game, which often have similar features. To be successful, a learning game should stay focused on learning outcomes. If a game is too complex, it can distract from this goal. A simplified setting is necessary, so game designers must choose gaming elements carefully.

It should also be an active experience for a player – not a passive one – or it won’t be effective as an educational tool. Player decisions should lead to negative consequences as well as positive ones. There should be branching paths to a successful end. The paths to success shouldn’t be obvious. A variety of consequences and paths encourages multiple playthroughs.

A serious game should appropriately challenge the players or the game will be boring. Feedback throughout the game also strengthens player participation. It’s important that players are aware of the mistakes they made, so they understand the significance of their choices. This is also important for the person leading the game as it lets them know where the players are in their training.

Types of serious games

Serious games usually present a simplified “real world” problem that players must work through. This could include conflict strategy, testing emergency preparedness, or developing a policy response during a crisis. Serious games can either focus on advocacy or skill-building. With advocacy games, there’s often a strong narrative thread that introduces players to people enduring a crisis. This type of serious game raises awareness of humanitarian issues. Skill-building serious games are designed to teach players about specific skills like logistics, supply chain management, and so on.

No matter what type of serious game is being played, players and facilitators must be aware of the ethical considerations that come from dealing with real-world issues. The purpose of a serious game – education and training – needs to be made clear. Games that deal with natural disasters, poverty, and human suffering are not “fun” in the way other games are. Players and facilitators should be sensitive and respectful of the topics explored in the game.

How effective are serious games?

Do serious games work in the humanitarian sector? In a Save the Children-sponsored 2020 report (“Serious Games: Humanitarian User Research”) by Imaginetic and Lessons Learned Simulations and Training, researchers identified many reasons why serious games are beneficial. The research was collected before, during, and after six face-to-face workshops where participants played through both table top and digital games.

Players showed an ability to learn from games in a humanitarian context and they were able to remember lessons up to 45 days after playing. They also reported that the games affected their work behaviour, how they approached work, and their relationships with beneficiaries. Serious games were considered a better teaching tool than a traditional PowerPoint lecture. Based on research, it’s clear that serious games help participants learn more effectively, shift their attitudes on issues, and retain more knowledge.

Challenges with serious games

Serious games are not without their problems. Technological limitations are a key issue, as not every group will have reliable internet or programs that can run a digital game. To address this restriction, digital games should be compatible with older technology and limited internet access. Language was another concern. Many learning games are only available in English and come with long, detailed instructions. To ensure the learning process goes as smoothly as possible, games should be translated into the first language of the participants.

When surveyed, participants also pointed out that managers are often sceptical of serious games because of the word “game.” They might believe that games are a waste of time and not effective learning tools. The last obstacle to serious games is that it takes time to learn how to play. With a traditional training tool like a PowerPoint, there’s no extra time needed. To make serious games more appealing to trainers, they should be short and to-the-point.

Serious games are effective learning tools

Research shows that serious games are an effective, exciting tool for the humanitarian sector. They encourage players to take an active role and engage with real-world problems in an educational setting. It is important to note that a serious game does not replace all teaching materials. It should also be led by an experienced facilitator who can engage with the game and players. It’s the facilitator’s job to provide context and feedback. When a serious game is designed and led well – and everyone respects the seriousness of the topics – participants retain more knowledge and think about their work differently.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.