What are Serious games?

Serious games are games that have another purpose besides entertainment. But what are serious games exactly? They are used to promote learning and behavior change. Serious gaming is used in various areas such as education, healthcare, marketing and other businesses and industries. The power of serious games is that they are entertaining, engaging and immersive. Serious games combine learning strategies, knowledge and structures, and game elements to teach specific skills, knowledge and attitudes. They are designed to solve problems in several areas and involve challenges and rewards, using the entertainment and engagement components provided when the user is playing games.

Where are serious games used?

Serious games are used in a lot of different areas since they can be applied to a broad range of problems and challenges. A few areas where we see serious games more than in other areas are:

  • Education: Games are used to teach specific subjects through gamified exercises and simulations. This way, students can learn math or learn a new language for example. This is one of the most well-known applications of serious games, also known as educational games.
  • Sustainability projects: make people engaged for sustainability project or change their behaviour.

Short (video) intro to Water Battle, an example of a serious game for a water conservation project

Water Battle Factsheet

Additionally, they are also used in the military for training purpose, in marketing to acquire and retain customers, by governments to create social awareness and for several research purposes. We are just starting to discover the potential of games with a purpose.

How do serious games work?

So how does it work? Why are people more engaged when they are playing a game? And how does this improve learning? Below are four core elements that you can find in most games. These elements contribute to both the entertainment value and the effectiveness of its serious purpose.

Interactivity: gameplay

At the core of all games is the ‘gameplay’. This can be described as the decisions and actions a player has to take to overcome challenges. For example in ‘Mario’, the player has to learn how to control Mario to jump over tortoises and gaps to reach the end of the level. The interactive element of games is what makes it fun.

Contrary to books, films or other one-way learning experiences, in games the player can actually interact with the subject matter. This allows them to experiment and play with different outcomes of their actions. This is the very nature of how humans learn. Kids learn by interacting and experimenting with the objects around them, sometimes resulting in an injury from a hot stove or bruises from falling down the stairs. Games allow players to experiment with real life situations without the dangers, consequences or material damage of the real world.

The metaphor: story and setting

Explaining divisions is always more fun when it involves pie or pizza. A metaphor can help visualize complex subjects. Games are also using metaphors to give purpose to their gameplay. A context for the actions and decisions a player has to take. The story and setting of a game are also very powerful tools to create an immersive experience for the player. Players are more involved with the characters in a game and what happens to them when they care for them. Usually, there’s also a vast and beautiful world to explore. This appeals to our basic motivation to explore and gain new experiences.

So besides using metaphors to explain complex subjects, the story and setting of a game greatly increase engagement, immersion and retention of players.

Progression and feedback: challenges and rewards

An important aspect of learning is that the posed challenge matches the current skill level of the student. If an 8-year-old has to learn advanced mathematics, they will not have the required knowledge to do so and lose motivation very quickly. Games use a lot of different progression systems to be able to engage and retain players from all skill levels. Most games have a difficulty setting for example. Some games even adapt the difficulty automatically to the player.

Besides matching the challenge with the skill level, games are also very rewarding. When a player conquers a certain challenge, this triggers a release of endorphins which makes the player feel better about themselves. Players will want to keep on playing to keep the endorphins flowing. Did you ever get an endorphin rush from learning the Pythagoras theorem?

Social aspect: multiplayer

Learning in groups is more effective than learning alone (reference). Multiplayer games are games that you play with other people, online or on the couch next to each other. Being able to play or compete with other players is one of the motivations for people to play and continue playing games. The interaction creates unpredictable situations which in turn can create interesting challenges or funny situations. Being able to compete or cooperate with other players, improves both learning and engagement.


The effectiveness of serious games over the years has been proven in different sectors. The reality is that the coming generation aligns itself with technologies such as serious games. In a competitive world like ours, adopting these solution types puts your organization in a better position to attract and keep the best talents.

For water utilities, the challenge to help households change their water-consumption behaviour can be achieved cost-effectively with the power of serious gaming.

For an extended version of this article please check out this link: Grendel Games: What are serious games?

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