serious games in a social context

Anton Eliens

multimedia @ VU / Amsterdam
Creative Technology / University Twente

game space(s)

... ever get the feeling that life's a game with changing rules and no clear sides, one you are compelled to play, but cannot win. Welcome to gamespace. Gamespace is where and how we live today.


games that depict everyday activities such as communication, social negotiation, caring for elements or characters that are part of a game world, or stabilizing precarious situations have become extremely popular with female players.

serious issues

skill(s) & remediations

serious games as social technology

health games


theory background

game matrix


where T = temptation, R = reward, P = punishment, S = sucker.


chicken: T > R > S > P

sucker(s) or saint(s)

gamification dynamics

structure of the course(s)

  1. introduction(s) -- the team & finding (y)our topic(s)
  2. theoretical background(s) -- narrative(s) & human(s)
  3. miscellaneous -- pitch / design(s) & gamification(s)
  4. game design workshop(s) -- express (y)our idea(s)
  5. student presentation(s) -- concept(s) & plan(s)
  6. reflection(s) -- ethical aspects of serious games
  7. final presentation(s) -- concept(s) & prototype(s)

basic exercise(s)

final project(s)

  1. prototype(s) -- with sufficient documentation
  2. concept design -- with elaboration of narrative(s) and visual design
  3. trailer -- promotion clip, with documentation and business plan
  4. reflection(s) on societal impact -- with sufficient motivation and depth

project utopia

game design: civic order(s)


           matching               sorting 
  seeking            managing             hitting 
       bouncing, tossing, rolling & stacking 
  chaining          constructing       socializing


In one of my first papers on this topic,  [ICT], I observed that -- ICT is not a (simple) game. When speaking about civic order(s), a similar phrase might be either taken as an understatement or even as a warning, given the need expressed all over the world to guide and control (or nudge) the behavior of citizens, in urban areas as well areas threatened by the effects of consumerism, with as a dramatic example the rural areas of the country I recently visited, China, where pollution due to production and consumption is a number one threat. I gained more insight in the China Dream workshop, in which I participated at the end of my stay in China, the goal of which was to reimagine prosperity and reshape consumerism in China ... (and) to catalyze a new aspirational lifestyle that is innately sustainable for the emergent middle class in China.

Our question, as addressed in this paper, is how can we deploy serious games to counteract problems of personal health, order in public spaces, and in general civic behavior that leads to a sustainable society.



In this paper we have reported on our efforts to set up a course on serious gaming that covers the various theoretical and practical areas related to serious games, including behavioral economics, complexity science, gamification dynamics and more general topics in (casual) game design.

As a distinguishing feature of serious games, we emphasize the moral aspect and the intention to bring about an enduring change of behavior, due to increased self-control, guidance and support by social networks using an adequate system of rewards and nudges, or encouragements, and, more in general, an awareness of the issues involved on both a personal and social level, creating the willingness to cooperate without fear of being regarded as a sucker, and preferably without the need or desire to be regarded as a saint.

Hopefully, our approach brings about some clarification with respect to the potential of serious games, if not to the reader, then at least to our students, which is, after all, our primary audience.


Thanks to my collegues from the University of Amsterdam, Jacobijn Sandberg and Frank Nack, for their positive encouragements and support.

[Complexity] Axelrod R. & Cohen M.D. (1999),
Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier, Free Press
[Evolution] Barash D.P. (2003),
The Survival Game: How Game Theory Explains the Biology of Cooperation and Competition, Henry Holt books
[Persuasive] Bogost I. (2007),
Persuasive Games -- the expressive power of videogames, MIT Press
[Science] Bronowski J. (1956),
Science and Human Values, Julian Messner Inc.

[Networks] Easley D. & Kleinberg (2010),
Networks, Crowds and Markets -- Reasoning about a Highly Connected World , Cambridge Press
[VULife] Eliens A. and S.V. Bhikharie (2006),
Game @ VU -- developing a masterclass for high-school students using the Half-life 2 SDK, Proc. GAME'ON-NA'2006, Monterey, USA
[SecondLife] Eliens A. Feldberg F., Konijn E., Compter E. (2007a) ,
VU @ Second Life -- creating a (virtual) community of learners, Proc. EUROMEDIA 2007, Delft, Netherlands
[Climate] Eliens A., van de Watering M., Huurdeman H.,
Bhikharie S.V., Lemmers H., Vellinga P. (2007b), Clima Futura @ VU -- communicating (unconvenient) science, Proc. GAME-ON 07, Bologna, Italy

[ICT] Eliens A. & Chang T. (2007c),
Let's be serious -- ICT is not a (simple) game, Proc. FUBUTEC 07, Eurosis, Delft, April 2007
[Replay] Eliens A. and Ruttkay Z. (2008),
Record, Replay & Reflect -- a framework for understanding (serious) game play, Proc. Euromedia 09, Brugge, Belgium
[Math] Eliens A. and Ruttkay Z. (2009),
Math game(s) -- an alternative (approach) to teaching math?, Proc. GAME-ON 2009, Dusseldorf, Germany
[Chinese] Eliens A. (2010),
Elements of a chinese language game, Proc. GAME-ON 2010, Shanghai, China

[CTSG] Eliens A. (2010),
creative technology -- the CTSG: game design in 7 steps, Proc. GAME-ON 2010, Shanghai, China
[Life] Fisher L. (2008),
Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life, Basic Books
[Critical] Flanagan M. (2009),
Critical Play -- Radical Game Design, MIT Press
[Casual] Juul J. (2010),
A Casual Revolution -- reinventing video games and their players, MIT Press

[Thinking] Kahneman D. (2011),
Thinking, Fast and Slow, FSG Books
[Decision] Klein G. (2009),
Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making, MIT Press
[Fun] Koster R. (2006),
A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Paraglyph Press
[Crisis] Levine R., Schelling T, Jones W. (1991),
Crisis Games 27 Years Later: plus c'est dejavu, RAND Corporation

[Behavior] Mark D. (2009),
Behavioral Mathematics for Game AI, Charles River Media
[Gamer] McKenzie Wark (2007),
Gamer Theory, Harvard University Press
[Reality] McGonigal J. (2007),
Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Perseus Press
[Will] McGonigal K. (2012),
The Willpower Instinct : How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, Penguin Group

[Systems] Meadows D.H. (2008),
Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Sustainability Institute
[Social] Miller J.H. & Page S.E. (2007),
Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life, Princeton University Press
[Diversity] Page S.E. (2011),
Diversity and Complexity, Princeton University Press
[Money] Sandel M.J. (2012),
What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, D&M Publishers Inc.

[Freedom] Skinner B.F. (1971),
Beyond Freedom & Dignity , B.F. Skinner Foundation
[Serious] Susi T., Johannesson M., Backlund P. (2007),
Serious Games -- An Overview, Technical Report HS- IKI -TR-07-001 School of Humanities and Informatics University of Skövde, Sweden
[Nudge] Thaler R.H. & Sunstein C.R. (2008),
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Caravan Books
[Gamification] Zicherman G. & Cunningham C. (2011),
Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps, O'Reilly Media Inc.