5.2 Serious Games

Alexandra Anghel


The present section analyses serious games and the role they can play in assisting people to develop competencies to identify and counter disinformation. Serious games build on the concept of prebunking, previously introduced in section 3.4, and provide an attractive, interactive and hands-on approach to understanding what disinformation is, how it is manifested and what can be done to counter it. However, serious games are not a silver-bullet type of solution and they do exhibit some limitations.

Main research questions addressed

● What are serious games?
● What role do serious games play in countering disinformation? 

The concept of serious game is considered to be an oxymoron, given the different domains that the term applies to, from entertainment to education, defense and even healthcare (Djaouti, Alvarez, Jessel, & Rampnoux, 2011, p. 26). Even though the concept of serious game is being considered of recent history, the literature in the field shows that the first use of this term was tracked back in the Renaissance period, where Neo-Platonists used the syntagma of “serio ludere” to refer to the use of light-hearted humor in literature dealing with serious matters (Manning, 2004). A similar idea can also be found in the 1912 Swedish novel entitled “Den allvarsamma leken”, in English “The Serious Game” (Soderberg, 2001), novel which approaches the delicate topic of adultery. In this context, the “playful” side of cheating is put in opposition with the “serious” consequences of adultery, making the “Serious Game” oxymoron to stress the differences between adultery and the usual definition of games, such as the one provided by the author Johan Huizinga (Huizinga, 1951): “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly” (Huizinga, 1951, 19).

In addition, a similar use of the “serious game” oxymoron was used to describe the professional practice of games and sports. As an example, author Mike Harfield uses this concept in 2008 in his autobiographical book “Not Dark Yet: A Very Funny Book About a Very Serious Game”, to refer to his 30-year long career as a professional cricket player (Harfield, 2008). However, the first use of the “serious game” syntagm with a meaning that is close to its current use was traced back to the book “Serious Games” written by the American researcher Clark Abt in 1970 (Abt, 1970), in which he demonstrates how can games be used for training and education. In order to do this, he designed several computer games such as T.E.M.P.E.R., a game designed for military officers to study the Cold War conflict on a worldwide scale (Raytheon Company, 1965). In addition, in his book, the author also provides examples of “non-digital” serious games, such as math-related games to be used in schools. The definition offered by Abt to the term of serious games, cited by (Djaouti, Alvarez, Jessel, & Rampnoux, 2011) is: “[…] serious games […] have an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement. This does not mean that serious games are not, or should not be, entertaining” (Djaouti, Alvarez, Jessel, & Rampnoux, 2011, 26).

Three years later, a complementary example of a “non-digital” game explicitly labelled as “serious game” is further described by author Donald Jansiewicz in his book “The New Alexandria Simulation: A Serious Game of State and Local Politics” (Jansiewicz, 1973). This book explains the principles of playing a game that was specifically designed to teach the basics of the U.S. political mechanisms. The game was kept in a non-digital format, because the author thought that human interactions are the only ones that can convey the complexity of politics (Jansiewicz, 2011), aspect which allowed it to be used even nowadays in classrooms, in different reissue formats (Djaouti, Alvarez, Jessel, & Rampnoux, 2011, 26-27). Another example of the “serious games” concept used as an oxymoron is the title of an artistic exhibition held in the Barbican Art Gallery from 1996 to 1997, that presented the work of eight artists who sought to make a link between video games and modern art. One of these artists, Regina Corwell, created an interactive art piece in order to ask whether video games can be used as a mean of artistic expression: “If we shift from the fun of games with their overt or covert messages about power, speed, command and control to those same messages delivered for expediency and with urgency by the military and to the efficiency of the office workplace and the various heritage in consumer culture, are art and culture ready to squarely face this complex mosaic?” (Djaouti, Alvarez, Jessel, & Rampnoux, 2011, 27).
This last example limits in a certain way the scope of the concept only to video games, in a similar way to most current definitions offered for the terms of “serious games”: “a game in which education (in its various forms) is the primary goal, rather than entertainment” (Michael & Chen, 2006, 17), “serious games have more than just story, art, and software, [they involve] pedagogy: activities that educate or instruct, thereby imparting knowledge or skill. This addition makes games serious. Pedagogy must, however, be subordinate to story—the entertainment component comes first. Once it’s worked out, the pedagogy follows” (Zyda, 2005, 26). In fact, all these definitions were influenced by the vision of the author Ben Sawyer expressed in his paper “Serious Games: Improving Public Policy through Game-based Learning and Simulation”, published in 2002. The main objective of this paper was to encourage the use of technology and knowledge from the entertainment video game industry to improve game-based simulations in public organizations (Sawyer & Rejeski, 2002).

The above-mentioned paper was the promoter of the “Serious Games Initiative”, an association that was founded in 2002 with the aim to promote the use of games for serious purposes (Djaouti, Alvarez, Jessel, & Rampnoux, 2011, 27). Therefore, this is the moment considered to be the “date of birth” of the oxymoron “serious games”. In addition, 2002 was also the release date of America’s Army, a game considered to be “[...] the first successful and well-executed serious game that gained total public awareness” (Djaouti, Alvarez, Jessel, & Rampnoux, 2011, 27), becoming, as a consequence, the starting point of the serious game current (with the current understanding and use of the concept). Michael Zyda, one of the members of the team that developed America’s Army game proposed a definition that is referred to by various research papers: “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” (Zyda, 2005, 26).

Following 2002, most recent definitions of this concept tend to imply the use of digital games, instead of following the broader definition of “serious games” for both digital and non-digital games introduced in the 1970s. (Djaouti, Alvarez, Jessel, & Rampnoux, 2011, 27). One example is the definition used in 2011 by a team of researchers who studied the repurposing of games for educational objectives: “Serious games are very content-rich forms of educational media, often combining high fidelity visual and audio content with diverse pedagogical approaches“ (Protopsaltis, et al., 2011, 37).

Taking all the above-mentioned aspects into consideration, we can conclude that the field of serious games had exponentially extended during the last decade, with games being developed in various domains with educational purposes (from the military to the government, education, corporate and healthcare domains). However, even though the literature in the field showed that there were many various definitions of the concept of serious games proposed, none of them succeeded in including all the relevant aspects of the applicability of this term. Therefore, there is no commonly accepted definition of serious game, but all previous, current (and probably) future definitions will focus on the main elements of the concept (as shown in the figure below). 

Case studies and lessons learnt

This section will present the main technological driven solutions in terms of serious games and digital initiatives that were developed during the last decade, as mentioned at the beginning of this chapter.

Bad News game (Bad News, 2021)

Bad News game (Bad News, 2021)

Roozenbeck and van den Linden (Roozenbeek & van der Linden, 2019) designed an experimental game called Bad News!. This game puts people in the position of a person who produces and disseminates fake news. The player's aim in the game is to obtain as many followers and shares as possible through creating and sharing different fake news items.

Subjects exposed to the game tended to increase their willingness to engage in critical thinking and to take time to evaluate the accuracy of headlines that researchers exposed them to. After conducting several experiments with a small number of participants (95 in one case and 15000 in another), Roozenbeck and van den Linden (Roozenbeek & van der Linden, 2019) concluded that subjects who had been inoculated against fake news were much more likely to rate fake news as having lower accuracy than real news.

This effect was manifested both in cases in which participants were divided into a control group and an experimental group and in the case in which the same people were surveyed before and after playing the Bad News game. A similar result was achieved by Basol, Roozenbeck and van den Linden (Basol, Roozenbeek, & van der Linden, 2021), with an experimental design based on a control group and a treatment group. Lewandowsky and van den Linden (Lewandowsky & van den Linden, 2021) and Pennycook and Rand (Pennycook & Rand, 2021) summarize the results of the same experiments and show that people who take time to think and evaluate what they see, will be less likely to believe or share disinformation. This leads the researchers to argue that pre-bunking is much more efficient than debunking given that it considerably decreases willingness to believe and share news of a dubious provenance. Van den Linden et al. (van der Linden, Leiserowitz, Rosenthal, & Maibach, 2017) adapted the Bad News game to include information about the COVID-19 pandemic but did not conduct any experiments on the success of this adapted version.

Breaking Harmony Square game

Breaking Harmony Square game (Harmony Square, 2021)

The same authors (Roozenbeek & van der Linden, 2020) also designed Harmony Square, a game that places the player in the shoes of a candidate in elections who can be elected by creating political polarization.

This game has also been shown to determine players to rate fake news as less accurate. As described on its website, “the goal of the game is to expose the tactics and manipulation techniques required in order to mislead people, build up a following, or exploit societal tensions for political purposes.

Harmony Square works as a psychological “vaccine” against disinformation: playing it builds cognitive resistance against common forms of manipulation that the user may encounter online” (Harmony Square, 2021).

Go Viral

Go Viral game (Go Viral, 2021)

Similar results were obtained by Basol et al. (Basol, Roozenbeek, & van der Linden, 2021), with the game Go Viral, an online game based on misinformation spread during the COVID pandemic. In this particular game, players were asked to imagine that they controlled a social media profile and were asked to obtain as many likes and "credibility points", by sharing posts based on different argumentative fallacies.

Basol, et al. (2021) designed several experiments based both on pre-post surveys, as well as on the control-treatment groups design. Further, in the latter experiment, some participants were given an inoculation treatment based on the Go Viral game, others were inoculated with the help of UNESCO infographics about COVID- 19 while others were assigned in the control group.

Those who received inoculation treatments were far less likely to believe imaginary social media posts containing demonstrably false information as well as to rate them as highly manipulative.

Cranky Uncle game

Cranky Uncle game (Cranky Uncle, 2021)

Another game identified in the literature was pioneered by Compton et al (2021) and was called Cranky Uncle.

This game explains different logical fallacies used by climate change deniers in the form of a cranky old man who issues pronouncements on the non-existence or alternative causes of climate change.

Several experiments by researchers showed how playing the game increased the ability to identify and the knowledge of how to use logical fallacies by students in different study programs (Compton, van der Linden, Cook & Basol, 2021).

Figure 15. BBC Ireporter (BBC, 2019)

Another game developed in order to get the users familiarized with the principles of disseminating news in the online environment, as well as with the impact the way in which each piece of news is disseminated can have on the public opinion is the BBC Ireporter.

In this game, users “play the role of a social media journalist who is faced with a major breaking story” (Cellan-Jones, 2018).

The game is designed to be as realistic as possible, as well as immersive, including elements that involve chatting, having video calls with other journalists and so on. The players need to make decisions with tradeoffs, for example speed and accuracy, whether to publish a story as quickly as possible or to confirm first with a reliable source. The game educates the players more on the side of how good journalism is and what to consider before sharing a story (Bambang, 2020, 4).

In conclusion, serious games could prove a valuable asset in training citizens to detect disinformation attempts and build their resilience against them. Given their playful nature, they could capture the attention of all age groups and make them realise when they are targets of disinformation, thus preventing them from spreading those posts further and contributing to the viralisation of malicious content.

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Co-funded by European Commission Erasmus+
University of Malta
University Rey Juan Carlos
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Project: DOMINOES Digital cOMpetences INformatiOn EcoSystem  ID: 2021-1-RO01-KA220-HED-000031158
The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Ivan, Cristina; Chiru, Irena; Buluc, Ruxandra; Radu, Aitana; Anghel, Alexandra; Stoian-Iordache, Valentin; Arcos, Rubén; Arribas, Cristina M.; Ćuća, Ana; Ganatra, Kanchi; Gertrudix, Manuel; Modh, Ketan; Nastasiu, Cătălina. (2023). HANDBOOK on Identifying and Countering Disinformation. DOMINOES Project https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7893952