I am all about games being used as an educational tool. I am all about games being used to increase awareness or instigate action. I am NOT about games that are designed for the sake of proving that games can be used for this purpose.
I see how it’s useful to prove that video games can have a positive effect, but I don’t see how it’s useful to spend a ton of money on developing a game that only tests hypotheses that could be tested using existing games. I especially look down on the games that have spent government grants developing games that have little potential of being adapted in a classroom environment. I disapprove of giving federal funds to people who want to test empirical questions that dismiss flaws that would surface once you take a look beyond a specific empirical result.
The fundamental problem of a lot of the serious games is that they point out a significant outcome in the experiments, but have no significance outside of an experiment situation. For instance, one study looks at how doing an activity during gameplay (such as walking on a treadmill) was more helpful for obese people than lean people in terms of burning calories. You may think, ‘Wow!’ but then I would ask: How do you motivate an obese person to do the treadmill in a naturalistic setting? It’s like forcing a kid to clean his room. Once the room is clean, you could say ‘see? Cleaning the room made the room clean!’ Well yes, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of motivating the kid to clean the room in the first place. I’m sure there are situations in which someone could force people to play the games (schools or the military, perhaps?), but then we would expect to see that forced game-play has different effects compared to voluntary game-play.
I feel the biggest flaw in the design of serious games is that the people working on them are more interested in the positive effects of the game, rather than a design that would be fun to play. To a large extent, I believe that it comes down to education style and impacts of learning. For instance, I remember more about ancient Greeks in trying to put together a short video in 5th grade about the similarities and differences of Sparta and Athens. Taking a curtain to make a greek costume made me research how people dressed and taught me about climate, lifestyle, etc. that went beyond what was in the textbook.
I feel all of that could be implemented in a game. For instance, if we wanted to teach students about ancient Greece, a Civilization-type game would be excellent. The key would be, however, to add more details to the gameplay. For instance, when constructing a building, players could be given the choice to make the columns of the building ionian, doric or corinthian. Being able to choose one of the designs and looking at the results would be an interesting way of learning about ancient Greek architecture. I think serious games designers should look at popular existing games and think of how we could tweak those to have an educational/prosocial outcome.