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The Serious Business of Play

by Meghan O'Meara, Enlighten / June 12, 2013

Note: This blog entry is available in English only.

When’s the last time you played? When’s the last time you became so immersed in a game that hours flew by unnoticed? What are your memories of play? If you are my age, you might remember long summer days of Capture the Flag, or if you’re a bit younger, your memories might be of Mario Brothers or World of Warcraft. Whatever your game of choice, our play as children shaped us. Games (more generally, playful design) can continue to change us.

A good example of this is a video game called Re-Mission, designed for young people battling cancer. In this game, the player (a.k.a. the cancer patient) becomes Roxxi the nanobot, whose mission is to destroy cancer cells and prevent the spread of cancer. Developed by HopeLab, with support from a boatload of impressive organizations, Re-Mission is designed to be a fun, engaging game with a purpose: improving “treatment adherence” helping patients stick with their treatment program. It does this by increasing the patient’s knowledge of the disease and the treatment effects, and improving their feelings of self-efficacy, the sense that you can impact your own life—who doesn’t need a little of that? And, guess what? It works. Patients who play Re-Mission are more likely to complete their prescribed treatment.

Re-Mission is an example of a “serious” game. Serious games are games for education, persuasion, health or some other “not just entertainment” purpose. Play is uniquely positioned for this type of stealth learning, because it can be so engaging and immersive that the player can more readily absorb the content. Brands can also take advantage of games to help drive excitement and create a stronger affinity for the brand. Games are the most downloaded type of mobile app—and if it is fun and tightly tied to the overall brand, it will be embraced.

NASCAR is another easy example—who wouldn’t expect the racing folks to have games? But there are lots of games, some serious, all engaging on subjects you wouldn’t expect.Dying in Darfur is an awareness game designed to encourage people to help refugees in Darfur. The Amazing Food Detective from Kaiser Permanente helps kids develop knowledge about healthy eating habits. The University of Michigan (and a host of others) developed a game-like approach to making health insurance choices. Stuck in an airport? Try Jetset, a game for frazzled travelers. Download Zombies, Run! to keep you moving.

While well-done games can encourage a special level of immersion, playful design can make the online experience more compelling and fun. Want to try on clothes before buying? Try a virtual fitting room. (It is sort of like paper dolls with a real image of you and the shopping rush for those that like shopping.) Like the TV show Psych? Join Club Psych and earn points for unlocking the Atomic Pineapple in Squirrel Assassins. Have a kid that needs to start thinking a little about careers and life? Try MeTycoon.

Games and playful experiences aren’t for every situation. A game about the tragedy in Darfur makes me more than a little uncomfortable. But games can engage in a way that is almost unique, making learning feel effortless and progressive mastery desirable. If you don’t believe me, watch a four-year-old’s endless pirate sword fighting and take a little time today to play.

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