The Untapped Potential of Serious Games, with Peter Leveille


Peter Leveille (left) and Danny Nsouli (right). Graphic: Danny Nsouli

Interviewer: Danny Nsouli

Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Cyber Security Software Engineer Danny Nsouli interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice.

MITRE employees are always hard at work, solving problems for a safer world. However, would you believe that some of those problems are best suited to be solved by the development of fun games? On this episode of the MITRE Knowledge Driven Podcast, Principal Software Systems Engineer Peter Leveille gives us an introductory lesson on serious games and the underrated potential of their application as a tool in development work.

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Podcast Transcript
Danny: 00:13 Hello everyone, my name is Danny Nsouli, and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge Driven Podcast. Today I will be interviewing Peter Leveille and we will be discussing the topic of serious games. Peter, would you like to give some background about yourself and what drew you to this work originally?
Peter: 00:27 Well, really, I always wanted to make games since I was a little kid. So when I went to school, I went in for computer science, which is what used to pass as a gaming degree. Now they have real gaming degrees. Then I joined MITRE because it gave me an opportunity to really hone my game technology skills as I was working on other things, important things for the country. I’ve been working at MITRE for 20 plus years at this point and doing a lot of work with game technologies and serious game design.
Danny: 00:57 Great. Can you start by explaining what serious games are?
Peter 01:02 Sure. There are a lot of different definitions of serious games. A lot of people have tried to define it in the past. My favorite is a definition from [Sande] Chen and [David] Michael back in 2005 (source: Serious Games: Games that Educate, Train and Inform). They define serious games as games that do not have entertainment, enjoyment, or fun as their primary purpose. I think that really captures it pretty well. But a serious game is really all about what is it you’re trying to achieve? It’s that you’re not just making the game to be fun. You’re making the game to achieve some sort of purpose. Now, one quick caveat, all games have to be fun. If it’s not fun, it’s not a game. I’ve seen a number of attempts in the past where someone tries to make a serious game, and they just make a serious activity, and it’s not fun, so I would say it’s not really a game.
Peter 01:42 Another differentiator here is the concept of serious gaming, as some people may be familiar with that. Serious gaming is where you take a game that may have been created for the purpose of fun and then you find some serious purpose for it. Dance Dance Revolution is a great example of this. That’s the game that was entirely developed just for the purpose of entertainment. They found all sorts of good serious purposes for the game since it’s been released. One of the more interesting applications is that they were able to show that they could actually slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease through the use of Dance Dance Revolution. That’s a really great example of taking a fun game and using it for a really serious purpose. For serious games, it’s the other way around. We need to define what that serious purpose is first and then we try to create a fun game that’s going to help us achieve that purpose.
Danny 02:34 Do you have any examples of serious outcomes that a game can be used to achieve?
Peter 02:39 Yeah, serious games can be used to achieve a lot of different outcomes. They’ve been used for recruiting, marketing, implementing social change or cultural changes, education, training, evaluation, exploration, research. Here at MITRE, we’ve actually employed serious games to do recruiting, to do education, to do training. We’ve done tabletop exercises, which is another form of serious games, and we’ve used them to help explore human decision making and trying to understand why people are making the decisions that they’re making. We actually have a really great example of that. We had a game where the sponsor wanted the workers to be prioritizing their work in a certain way, and they weren’t doing that. They were telling them it’s very important to do this and they just weren’t seeing the workers prioritize the work the way that they wanted to see it done.
Peter 03:33 So we had MITRE experts that went and evaluated the situation and tried to figure out what’s going on. They determined that there was actually an issue with the performance metrics that were being applied to the workers. They came back to us and they said, “We want to test out what if we change the performance metrics? It’s going to change the way that people prioritize their work.” What we did is we created a game which basically emulated the work environment that these folks were working in. We conducted A/B testing, which is to say that we basically created two slightly different versions of the game and had people play them.
Peter 04:05 In one version of the game, the scoring mechanism for the game was tied to the existing performance metrics. In the other version of the game, the score was based off of a hypothesized change. They basically said, “If we made this one change, we think that things would work out better.” We had people play both versions of the game. And sure enough, we were able to see in the A version where we were using the as-is performance metrics, people behaved exactly the same way they did in real life. And in the B game, where we had made a small change to the performance metrics, people were actually prioritizing and handling the workload the way that the sponsor wanted them to. That was really cool to be able to see a very successful implementation of testing and exploring human decision making through serious games.
Danny 04:51 Is there a serious game you’re currently working on that you’d like to talk about?
Peter 04:55 I’m working on a number of different serious games right now. One of the more exciting ones that we’re working on is a game to help prevent the breakup of long-term couples, and veterans, specifically. But really this could be used for anyone. The game is basically a virtual novel style game where people go through, they practice having a conversation with a virtual partner, and they’re getting feedback from a virtual therapist as they’re going through this as to how their conversation is going. It uses graphics and different indications in fun and engaging ways.
Danny 05:30 You mentioned the importance of fun in serious games. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Peter 05:35 Oh, certainly, yes. A lot of the value of serious games comes from the fact that they are fun. That’s one of the main reasons why we’re using serious games in the first place. So fun is important because it’s what makes a game engaging, immersive, stimulating and energizing and provides that motivation and competition when people are playing. It helps create that experiential environment. You need people to be engaged and active in the game and you want their mind to be really logged on and participating. Otherwise, you’re not going to get the results that you’re looking for. If people are just playing as a side thing, and they’re not fully concentrating on the game, you’re not going to achieve the purposes that you need. It’s really important when we’re making a game that the game is fun. Otherwise, we’re going to lose all of the important aspects of having a serious game.
Danny 06:26 Do you have any observations from your own experience about what makes a game fun?
Peter 06:32 Yeah, what exactly is fun, is an interesting question. I often get asked that by people. The way I like to look at it is anything that gives us a positive sensation is fun. When we have thrills, triumphs, something enjoyable to touch, or eat, or taste, or hear. All of those things—we’re having fun when we do that. If you ride a roller coaster and you enjoy the sensation of riding a roller coaster, you’re having fun. If you ride a roller coaster and it makes you sick, you’re probably not having fun. Right? That’s the way I like to look at it.
Peter 07:03 There’s a great example that I’ve given in the class that I teach on a serious games. I have a picture of a guy who’s raking leaves with his daughter, and the leaves are falling down as he’s raking them. The guy is so upset. He’s got this horrible look on his face. He’s like, “Ah, this is horrible,” and the girl is sitting there smiling. You might ask, “Well, why is that? Why would this be something that’s fun for her and it’s not fun for him?” That gets a little bit towards human motivations. One of the things that was discovered actually through research with serious games, is the fact that people actually are motivated by making progress towards their goals, not achieving their goals. Once upon a time, we used to think people are motivated by achieving their goals and that’s not really true. They’re actually motivated by making progress towards goals.
Peter 07:54 Then the next question is, what are our goals? There are low-level goals that everyone has. A lot of people, they might want to try to acquire something. So acquisition is a lower level goal that is very common for humans. But then there’s higher level goals of things like purpose, mastery, freedom. These higher-level goals are something that people have. If you can appeal to those goals, then you can really get people engaged and having fun. In that leaf raking example, I gave purpose or mastery might be involved there, where the girl is still learning how to rake leaves. She’s raking them with her dad, and she’s just enjoying learning something from her dad, so she’s having fun. The guy, he’s been raking leaves for a long time, and he’s sick of it. He’s not mastering anything anymore, so he’s no longer making progress towards one of those higher-level goals.
Danny 08:44 How do you go about working these elements into specifically serious games?
Peter 08:49 That has to do with just experience with game mechanics and how they work. Every game should have a purpose, a goal. There has to be a clear goal, what are you trying to achieve in the game that’s appealing towards that purpose motivation. Freedom of choice in games is a good example of freedom. If you really lock people into one path and it’s like, “You’re going to go down this one path and it doesn’t matter what choices you make, it’s all going to result in the same thing,” then people won’t be as engaged. Choice makes a difference in the mechanics of a game. You really want them to be able to experience that. As far as things like mastery, that becomes really important when you’ve got games dealing with training, for instance. Because you want them to be actually improving the mastery of their real skills when they’re playing through the game and mastering the game itself.
Danny 09:44 How do you know if the game you’re making is succeeding in being fun?
Peter 09:47 A lot of that just comes back to testing with people and seeing what happens, observing their reactions, [and] getting feedback. We do a lot of surveys after doing play sessions. If people are sitting around the table, yawning, that’s a pretty bad sign something’s wrong. Or if people get stuck on something and they seem to start getting frustrated, again, that could be a sign that you’ve got something you need to fix. But if people are sitting there laughing, joking around while they’re playing, then you’ve probably achieved what you’re looking for.
Danny 10:19 Makes sense. On a related note, can you explain more about the process of making a serious game?
Peter 10:26 Sure. There’s I guess, two different pieces to doing a serious game. One is the typical game development, but then there’s a part that has to happen up front specific to serious games. The first thing we ever do is define exactly what the purpose of the game is. What is it we’re trying to achieve? It might be training, it might be some specific piece of education, maybe trying to understand decisions that people are going to make in a specific situation. But we need to identify exactly what that purpose is. Then we need to really scope it down. Lots of times I’ll have someone come to me and say, “I want to do this really broad purpose.” The larger your scope, the less likely you’ll be successful in being able to get the results you’re looking for. That’s a skill-based thing to be able to figure out what do you really want to achieve? Then let’s scope it down to like, “What’s really going to help you answer your questions?”
Peter 11:17 Then we have to really define the system. What is the system that we’re working with that we’re trying to emulate? Most of the time we’re going to be trying to emulate some sort of system that includes the environment and anything that’s in that system they’re going to work with. A big part of that system is going to be the actors. Who are the stakeholders that are in that system and how do they interrelate with each other and what kind of interactions can they have? Understanding that whole system, the stakeholders, the actors, the environment, that’s an important upfront piece before we even get into the process of designing a game.
Peter 11:50 At that point, once we understand what it is we’re working with, then we go into what is really more traditional game design. That would include things like reduction, abstractions, symbolization. A lot of those are about taking complex concepts and trying to reduce them down to something that can be taught to someone and explored in the process of a game. You can’t teach somebody how something is going to work for three weeks before you start playing the game. You might have 20 minutes to try to teach them stuff. A lot of that is really about making the game accessible to folks. Symbolization is important for that. Making it easy for people to be able to identify, “Okay, if I have this chip, it means this to me.” If they have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to try to understand what all the symbols mean, then they’re going to spend so much time doing the mental gymnastics, they’re not going to be making the decisions that you really want them to be making.
Peter 12:44 Then you’re going to define the mechanics that go into the game. Mechanics are really everything from, where do you do randomness, is there collecting, what’s the pace of the game? Is it a real time game? Is it a turn-based game? The rules of play, how everything comes together to make the game go forward. Then the mechanics are going to help drive your dynamics. The dynamics of a game are basically how it actually ends up playing out when players start interacting.
Peter 13:13 What’s interesting, most of the time, [is that] dynamics are somewhat emergent. But sometimes in games, we want to try to derive specific dynamics, especially in serious games. We want to try to get a specific kind of situation present so that the player is playing in the mindset of the people we’re trying to understand. So you can tweak your mechanics in such a way that you can drive the dynamics in the way that you want them to be working.
Peter 13:38 Then we do go through and refine it multiple times. We also do multiple phases of testing. We do alpha testing, beta testing, and then testing with the final users as well, just to make sure that everything is working the way that we expect it to.
Danny 13:54 To wrap things up, now that we understand what serious games are, when do you think people should consider employing serious games as a tool?
Peter 14:02 I’ve actually been surprised how often we’ve been able to employ serious games towards a topic I never would’ve thought that you could possibly make a game for this. That’s been one of the things that I’ve learned in my many years doing serious games, is that we can do serious games for almost anything if we put our minds to it. Really where I see a lot of value for serious games, is when you’re dealing with humans. If you’re trying to understand what decisions a human is going to make, or if you’re trying to teach a human something, or if you’re trying to convince them, or train them how to do something better, you’re trying to explore different options and understand which of these courses of actions are going to be most successful when dealing with other humans? That’s where games really come in to a great effect.
Peter 14:46 If you’re just trying to understand how a system that doesn’t involve humans works, like how does the conveyor belt that builds a car work or something? A game’s not really going to help for that. But I think that’s where games really help out, is exploring human decision making, or teaching, or training people how to do something. Really, I mean, there’s no limit to how games can be used. It’s really just the extent of one’s imagination.
Danny 15:11 That’s a great note to end on. Peter, I’d like to thank you for coming on to discuss this topic. I’d like to also give a quick thank you to MITRE and the Knowledge Driven Enterprise for making this show possible. Again, thank you Peter, for coming on to educate us on serious games.
Peter 15:25 Thank you.


Danny Nsouli is an Associate Cyber Security Software Engineer. He has a passion for computer graphics and enjoys learning about front-end solutions for consumer-facing project components such as data visualizations.

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