Serious games. At first glance, that term might seem like an oxymoron. Games are meant to be fun and an escape from the seriousness of everyday life, right? Right. Well, sometimes. Games certainly can be a form of escapism, but they can also be an effective tool for delivering information. The reasons we love games so much -- that they are fun and engaging -- is precisely the reason educators have latched onto games as a conveyance for information.
Serious games, then, are a specific subset of games that tackle a serious topic. These games can range in themes, such as educational, medical, political, and military. The common thread that holds them all together is that they seek to capitalize on the games’ success at conveying information to players in an engaging way . Sometimes this information is educational, and sometimes it is therapeutic.
At the University of Utah, we have a serious Therapeutic Games and Applications Lab (The GApp Lab) which develops games for therapy or education . An example of one such game is Choreografish , a virtual reality game in which players choreograph schools of fish to soothing music. While anyone can play the game, its core purpose is to provide a method of self-soothing to young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who experience social anxiety. So, the game is therapeutic in the sense that it can soothe the symptoms of anxiety, but it is also educational because of its very existence. People without ASD often are unaware that social anxiety can be a side effect of autism.
Another serious game example is Vein Craft. The GApp Lab created this game to train nursing students about intravenous therapy (IV) treatment. Students are presented with various patient cases and they must decide the best IV treatment. From the examples of Choreografish and Vein Craft, we can see that the audience for medical games can extend beyond patients, students, and health professionals and provide important educational opportunities to wider communities. For this reason, serious games can be attractive and useful for libraries.
Traditionally, libraries have collected games to attract new patrons and offer new event series [4-7]. Librarians also create and use games in the classroom . Within health sciences librarianship, there are two published evidence-based practice (EBP) serious games [9-10]. Both EBP games, “Research and Education Learning in Medicine” or RELM  and “Zombies Ate My Evidence: The Evidence-Based Medicine Challenge to Save the World!” , were created collaboratively by librarians and professors with case-based EBP scenarios and quizzes. Another game example is “Librarians in the Wonderful Land of Oz,” which presented animated scenarios before the National Network of Libraries of Medicine’s educational modules .
Health sciences librarians should not only be aware of health and education games, but they should use (and play!) games at work. If your role is strictly collection development, consider adding medical/health board games (Pandemic, etc.) or books about creating or using classroom games. At outreach events use a “guessing game” (i.e. an online quiz) that features images from the library’s collections to invite people to your table. If you’re personally struggling to complete a project, try Todoist or another checklist-type program with gamification elements. Scavenger hunts that required “selfie” or “groupie” photos can be a fun orientation activity.
If you teach, there are so many options for you! Games will help you “flip the classroom” with hands-on activities. For example, you can ask students to find and play a patient game or app. Afterward, the students can evaluate the information presented using their clinical knowledge and information literacy skills. If you’re teaching a one-shot session on PubMed searching, try a fun search demonstration -- What’s the evidence for games/apps helping children manage chronic disease? There are so many synonyms for those terms! mHealth, mobile app*, game, children, youth, “young adult,”, diabetes… the list goes on. Now, combine them with Boolean Operators and find relevant MeSH.
You can also create your own games with the Design Box Methodology . This is a simple design tool: first, list your constraints and goal(s), then pitch game ideas. A few years ago, I used this methodology to create an employee wellness game to encourage collegiality and wellness . Another option is modifying an existing game, for example, my colleagues and I modified the “Game of Life” into the “Game of Research” for teaching students about the research process .
Remember, we’re all gamers. You may not live in your parents’ basement and get paid to playtest games, but you have been playing games your entire life. The earliest games taught (military) strategy. Now, we sneak a quick Angry Birds session while standing in line and capture Pokemon while walking to meetings. Games are ubiquitous and can be powerful. If you don’t believe us, read Jane McGonigal’s “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World” .
Finally, here are our favorite websites for finding and playing games:
Keep on playing!
1. Gee, J. P. (2007). What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, NY, USA.
2. Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library. (2019). GApp Lab
. Retrieved from https://library.med.utah.edu/synapse/gapp/
3. Altizer Jr, R., Handman, E., Bayles, G., Jackman, J., Cheng, K., Ritchie, S., ... & Wright, C. (2018). Choreografish: Co-designing a Choreography-based Therapeutic Virtual Reality System with Youth Who Have Autism Spectrum Advantages. In Proceedings of the 2018 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play Companion Extended Abstracts
(pp. 381-389). ACM.
4. Bishoff, C., Farrell, S. L., & Neeser, A. E. (2015). Outreach, Collaboration, Collegiality: Evolving Approaches to Library Video Game Services. Journal of Library Innovation, 6
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6. Nicholson, S. (2013). Playing in the Past: A History of Games, Toys, and Puzzles in North American Libraries. Library Quarterly, 83
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8. Brigham, T. J. (2015). An Introduction to Gamification: Adding Game Elements for Engagement. Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 34(4), 471-480. doi:10.1080/02763869.2015.1082385
9. Gleason, A. W. (2015). RELM: Developing a Serious Game to Teach Evidence-Based Medicine in an Academic Health Sciences Setting. Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 34
(1), 17-28. doi:10.1080/02763869.2015.986709
10. Blevins, A. E., Kiscaden, E., & Bengtson, J. (2017). Courting Apocalypse: Creating a Zombie-Themed Evidence-Based Medicine Game. Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 36
(4), 313-322. doi:10.1080/02763869.2017.1369239
11. Eccles Health Sciences Library Digital Publishing. (2016, March 11). Librarians in Oz Demo
. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WA0r0J0D3gE
12. Altizer A & Zagal JP. (2014). Designing Inside the Box of Pitching Practices in Industry and Education. Paper presented at 2014 DiGRA International Conference, Snowbird, Utah, August 3-6, 2014. http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/designing-inside-the-box-or-pitching-practices-in-industry-and-education/
13. Casucci T, and Locke AB. (2018). Leading the Way to Transform Burnout among Health Sciences Librarians. Poster presented at Medical Library Association Annual Meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, May 22, 2018.
14. Baluchi D, Casucci T, Patterson B, and Wimmer EN. (2018). Adapting a Game for Teaching Research Methods. Poster presented at Medical Library Association Annual Meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, May 22, 2018.
15. McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world
. New York: Penguin Press.