Serious games are sometimes defined as games that have purposeful design – games that aim to teach, motivate, or persuade its players. They are mostly used in classrooms, for teaching content ranging from science to civics. And the research on games and learning is significant, with scholars from a range of disciplines attempting to understand why games are particularly suited for specific kinds of learning.
I am interested in how games can be used to extend learning into deliberate actions take by players. In fact, at theÂ Engagement Game Lab, we are designing games that seek to push the limits between play and civic action, such as organizing a community, reporting problems to government, advocating for causes, etc. Games where the acts of play are themselves civic actions are what I call “engagement games.” These games deliberately disrupt the “magic circle” of gameplay, where play takes place in a space apart from everyday life. In an engagement game, the game facilitates actions that have implications beyond the game. This is different than gamification, which adds game mechanics to actions in order to motivate them; an engagement game blurs the line between play and action, qualitatively transforming the action through play.
I began thinking about this with our game Community PlanItÂ that makes planning (education, urban, or policy) playful by framing an official planning process as a series of missions that result in the funding of real-world causes. This game forced me to consider the implications of a game that fails to respect the magic circle, a game where play has consequences and is not sufficiently distinct from everyday life. I began to wonder if the porousness of the magic circle could be a unique design consideration of engagement games. We designed Civic Seed with this in mind. It is a game designed to teach university students to “do” civic work with community partners. But, the actions taken within the game are compiled into a “civic resume” that players can share with community partners or faculty. This complexity of attaching consequence to play is the precise tension we are eager to pursue.
This is not because we think disrupting the magic circle makes better games, but because we think that play can be more effectively deployed in real civic contexts, and games can be a vehicle through which to make that happen. In my next couple of blog posts, I will look at each of our new games and discuss how they function as “engagement game” and how the strategic blurring of the magic circle can be productively deployed in civic life.