March 2009 Theme:
Serious Games
Guest Editors' Introduction by Tiffany Barnes and L. Miguel Encarnação

Serious games use video game technologies to simulate realistic situations, providing valuable experience that can support discovery and exploration while saving money and lives. Serious games have been used for many purposes, including flight and vehicle simulation, scientific simulation and visualization, industrial and military training, medical and health training, education, and geographic information systems, as well as to raise public awareness and spur policy change. The articles in this month’s theme look at serious games and related technologies from a variety of perspectives.

In “Making Them Remember—Emotional Virtual Characters with Memory,” Zerrin Kasap, Maher Ben Moussa, Parag Chaudhuri, and Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann introduce techniques for having virtual characters “remember” interactions with player-learners, enabling serious games to tap into emotions to connect with and motivate players. They also introduce techniques for augmented reality (AR), an exciting new area for serious games that lets us use real-world artifacts in simulated situations. Advances in the use of emotion and AR can make serious games more immersive, intelligent, and believable, and expand the domains they can address.

New interfaces for virtual reality and interaction have made their way into games for exercise (exergames), which are being tapped as tools for researching physical health. Ben Sawyer’s “From Cells to Cell Processors: The Integration of Health and Video Games” showcases many of the ways in which health and games can be integrated. In “Using a Virtual Body to Aid in Exergaming System Development,” Jeff Sinclair, Philip Hingston, Martin Masek, and Ken Nosaka present a way to simulate physical exertion that will help reduce the time it takes to test and develop exergames. Their innovation is a simulated model of physiological performance metrics such as heart rate. Using this model, the playtester can make gameplay decisions without having to strenuously perform the required physical activities.

Serious games have great potential for providing scalable, repeatable training, especially for cultural and social skills and understanding. In “Culture, Models, and Games: Incorporating Warfare’s Human Dimension,” S.K. Numrich explores the new need to understand the roles that culture and the “human dimension” play in modern conflicts and other domains. Expressing the richness of place, culture, and society in simulation and training is becoming critical for business and political commerce.

Another way serious games enable cultural exploration is through location-based games at significant places, such as those in “Experiencing the Past through the Senses: An M-Learning Game at Archaeological Parks.” Authors Carmelo Ardito, Paolo Buono, Maria F. Costabile, Rosa Lanzilotti, Thomas Pederson, and Antonio Piccinno use a mobile-phone-based game with local sound effects to engage children in exploring ruins and information about the past while playing the role of a character out of history.

While serious games offer venues for new experiences, there is a need to continually evaluate the effectiveness of game approaches for their intended purposes. In “To Game or Not to Game?” Christiane Gresse von Wangenheim and Forrest Shull present a meta-review of games used for teaching software engineering. They find that out of 21 studies in this area, just a few of them were conducted using rigorous experimental methods, but many were used to teach the “soft” skills related to project management.

Because of the vast complexity of virtual worlds created for serious games, we need tools that enable us to better record, visualize, and understand player interactions. In “Discovering 3D Surface Information Values from Gameplayers,” (login required for full text) Priyesh Dixit and Michael Youngblood present a new method and tool to determine the probability that a surface has appeared in the player’s view during gameplay. This can be particularly important in serious games, where designers might wish to place information in the game to maximize the probability that players will see it. This technique has applications for advertising in games and for maintaining player immersion. It also provides insight into how in-game analytics can help us better understand player experiences.

Serious games benefit from artificial intelligence (AI), but can also contribute to the field. In “Suitability of Searching and Representing Multimedia Learning Resources in a 3-D Virtual Gaming Environment,” (login required for full text) the authors propose a method to present search results through a 3D metaphor. In “Bots Get Smart,” researchers explore the use of artificial intelligence in video games. They also discuss how a surge in this area could reinvigorate AI research and lead to new advances in machine learning. “Geogames: Designing Location-Based Games from Classic Board Games” (login required for full text) examines how AI can be leveraged to create balance in games, which can be particularly important for location-based games.

Culture, diversity, and society are broad areas where serious games can make an impact through new technologies for detecting affect and representing people and places. “Online Affect Detection and Robot Behavior Adaptation for Intervention of Children with Autism” (login required for full text) discusses the use of a robot basketball game to explore affect detection’s potential to help children with disabilities engage with the world. Marjorie Zielke and her colleagues propose building a ‘living world’ to express the richness of place, culture, and society. Their article, “Serious Games for Immersive Cultural Training: Creating A Living World,” (login required for full text) describes a game for learning Afghan culture that incorporates the culture’s physical and societal aspects.

Although some games explore real places, others are meant to explore virtual spaces that reflect reality. In “Procedural Urban Modeling in Practice,” (login required for full text) Benjamin Watson and his coauthors demonstrate ways to generate content for games that reflect what architects and geographers know about urban spaces. A major bottleneck for serious games is content generation, and this article demonstrates how knowledge from other domains can be formalized to automate some parts of content creation.

New technologies for games are an exciting way for serious games to have a greater impact on society. “Toward Next-Gen Mobile AR Games” (login required for full text) explores augmented reality techniques, whereas “Multicore Made Simple” showcases a new processor for games. Both standards and middleware can have a great impact on the quality of software made for serious games. In her article, “Innovation and Value,” (login required for full text) Anne DeMarle highlights the need for standards in game development, and Jonathan Funge tells us about the value of middleware in “Let Us Entertain You.” (login required for full text)

As we seek ways for serious games to have a greater impact, it is important to keep returning to evaluation. “Experimental Validation of the Learning Effect for a Pedagogical Game on Computer Fundamentals” (login required for full text) demonstrates a rare controlled study of the educational use of games, comparing games to paper and textbook instruction.


Guest Editors

Tiffany Barnes is an assistant professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Contact her at

L. Miguel Encarnação is the Director for Emerging Technology Applications at Humana’s Innovation Center. Contact him at