When I first played Darfur is Dying some months ago, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean how much of the awful situation in Darfur could really be communicated through a hopelessly impoverished flash game? I expected to feel insulted. Heck, I insisted on being insulted. And I was wrong.

As simple as it is, Darfur is Dying engages the imagination — asking the player to see themselves in a different skin and a different place, where things we take for granted (like getting water) become complex and dangerous and not guaranteed. It stuck with me. There’s something about actively playing that role, however abstract, that brings this lesson home the way a thousand news stories just can’t. Or, maybe it’s the combination of those thousand news stories and the opportunity to imagine yourself as part of them. It’s anti-escapism.

What I find fascinating about Darfur is Dying (and many other serious games) is how little it takes to make this happen. There are no full 3D environments, no orchestral score, no 80 hours of gameplay, no multi-million dollar budget, no five years of development. Just thoughtful design. As far as design goes, then, it harkens back to the golden age of videogames in the 1980’s. And that begs the question: how repeatable is this? What does it take to create games on other topics that provoke similar feelings?

Many old school “educational games” motivated rote learning with dessert (finish the math problems and you get to play space invaders), but what really sets serious games (new and old) apart is that they insist on incorporating learning strongly with gameplay rather than tacking it on. They insist on working to make learning engaging, transparent. They are learning-by-doing, but they protect you from the dangers of doing it for real.

There’s a lot of breath in serious games (everything from Falcon 4 to Guitar Hero to Sim City to Pump Expeditions seems to fall in), but my favorites tend to have a socially relevant message. They don’t so much try to teach you how to operate a tank as to change your attitudes about someone, someplace, something.

So, while the serious games moniker typically refers broadly to games that teach real world knowledge or skills, I prefer to think of serious games as games with a serious message as well (like the G4C folks). They make you emotional. They make you rethink. They make you want to find out more. They motivate. And, ultimately, that is one of the most powerful things interactive media can do.

For more, see the Serious Games Initiative

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