Epic Orphan: Blending Serious Games and Learning Games

BY Dan Norton
Over the years, I’ve worked on a wide variety of serious games project. My specialty is of course in learning games, and I thought it would be worth talking about the intersections (and contrasts) between learning games and serious games.

So let’s first start with busting out some form of taxonomy. Kids love taxonomies!

In my experience, the easiest way to categorize learning games is as a subset of serious games. That is to say, I define serious games as “games created with an intent different than purely entertainment”. That means “games that teach targeted learning objectives” is a type of serious game. There are a bunch of other types of serious games, including “games that raise awareness about an issue”, “games that facilitate positive change”, “games that alter your ways of thinking”, etc. etc. Filament has done some work that overlaps in each of those categories, but our core wheelhouse is in “games that make you better at a thing”.

Recently I’ve had the enjoyable experience of working on a prototype for a “game that raises awareness about an issue” (Epic Orphan, a game about the dangers of misplaced nuclear materials- Kickstarter is out now, check it out!). Working on Epic Orphan highlighted a big contrast on how I approach the differences in these genres. Subgenres. Whatever.

The big difference is that in learning games, your primary goal is to distill learning objectives into actionable, performable, and ideally accessible gameplay. You’re looking for the gameplay metaphor that provides a window of practice and mastery of your set objectives. This becomes your fixed compass for design, and essentially every design decision you make is subservient to that.

In games for awareness, you’re relying on the game first and foremost as an engagement tool. That doesn’t mean it should be vapid or trivial, but that your first goal is to make the gameplay interesting and sticky, so that the issue’s context and importance can be established and reinforced.

That means that you want to make room for narrative tools with a higher precedence than you might approach a pure learning-objective driven game. Story, characters and dialogue, classic tools of every story medium on the planet, can be applied to create a world in which the player can see just how impactful your targeted issue is.

In Epic Orphan, we went with a slightly blended approach. The game itself is built as a narrative-driven experience (motion comics in an outrun-style art aesthetic!), but we also integrated an identity-model for the player- you take the role of a government agent working in a secret organization dedicated to the tracking and containment of nuclear materials. So player identity (a gameplay tool) is used to reinforce the narrative- this is different than using identity to reinforce gameplay mechanics. As for the mechanical “gamey-game” stuff, we have small minigame experiences like intelligence gathering and code-breaking- they too also serve the identity and narrative, but don’t express concepts of practice and expertise.

By that, I mean we’re not attempting to train players to become government agents. We’re simply giving them an identity that is reinforced and empowered to try and solve problems with rogue nuclear material. We let the details of the narrative add depth to the issue, and use our gameplay to provide a rhythm of engagement that keeps players interested.

We need your help getting Epic Orphan funded on Kickstarter! If it does meet its funding goals, I’m looking forward to our shop pushing its capabilities with more narrative-driven storytelling tools (animated comics are super fun to make!) and with more story-driven, engaging minigames. Remember - no donation is too small, so if you can help, please stop over to their Kickstarter page before Sunday, November 20 to support the project!