Can Serious Games be Cool?

Cool is one of those ambiguous ideas that is socially constructed to convey a sense of awe or appreciation (toward the cool object or person). Cool is a little self-interest, a lot of what I would call social anti-stigmatism (sometimes elicited, but often not), and exists in a transitory state (what is cool now is not always cool in a year). We might pit “lame” as the opposite in some ways to cool. Cool is often properly appreciated for its own sake (like aesthetics), but may be looked on as something to get in order to fulfill some ulterior purpose (for some practical reason). But cool has no purpose other that being cool. Lifted up in the eyes of some society.

Can serious games (games intended for learning) be cool? As I have been reading through research on serious games, and trying several games out that look interesting, I have been quite disappointed at the level of lameness to which many sink. This makes me not want to study serious gaming any further (or play other serious games), as I am no longer interested (they are education-oriented, which would usually interest me, but they are video games that are not cool, and that factor turns me off). I won’t name any titles of serious games with which I am disappointed, but I will touch on what I see as a major deficit as far as video games. Video games are intended to be cool, to engage, and to awe as they inspire (and entertain). If a game is not cool in some way, it will most likely not fly with the society for which it was intended. Society must not just see something as beneficial in some way for them, it must be able to appreciate the thing in itself.

Is school or formal learning intended to be cool? Usually not. Why? Learning how society works is different than being cool in society. Cool isn’t taught, it just happens (though it takes a lot of hard work to make it “just happen”). I know I’m not cool, and I don’t fully understand cool. But I do know that Mark Zuckerberg is said to have disallowed the commercialization of Facebook early on because he wanted it to be cool before he wanted it to make money (at least that is the story I’ve heard). It would not fly unless it was cool. Now it is cool, and it makes a lot of money (and is thoroughly commercial). Cool first, ulterior purpose later. But with serious games, and school in general, the purpose is not just ulterior–it is central. If learning is not central and deliberate, school ceases to function as it has been intended to function.

On the other hand, if the experience of learning is appreciated for itself, without ulterior motives (like what it will do for me), we might have something more interesting. If learning is re-imagined (at least in serious games) as something in and for itself, not tacked on as an underlying motive, we might have something cool on our hands. If it is possible for there to be cool nerds (people deeply interested in a topic for its own sake), there might be the possibility for there to be cool serious games–games that are not funducational, but that are about learning, unashamedly, and for its own sake. Of course, maybe a cool serious game is not what the world needs. Maybe we just need one that is less lame.

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