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Serious games in sustainable urban development – Part 2

Missed Part 1? Catch up here.
Coniuncta is an interdisciplinary research team founded in Warsaw University of Technology by professor Robert Olszewski. Main goal of the team is the research on application of gamification and design thinking mechanisms in promotion of civic engagement.
Our team perceives gamification as an answer to a problem observed in implementation of participatory mechanisms (such as participatory budgeting) in Polish cities. Research conducted by the Coniuncta team is focused on identifying key gamification and serious games mechanism which could be used to foster civic engagement, as well as provide geo-reference data on public opinion on various topics and projects.
In 2015 and 2016 our team conducted series of experiments conducted in the form of workshops, held in Warsaw (capitol of Poland) and Płock (city in central Poland of c.a. 120 000 inhabitants). The workshops were organized by the Municipality of Płock for local high school students. In April and June together around 250 students took part in these workshops. Scenario of the workshop was based on the game City Hall 2.0, using map of the Płock city center and gamified model of urbanistic problems as a main narrative axis of the game’s scenario.
Analysis of the decisions in game was base for several research papers on effects of gamification in urban planning consultations process [1]. First conclusions from this project were used in design of another serious game, Spot On, in the form of mobile browser based game, using real time GPS location data, real maps (based on OpenStreet Map API) and designed for both workshop application and outdoor gameplay.
app oneapp two
Outdoor version of the application uses gamification mechanism to motivate players to visit various points in the city and leave their opinions concerning optimal changes in those places. Other players can also see those opinions and give feedback on whether they like or dislike certain solutions proposed by game community.
The Spot On game is targeted mainly to the younger players (primary school, high school and university students) as well as other people who like mobile games and travel through the city on various occasions. It’s main educational aim is to cope with first barrier mentioned in our previous post: lack of civic engagement, due to bad experiences from the past or general low level of civic activity.
Spot On promotes activity and sharing opinions in the urban context, and presents them as fun and easy activity, and part of engaging narrative of the game. In consequence the game is meant to build positive attitude to social participation in the targeted age group, which in few years will actively take part as urban citizens in various consultations and participatory projects.
Spot On is currently undergoing final testing and finalization of development phase, and will be launched in January in series of workshops in Warsaw and Dublin.
[1] Łączyński, M., Olszewski, R., Turek, A., Urban Gamification as a Source of Information for Spatial Data Analysis and Predictive Participatory Modelling of a City’s Development, [w:] DATA 2016 Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Data Management Technologies and Applications, Science and Technology Publications, Lda. Lizbona 2016, s. 176–182.

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Serious games in sustainable urban development – Part 1

Concepts of sustainable urban development, “smart city” and civic engagement are becoming more and more popular among researchers and people in charge of municipal planning. With their growing popularity, there are also ideas to include gamification mechanisms and serious games in the course of their implementation.

Key reasons of this growing attention towards serious gaming are the main barriers preventing wide acceptance of social innovations such as participatory budgeting, civic consultations or various technologies used in sustainable urban development. Those two main barriers are:

  • Lack of civic engagement, due to bad experiences from the past or general low level of civic activity;
  • Beliefs and attitudes which inhibit the acceptance of social or technological innovations crucial to the development of a sustainable urban community;

Gamificiation and serious games are perceived as a possible remedy for those two problems, because of their potential of increasing people engagement and activity, as well as using this engagement to educate them and change attitudes towards various new behaviors.

From around 2010 a lot of ideas emerged on how to gamify civic engagement in modern urban communities. Some representative cases of those games and game related projects are:

  • Trash Tycoon – a social network game by Guerillapps, running from 2011 to 2012, which focused on issues like recycling and upcycling in modern cities(1);
  • Invisible playground – a series of urban games held initially in Berlin and now all across Europe, aimed as a form of leisure activity, but also as a medium for increasing social engagement across urban areas (2);
  • Community PlantIt – created by Emmerson’s College Engagement Lab, a serious game and a platform that enables municipal authorities to communicate with citizens. The aim of the game is to gather opinions and feedback from community dwellers and foster their engagement in social consultations (3);
  • Gamefull Urban Mobility – a research project held at Games & Experimental Entertainment Laboratory of RMIT University. The aim of this project is to assess the potential of gamification when applied to urban mobility (4);

Furthermore, Community PlantIt is an example of a recently emerging approach towards gamification that merges the concepts of social engagement and sustainable urban development with data-oriented focus typical for a “smart city”. In this kind of approach, a game not only educates, engages and promotes certain attitudes and behaviors, but is also a source of data on citizens opinion and activity, as well as feedback on various projects planned by municipal authorities.

In the second part of this post we’d like to present the results of “CONIUNCTA” project held at the Warsaw University of Technology. Our project is based on a similar approach as Community PlantIt, but it also integrates several layers of geospatial data used to gather feedback from city dwellers during the course of dedicated serious games City Shaper and City Hall 1.0.


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Dynamic Serious Games Balancing

Dynamic Game Balancing (DGB) is the process of real-time adjustment of game parameters so that the faced challenges fit the player’s ability, therefore keeping him/her in the flow. This way the player will not be bored (if the game is too easy) or anxious (if it is too hard) and will remain motivated to play the game. DGB provides an individualized approach to a game and replaces a single, common approach for all the players. Andrade et al. (2005) present two dimensions of DGB parameter application: competence vs. performance, that is, the understanding and mastering of the game vs the capacity to efficiently tackle its challenges.

Game analytics (GA), the set of methods designed to collect and interpret game data, is mostly related to game play metrics, that is, information about the actual behavior of the user as a player inside the game: object interaction, object trade, navigation in the environment, actions and position of the player’s character, results in each level, time spent, interactions with the game interface and menus, etc. GA feeds information to Procedural Content Generation (PCG) processes (presented in this blog series by A. Coelho), that is, the possibility of real-time generation of the game challenges based on a set of parameters instead of a complete, predetermined and fixed progress route. Finally, DGB requires the definition of a Player Model, constructed by the collection of the pregame and real-time game data through predefined rules.

A few technical approaches for DGB have been used: Andrade (2005) presented an approach where agents were trained to play against the human player at his/her skill level; Demasi (2002) used genetic algorithms techniques to define the behavior of agents that best fit the user level; Yannakakis (2004) used artificial neural networks (ANN) and fuzzy neural networks to estimate the parameters that provide engaging game play.

For Serious Games, DGB must include a component related to the serious objectives of the game (have learning outcomes been achieved in an educational game? has the advertising message caused an impact in an advergame?). The entertainment aspect of the game cannot hide the skill or competence development objective and therefore must be tuned to include this concern. Game analytics should, at the same time, provide data that allows assessing how the player is progressing towards those serious goals.

A Serious Player Model (SPM) based on the User Model of Adaptive Hypermedia Systems has to be created by incorporating all the relevant parameters of use. “Player modeling is, primarily, the study and use of artificial and computational intelligence (AI and CI) techniques for the construction of computational models of player behavior, cognition and emotion, as well as other aspects beyond their interaction with a game (such as their personality and cultural background)” (Yannakakis, 2013). The SPM extends this model into the player characteristics adequate for the serious game purpose. For instance, for an exergame the player model should incorporate physical parameters of the user, for educational games the SPM has to include parameters related to the knowledge, skills and competences pre and post serious game usage.

SPM-based DSGB with PCG can create highly motivating, adaptive and personalized skill and competence development environments (but still games) that keep users involved for a long time therefore ensuring that they are focused on the “serious” objective. However, further research is required to establish a taxonomic approach to Serious Games that delimits the DSGB methods and parameters adequate to each area of application. Serious games with educational purposes are quite different from serious games for marketing purposes, for instance. So, although it is possible to create a methodology that addresses the use of DSGB for serious games in general, there is a need to design and develop specific GA, SPM and PCG methods and tools for each area of application. Therefore finding these specificities is a state of the art research.


  • Andrade G., Ramalho G., Santana H., Corruble V.: Challenge Sensitive Action Selection: an Application to Game Balancing. Proceedings of the IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on Intelligent Agent Technology (IAT05). Compiègne, France: IEEE Computer Society. pp. 194–200 (2005)
  • Demasi P., Cruz A.: Online Coevolution for Action Games. Proceedings of The 3rd International Conference on Intelligent Games And Simulation. London. pp. 113–120 (2002)
  • Yannakakis G.M., Hallam J.: Evolving Opponents for Interesting Interactive Computer Games. Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on the Simulation of Adaptive Behavior (SAB’04); From Animals to Animats 8. Los Angeles, California, United States: The MIT Press. pp. 499–508 (2004)
  • Yannakakis G., Spronck P., Loiacono D. and Andre E.: Player Modelling, Dagstuhl Publishing, Schloss Dagstuhl – LeibnizZentrum für Informatik, Germany (2013)
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Location-based Games

With the massification of smartphones and improvements in the location-awareness of these devices, digital games are moving out from within the digital device to the surrounding environment. Games like Geocatching and Ingress engage millions of players around the world by providing challenges in specific locations of the planet. These are called Location-based games and its mechanics include the location of the player to drive the gameplay.

A game is a closed formal system [FSH04] with endogenous meaning [Cos02], i.e. a system that is governed by a set of rules, and in which the value of the game elements is restricted to the game itself. Huizinga [Hui55] proposes the concept of “Magic Circle” in which the game is embedded, both spatially and temporally. From this concept we can define Pervasive games as those games that expand this magic circle to the surrounding environment.

Location-based games, a type of pervasive games, are prone to be used in a great diversity of application areas, such as tourism, health, recreation and education, from entertainment to more serious purposes. In the tourism area, games are used to engage tourists in gameplays that provide dynamic experiences on specific destinations and can also be personalized. In Education games can be used to portray learning activities in associated locations, that improve the learning process with the increment of the experience. And Health can be improved by promoting activities that integrate physical activity such as walking or running.

Outdoors games take advantage (in general) of the GPS sensor that exists in a great majority of smartphones to locate the player, and the electronic compass and the gyroscope (if available) to devise the direction the player is facing the device. Accuracy can be a problem, especially in environments prone to interferences, like urban areas with high buildings.

For indoor environments the GPS signal cannot be used and therefore other location techniques are used. Techniques can be use that rely solely on the device’s sensors, by matching the WiFi signal and hotspot ID with a previous coverage map, or using the accelerometer to count the steps the user performs together with the direction captured by the electronic compass and gyroscope. Special filtering can also be used by matching with the location map [PCS12]. But, since these methods can vary in accuracy, several projects opt to use fixed devices in the indoor environment (ex. beacons) that can be easily triangulated by the device to estimate the location.

One of the major benefits of location-based games is the possibility to take advantage of the architectural landscape, refined over centuries by architects and urban planners, as game worlds. Yet this comes with some disadvantages [JC11]. The game world can change at some moments, by road works or changes in buildings, as the city is a dynamic entity. Furthermore, the weather (like rain, hot and cold) can limit the experience, by reducing the capacity of the player to play the game. Also, by requiring the user to move from place to place, the engagement of the game is dependent on the fitness of the player, which can largely vary (age, obesity, health conditions, etc).

The current “smart” age leverages the city to the “Smart/sensing City” concept where its digital nature is unveiled through a set of sensors and services that are available and loosely coupled through the IoT (Internet of Things) framework. This new paradigm, together with more empowered smartphones, can push the location-based games to a new level!

[Hui55] Huizinga, J.: Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture. Beacon Press, 1955.
[FSH04] Fullerton, T., Swain, C., Hoffman, S.: Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping and Playtesting Games. CMP Books, 2004.
[Cos02] Costikyan, G.: I Have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games’. In: Frans Mäyrä (ed), CGDC Conference Proceedings. Studies in Information Sciences. Tampere: Tampere University Press, pp. 9–33, 2002. Online:
[JC11] Jacob, J., Coelho, A.: Issues in the Development of Location-Based Games. International Journal of Computer Games Technology, vol. 2011, Article ID 495437, 7 pages, 2011. doi:10.1155/2011/495437. Available online:
[PCS12] Pinto, A., Coelho, A.; Silva, H.: A Ubiquitous Solution for Location-Aware Games. In M. Herrlich, R. Malaka, & M. Masuch (Eds.), Entertainment Computing – ICEC 2012, Vol. 7522, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 578–583, 2012.

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Serious Games for STEM Learning

STEM is an acronym used to represent the educational areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and it is typically used when addressing education policy and practice. The term was initially coined in relation to the widespread difficulty that secondary education students have with these topics as stated by several international comparative studies like PISA or TIMMS. This difficulty (and students’ rejection of these subjects) prevents these students to follow a technical academic path like Engineering and Sciences. This is not due to lesser skills of these youngsters, but mostly due to wrong teaching strategies. We cannot forget that this generation is the “net-generation” or “digital natives“: they quickly absorb information in shorter chunks, they expect instant responses and feedback and they want to be active in their learning. They want science learning to be more than simple fact or formula throwing by the teachers: they want to experiment, visualize and demonstrate, by means of which they succeed in constructing their own knowledge. Students need to be able to integrate their learning in their social-communication-technology environment.

We know that games and simulations can be instantiated for learning as they involve mental and physical stimulation and develop practical skills – they force the player to decide, to choose, to define priorities, to solve problems, etc. These are competences and skills that match the requirements for science and technology academic programmes and professional careers. ‘Video games can enable STEM education from elementary school all the way through college as they teach skills such as analytical thinking, multitasking, strategizing, problem-solving, and team building.’ (Klopfer, 2015).

This is currently one of the most quick and interesting development areas for serious games with many interesting projects and initiatives. A few examples:

  • In the USA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a Funding Opportunity for Serious STEM Games for Pre-College and Informal Science Education Audiences (NIH, 2014). The purpose of this funding opportunity is to grant applications to develop serious STEM games with a focus on biology that addresses health and medicine questions for pre-kindergarten to grade 12 (P-12) students and pre- and in-service teachers;
  • Also in the USA, the Smithsonian in partnership with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and E-Line Media created the 2014-15 National STEM Video Game Challenge (Smithsonian, 2014);
  • The Australian STEM Video Game Challenge is a national competition open to all Australian students in Years 5-12 (ACER, 2015).

These last two challenges are especially interesting because students learn by creating the games themselves instead of just playing the games.

Scientifically, several conferences and journals address this topic independently or as part of the overall programme:

  • The ninth European Conference on Games Based Learning (ECGBL, 2015) that will take place in Steinkjer, Norway on October 8-9, has a special track entirely dedicated to the use of Serious Games in STEM. Articles approach programming learning, learning AI techniques, geometry teaching, engineering soft skills and other STEM topics;
  • The fifth EAI International Conference on Serious Games, Interaction and Simulation (SGAMES, 2015) that will take place in Novedrate, Italy from the 16th to the 18th of September also presents articles related to the use of serious games in STEM, approaching topics like engineering skills, mathematics learning and image processing.

Therefore, it is quite difficult to select just a few games that show how to use this learning approach, given the large number of excellent serious games available. But here is a try:

  • One example of an interesting serious game for STEM learning is the alternate reality game called DUST that tries to encourage teens, especially girls and minorities, to get excited about these topics (DUST, 2015). In the game, adults worldwide fall unconscious because of mysterious dust from a meteor shower. It is up to the players, whose target ages are 13-17, to save the world (and their parents’ lives) by the end of seven weeks of play. Over the course of the game, players receive new parts of the story and science clues two to three times a week through social media, email and game apps. They work as a community to add their own input, guide the action, do research and provide solutions to help rescue the adult characters;
  • The eCITY project and game aims to develop and validate a pedagogical methodology, supported by an online, collaborative, city-development simulation engine that stimulates the integration and continuous exploitation of Problem Based Learning in engineering schools but, at the same time, fostering the interest in Engineering in secondary school students (eCity, 2015);
  • The EU funded ITEC project created a maths game for primary school students aged 9-10 that used the game to develop programming skills for primary school students.

This is currently one of the most rewarding and creative areas of Serious Games with an extensive number of successful approaches and it is certainly one to follow closely in the next months.


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Serious Games for Health

Serious games for health are games that have a “serious” purpose pertaining to healthcare. They are aimed at improving the physical, mental and well-being of individuals.

Serious health games were embraced early by medicine. Some of their applications in healthcare are described below:

Create awareness about healthcare issues and use in intervention programmes: several games have been used to create awareness about healthcare issues. For example some of the edugames4all ( games have been used during the 2012 Global Handwashing Day UK campaign ( aimed to improve handwashing behaviours as a means of preventing diseases. They are also used in other settings such as weight loss intervention programmes that promote physical training (Lyons & Hatkevich, 2013).

Skills acquisition: due to the inherent ability of games to simulate real conditions in a safe environment, they have been embraced for training medical professionals especially in the training of surgical skills. They have been also used to train doctors for situations that are rare to reproduce, but are critical, such as how to respond to epidemics and natural disasters (see for example Burn Center (Kurenov et al., 2008) which simulates a mass casualty disaster). Research has also shown that the time spent playing some games could enhance patient psychomotor skills (McConville & Virk, 2012), visual attention, processing speed, and statistical inference (Bavelier et al., 2011).

Treatment and Rehabilitation: currently, games are used for patient rehabilitation, typically recommended by a physical therapist in a hospital setting for those with balance impairments (Ravenek et al., 2015). Some positive effects have also been shown when using certain types of games for the treatment of mental health illnesses such as schizophrenia (Bavelier et al., 2011) or bulimia nervosa (Fagundo et al., 2014). Moreover, serious games are used to help improve medication compliance and adherence (De Oliveira et al., 2010).

Disease detection: researchers are also looking into how games can be used to detect healthcare problems such as mild cognitive impairments or for the screening of dementia (Bavelier et al., 2011).

Informing existing research: Phylo, the game developed by the McGill Centre for Bioinformatics uses non-expert players to align multiple DNA sequences, that could help in further advancing research into the causes of genetic disorders and evolution.

However, despite the positive results, the research on the effects of computer games on health is still in early stages. There is still more to be done before being able to fully understand how to effectively use the power of games while at the same times obtaining the desired healthcare outcome. Both indirect positive and negative effects of playing games have been noticed. For example playing computer games that have a direct positive effect might reduce the time necessary for studying or exercise.

The research performed in this field is also highly complex, these complexities being related to the complexities of the human body, game design or the complex social, cultural and historic context in which we are living. The research in this field involves interdisciplinary teams that could tackle each aspect of this research that leads to other challenges in communication and cooperation between various experts.

There are also certain methodological limitations of existing studies that make the results highly dependent on the context and often cannot be generalized. As games have been shown to be a powerful tool there exists a need to harness their potential and therefore maximize their benefits. 


Bavelier, D., G., & Irwin, J. (2010). Active video games to promote physical activity in children and youth: a systematic review. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 164(7), 664-672.

Bavelier, D., Green, C. S., Han, D. H., Renshaw, P. F., Merzenich, M. M., & Gentile, D. A. (2011). Brains on video games. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 12(12), 763-768.

De Oliveira, R., Cherubini, M., & Oliver, N. (2010). MoviPill: improving medication compliance for elders using a mobile persuasive social game. In Proceedings of the 12th ACM international conference on Ubiquitous computing (pp. 251-260). ACM.

Fagundo, A. B., Via, E., Sánchez, I., Jiménez-Murcia, S., Forcano, L., Soriano-Mas, C., … & Fernandez-Aranda, F. (2014). Physiological and brain activity after a combined cognitive behavioral treatment plus video game therapy for emotional regulation in bulimia nervosa: a case report. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 16(8), 1-16.

Kurenov, S. N., Cance, W. W., Noel, B., & Mozingo, D. W. (2008). Game-based mass casualty burn training. Studies in Health Technology and Informatics, 142, 142-144.

Lyons, E. J., & Hatkevich, C. (2013). Prevalence of behavior changing strategies in fitness video games: theory-based content analysis. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(5), e81.

McConville, K. M. V., & Virk, S. (2012). Evaluation of an electronic video game for improvement of balance. Virtual Reality, 16(4), 315-323.

Ravenek, K. E., Wolfe, D. L., & Hitzig, S. L. (2015). A scoping review of video gaming in rehabilitation. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, doi:10.3109/17483107.2015.1029538 (in press).

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Procedural Content Generation in Serious Games

The Serious Games (SG) industry produces games for niche target markets and specific audiences. Yet, the entertainment industry pushes forward the benchmarks on the quality of game development, at every new release, supported by large budgets and profits. The SG industry is thus faced with the problem of reaching these high expectations with reduced budgets, due to the smaller dimension of these niche markets. Although the game engines used in the entertainment industry are also available to the serious game industry, balancing the programming efforts, the assets required for the game worlds are still a problem. Procedural Content Generation (PCG) can amplify the capacity of a small development team to generate the assets needed in a fraction of time and effort.

From the early steps of the video game industry, one of the main problems was the reduced amount of memory available. Techniques were devised to the automatic generation of game levels from a small set of data. One of the first use cases emerged in the 80’s, with a game called Elite – a spacecraft simulator which offered eight galaxies, each containing 256 planets and their space stations – all this being generated procedurally. Many other titles have emerged over time, from the highly acclaimed Diablo, to the Elder Scrolls saga games (such as Oblivion and Skyrim). This solution has been pushed forward to include also the whole characters’ generation, as in the game Spore.

Procedural Content Generation is the term that describes a methodology that produces content automatically, or with minimum manually intervention, through techniques, computer algorithms and a certain degree of randomness. The first approaches on procedural generation began with the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, with the fractal geometry [Man83] to describe a family of shapes, which, when following some pattern repeatedly, could result in more complex shapes. This process is based on an iterative and recursive approach, also the basis of formal grammars, such as L-Systems [PL96] and shape grammars [Sti80]. Formal grammars control the evolution of the iterative process of modelling, from an initial “seed”, by using a set of production rules. These techniques are specified with a strong emphasis in the process, and not on the result, being difficult to parameterize in order to obtain the required result. More recently, approaches such as through 3D manipulators [KK12] that provide a visual representation of adjustable parameters directly in model space, or by employing visualization in the form of a node-based system [Pat12; SMBC13], improved expressiveness. Search-based procedural content generation is a special case of the generate-and-test approach to PCG, not only relying on evolutionary algorithms, but on all forms of heuristic and stochastic search/optimisation algorithms [TYSB11].

Procedural content generation is often used in the three-dimensional modelling of real-world features such as terrain elevation, natural organisms and urban environments. The correct understanding of how these processes actually take place, how they are organised and how they influence each other is one of the foundations of PCG techniques. The terrains can be generated randomly from fractal geometry (like Perlin noise) or physical erosion simulation. But we can also use data from Digital Elevation Models (DEM) to reproduce real places accurately. Vegetation and ecosystems are quite complex and have a random look that is prone to the PCG techniques. L-Systems [PL96] have been used with great results, both for the modelling of plants, the interaction between plants in ecosystems and to simulate artificial techniques such as pruning, leading to very realistic landscapes. Road networks are also an important element of the urban landscape. The network shape of this component was initially approached with L-systems as well, but to be able to control it more efficiently, other techniques were proposed, based on tensor fields [CEW*08] or the civil engineering rules that govern the construction process [CLC15]. The buildings are one of the most characteristic components of urban environments and, although the first attempts using L-Systems presented good results, it become clear the necessity to evolve it integrating the concept of shape [Sty80]. This led to the development of split grammars [WWSR03] first, and CGA shape grammars [MWH*06] later on. Other techniques were based on using images for generating the façades of the buildings or to capture the rules that can generate them [MZWvG07]. Finally, since all of these elements are integrated, semantics have also been explored into modelling the whole virtual environment in an integrated mode [STKB11].

Besides the modelling of the game worlds, there are other game elements that can be generated. Game levels can be generated automatically, by putting together small segments, controlled by a grammar defined by the game designer [SWM*11]. Game levels can also be dynamically generated in order to adapt to the players profile [LTB12]. Procedural Audio [Far07] can generate sounds and music in real-time according to the definition of processes and rules dependent on the gameplay, this way enhancing the players’ experience by providing distinct moods and audio cues. The narrative can also be procedurally generated [NAM06; War09] and even characters and their behaviour can evolve and adapt to the storyline (specially in multiplayer games) by using Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques [MM06]. At a higher level, PCG can be used to drive the players’ experience [YT11].

Yet, PCG still faces some challenges. Attempting to reduce the manual intervention of the users, by providing declarative and high-level means to generate content, ends up restricting their descriptive power. Many approaches rely on building rules using lower-level grammars but they can be difficult to manage, especially for large sets of rules and for more complex designs. When reproducing real-world urban environments, PCG can benefit from the integration of external data sources (GIS, photographs or texts) that carry semantics. However, these heterogeneous sources imply that specific rules have to be designed.

PCG has an enormous potential to SG for the modelling of realistic game worlds (ex. for situated learning), and for the generation of game levels and narratives according to the purpose of the game. A basic framework can be adapted to distinct learning objectives in the scope of a diversity of courses. Besides, by using game analytics, we can adapt the progression of the learner/player by generating the game levels accordingly, into adaptive gameplay solutions.

In conclusion, PCG techniques enable SG teams to develop complex and extensive game worlds, with a lower budget and with reduced time to market. Furthermore, the potential to generate game levels dynamically allows the development of adaptive games, leveraging the potential to broaden the target market and audiences.


[CEW*08] Chen G., Esch G., Wonka, P, Müller P., Zhang E.: Interactive procedural street modeling. In ACM Transactions on Graphics (TOG). Vol. 27. No. 3. ACM, 2008.

[CLC15] Campos C., Leitão J. M., Coelho, A.: Integrated Modeling of Road Environments for Driving Simulation. In International Conference on Computer Graphics Theory and Applications (GRAPP 2015), Berlin, Germany, 2015.

[Far07] Farnell A.: An introduction to procedural audio and its application in computer games. In Audio Mostly Conference, pp. 1-31, 2007.

[KK12] Krecklau L, Kobbelt L.: Interactive modeling by procedural high-level primitives. In Computers & Graphics 36.5 (Aug. 2012), pp. 376–386. 2012.

[LTB12] Lopes R., Tutenel T., Bidarra R.: Using gameplay semantics to procedurally generate player-matching game worlds. Proceedings of PCG 2012 – Workshop on Procedural Content Generation for Games, co-located with the Seventh International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, 29 May-1 June, Raleigh, NC, 2012.

[Man83] Mandelbrot B. B.: The fractal geometry of nature. Macmillan, 1983.

[MM06] Merrick K., Maher M. L.: Motivated reinforcement learning for non-player characters in persistent computer game worlds. In Proceedings of the 2006 ACM SIGCHI international conference on Advances in computer entertainment technology (ACE ’06). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 2006.

[MWH*06] Müller P., Wonka P., Haegler S., Ulmer A., van Gool L.: Procedural Modeling of Buildings. Volume 25. 3. Boston, Massachusetts: ACM, pp. 614-623, 2006.

[MZWvG07] Müller P., Zeng G., Wonka P., van Gool L.: Imagebased Procedural Modeling of Facades. In ACM Transactions on Graphics (TOG). Vol. 26. No. 3. ACM, 2007.

[NAM06] Nelson M. J., Ashmore C., Mateas M.: Authoring an interactive narrative with declarative optimization-based drama management. In AIIDE, pp. 127-129, 2006.

[Pat12] Patow, P.: User-Friendly Graph Editing for Procedural Modeling of Buildings. In IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, (April 2012), pp. 66-75, 2012.

[PL96] Prusinkiewicz P., Lindenmayer A.: The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. Springer-Verlag, 1996.

[SMBC13] Silva P., Müller P., Bidarra, R., Coelho, A.: Node-Based Shape Grammar Representation and Editing. Proceedings of PCG 2013 – Workshop on Procedural Content Generation for Games, co-located with the Eigth International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, 14–17 May, Chania, Crete, Greece, 2013, pp. 1-8.

[Sti80] Stiny, G.: Introduction to shape and shape grammars. In Environment and Planning B 7.3, pp. 343–351, 1980.

[STKB11] Smelik RM, Tutenel T, de Kraker KJ and Bidarra R (2010) A declarative approach to procedural modeling of virtual worlds. In Computers and Graphics 35(2), pp. 352-363, 2011.

[SWM*11] Smith G., Whitehead J., Mateas M., Treanor M., March J., Cha M.: Launchpad: A rhythm-based level generator for 2-d platformers. In Computational Intelligence and AI in Games, IEEE Transactions on, 3(1), pp. 1-16, 2011.

[TYSB11] Togelius J., Yannakakis G. N., Stanley K. O., Browne C.: Search-Based Procedural Content Generation: A Taxonomy and Survey. In IEEE Transactions on Computational Intelligence and AI in Games, Vol. 3, No. 3, September, pp. 172-186, 2011.

[War09] Wardrip-Fruin N.: Expressive Process. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

[WWSR03] Wonka P., Wimmer M., Sillion F., Ribarsky W.: Instant architecture. In ACM SIGGRAPH 2003 Papers. Volume 22. 3. San Diego, California: ACM, pp. 669–677, 2003.

[YT11] Yannakakis G. N., Togelius J.: Experience-driven procedural content generation. In Affective Computing, IEEE Transactions on 2.3, 147-161, 2011.


Insights Serious Games

Serious Games Evaluation

Evaluation is the systematic and objective assessment of an ongoing or completed activity or project and/or its resulting products. The aim is to determine the relevance and fulfilment of objectives, efficiency, effectiveness, impact and sustainability using a, normally predefined, specific set of criteria. Evaluation can be formative when the purpose is to extract valuable information to improve the current process or products, or summative when the purpose is to assess the overall achievements. Some authors also consider diagnostic evaluation as a tool to understand the existing context before the actual process started.

Writing about the evaluation of Serious Games (SG), especially in such a limited number of words, is not a simple matter. The diversity of purposes (education and training, skill and competence development, awareness raising, marketing, science and research, etc.), the very different types of gameplay (role-play, adventure, simulation, strategy, etc.), the multiple contexts of use, the diversified target audiences, all imply that the evaluation of each individual game must be unique even if following a methodological framework.

The specific nature of a SG implies that its evaluation must consider all its inherent characteristics, that is, it must be assessed as a game (gameplay), as a software [1] application (usability) and as a personal development tool (content). Together these vectors assess the quality of the game, the quality of human-game interaction, and the quality of this interaction in a given “serious” context. Therefore SG evaluation is a threefold activity where the weights of each individual component should be balanced but are not necessarily equal. The quality and relevance of the content is naturally important but the user experience and the game-quality of the product are essential to ensure an effective and engaging tool that leads to skill and competence development. Although these three vectors of assessment should be orthogonal, it is hard to ensure that as there are some clear dependencies between them. A game has many intrinsic features, differently accommodated by distinct users depending on their previous experience and background but also on their preferences.

Usability assessment in software applications has been the subject of extended research for the past few years. However, traditional metrics need to be adapted to digital games and complement the assessment of the gameplay experience, using for instance Malone’s intrinsic factors for engaging gameplay— challenge, curiosity, and fantasy— or Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory.

Concerning the content vector, or the “serious” objective, the evaluation process can be summed up in this question: “Did the player acquire the knowledge, competences and skills with this game that he/she was supposed to?” The question maybe simple, but it is often difficult to answer because skill development is an individual process, depending on the specific context. For SG used for education and training purposes, evaluation of this vector can rely on the extended research and practice in educational evaluation, namely through Kirkpatrick’s work. For instance, through the use of knowledge and skill pre- and post-testing, aiming to measure changes in educational outcomes after modifications to the learning process. Advergames (or SG for marketing and advertising) can benefit from the impact assessment processes that this industry already uses for other channels. Awareness raising SG are in a crossroad between the two previous ones and could benefit from existing practice in both domains. So, in general, the evaluation of this vector can, in general, be based on existing assessment methodologies, practices and data collection tools adjusted for this special channel. Focus groups, think-aloud play, questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, user observation and a few more, all have been reported as being used in different SG evaluation studies, in different stages like alpha, beta and gamma testing where user involvement is gradually more and more relevant and the evaluation focus shifts from the more technical aspects to the more content-related ones.

One evaluation tool that is gradually gaining relevance and explores the intrinsic aspects of SG is the use of game analytics. The automatic and permanent collection of interaction data between the player and the SG can contribute to the three vectors providing real-time information that no other tool is able to capture with the same precision and independence. Therefore it can have a relevant formative purpose by adapting the SG so that it can better fit the needs and skills of the player but it can also have a summative purpose on the assessment and even certification of the acquired competences.

For further reading on this subject, take a look at the following articles. Each of them provides an extended list of studies and research in this domain:

[1] Mayer et al present the methodological background to an ongoing research project on the scientific evaluation of serious games and/or computer-based simulation games (SGs) for advanced learning.

Igor Mayer, Geertje Bekebrede, Casper Harteveld, Harald Warmelink, Qiqi Zhou, Theo van Ruijven, Julia Lo, Rens Kortmann andIvo Wenzler, The research and evaluation of serious games: Toward a comprehensive methodology, British Journal of Educational Technology, Volume 45, Issue 3, pages 502–527, May 2014, DOI: 10.1111/bjet.12067

[2] Bellotti et al review a significant body of literature related to the evaluation of serious games and suggest directions for further research.

Francesco Bellotti, Bill Kapralos, Kiju Lee, Pablo Moreno-Ger, and Riccardo Berta, Assessment in and of Serious Games: An Overview, Advances in Human-Computer Interaction, Volume 2013 (2013), Article ID 136864, 11 pages,

[3] Nacke et al focus on the evaluation of the gameplay experience in a SG context.

Lennart Nacke, Anders Drachen, Stefan Göbel, Methods for Evaluating Gameplay Experience in a Serious Gaming Context, Available online at:

[1] What if Serious Games are not digital tools? Usability evaluation is also applied in non-digital contexts like board games. However, for the purpose of simplicity, we’ll focus on the use of digital SG.
Insights Serious Games

Didactic aspects of game-based learning

Modern, efficient approaches to learning are student-centred, motivational, problem-based, directed to higher ordered educational goals, and often supported by ICT. Serious games can integrate most of the characteristics mentioned above. Even more, many prominent researchers in this domain claim that game design has a lot to teach us about learning, and contemporary learning theory can teach us about designing better games.

Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher of communication theory, who predicted World Wide Web in the 1960s in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), where he described a global village, stated: “Anyone who makes a distinction between games and learning doesn’t know the first thing about either”. Famous cognitive and educational psychologists, such as Vygotsky, Piaget and Bruner, have also emphasized connections and similarities between playing games and learning.

Many studies about game-based learning show that students are highly motivated when learning materials are presented in a computer game format. However, for any quality learning to occur, this is not enough. Games can be very appealing to students but if they only entertain and do not induce learning, the use of games in education can’t be justified. So what are the elements that make computer games serious?

Gross (2003) claims that serious games must have well-defined learning goals and have to promote the development of important strategies and skills to increase cognitive and intellectual abilities of learners. According to Malone (1981) and Garris et al. (2002), the elements contributing to educational values of serious games are sensual stimuli (multimedia representations of learning material), fantasy (context presented in an imaginary setting), challenge (stimulating situation) and curiosity (desire to know or learn). These elements must be incorporated in the environment of a game, to structure objectives and rules, a context of meaningful learning, an appealing story, immediate feedback, a high level of interactivity, challenge and competition, random elements of surprise, and rich environments for learning. A game usually involves mental stimulation and develops practical skills, as it encourages the player to decide, to choose, to define priorities and/or to solve problems. Immediate reward is a major motivational factor, whether it is translated to game entities or feelings and emotions. Games can also represent social environments where the player communicates and collaborates with other players or with characters in the game. They imply self-learning abilities, allow transfer of learning from other realities, and are inherently experiential with the engagement of multiple senses.

Garris in his model of game based learning explains that instructional content needs to be blurred within a serious game. Students play a game and have fun, not being aware of the “learning” part of the game, even though they are presented with new concepts to which they have to adapt to be successful in a game. The player is expected to elicit desirable behaviour based on emotional and cognitive reactions that result from an interaction with and feedback from gameplay.

The use of serious games for learning has to be undertaken with a high degree of pragmatism.  The game must be designed to facilitate some kind of learning objectives. It is not a stand-alone activity but part of learning of activities in a learning package. The teacher has to prepare a learning package, taking into account students’ background and previous knowledge, learning goals, curriculum, available technical resources, and her own competences. A learning package usually contains briefing, post-game discussion and reflection, as essential accompanying supporting activities in game-based learning. They ensure that students understand the purpose of the game, relate the activities during the gameplay to the intended learning outcomes, and ensure that the game-based learning is focused and appropriate.

Whitton (2010) proposed a framework for good practice in serious games design from an active learning perspective. According to his guidelines, the game environment should  support active learning by encouraging exploration, problem solving and enquiry, engender engagement with explicit and achievable goals,  be appropriate for the learning context,  support and provide opportunities for reflection,  provide equal opportunities for all students,  provide ongoing support, with a gradual introduction of increasing complexity, supported with help or hints.

An important challenge for teachers is to monitor students’ game-based learning activities and to deduce what the student believes, knows, or can do. They need this information at any point in time during gameplay, without disturbing the flow of the game.  Features of performances are not just right or wrong, but how effective the learner is and how he exhibits strategy choices.  Mislevy and his colleagues (2014) defined three things that game designers should know about educational assessment. First, the principles of assessment design must be compatible with the principles of game design. Second, assessment is about the structure of reasoning, not about numbers. And third, the key constraints of assessment design need to be addressed from the very beginning of the design process. Assessment design should create situations such that students’ actions provide information about their learning.

There are three types of assessment in games: games scoring (e.g. achieved targets, problems overcome), embedded assessment (game analytics: time spent, problems solved…), and  external assessment (mainly after the game, based on outcomes – traditional assessment methods: tests, interviews)

Embedded assessment is the most appropriate for monitoring and assessing game-based learning and has most of the desirable features mentioned before, but is the most difficult to implement. It is characterised by the following properties: the teacher can follow and observe the learning process, timely and targeted feedback can be given to the student, it gives better insight into motivational, emotional, and cognitive aspects of learning, and the evidence needed for assessment is provided by the student’s interactions within the game. In adaptive environments, data from embedded assessment can also be used to adapt the learning difficulty to the student’s skill level.

Serious games are very powerful instructional technology and their use can be justified by all relevant learning theories. But only appropriate gaming technology and a didactic approach, as regards game design as well as its implementation in the learning environment, can support learning efficiently.


  • Garris, R., Ahlers, R., & Driskell, J. E. (2002). Games, motivation, and learning: A research and practice model. Simulation & Gaming, 33(4), 441-467.
  • Gross, B. (2003). The impact of videogames in education. First Monday, v. 8, n. 7, jul. 2003.
  • Malone, T.W. (1981). Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science 4.
  • Mislevy, R.J., Oranje, A., Bauer, M.I.,Von Davier, A., Hao, J., Corrigan, S., & John, M. (2014). Psychometric considerations in game-based assessment. GlassLab Report.
  • Whitton, N. (2010). Learning with digital games : a practical guide to engaging students in higher education. New York: Routledge.
Insights Serious Games

Are Serious Games really Games?

A game is a goal-directed and competitive activity conducted within a framework of agreed rules (Lindley 2003). Or “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003). The rules establish what a player can or cannot do, and what the behavioral consequences of actions may be within the world of the game. The game offers a structured and oriented context (meaning) to play which is a voluntary activity, intrinsically motivated, enjoyable and for recreation, in a non-real context, requiring active participation. Overmars (2007) stated that “playing a Game is about making decisions, taking control and reaching goals”. Prensky (2001) identified the following characteristics of games:

  • “Games are a form of fun. That gives us enjoyment and pleasure.
  • Games are a form of play. That gives us intense and passionate involvement.
  • Games have rules. That gives us structure.
  • Games have goals. That gives us motivation.
  • Games are interactive. That gives us doing.
  • Games are adaptive. That gives us flow.
  • Games have outcomes and feedback. That gives us learning.
  • Games have win states. That gives us ego gratification.
  • Games have conflict/competition/challenge/ opposition. That gives us adrenaline.
  • Games have problem solving. That sparks our creativity.
  • Games have interaction. That gives us social groups.
  • Games have representation and story. That gives us emotion.”

Games can be instantiated for serious purposes as they involve mental and physical stimulation and they allow developing practical skills – they force the player to decide, to choose, to define priorities, to solve problems, etc. When games involve social environments, sometimes involving large distributed communities, they support the development of social competencies. Games develop the users’ self-learning abilities (players are often required to seek out information to master the game itself), they allow transfer of learning from other realities and are inherently experiential with the engagement of multiple senses.

Serious Games (SG) are games that do not have entertainment as the main objective. They are a “a mental contest, played with a computer in accordance with specific rules, that uses entertainment to further government or corporate training, education, health, public policy, and strategic communication objectives” (Zyda, 2005). Serious games “are games insofar as they have rules, simulate behaviors, accept input from the player, and provide feedback within the context of the rules and behaviors” (Michael & Chen, 2006). So, even if the main objective of a SG is not entertainment, it must provide the user with a context that engages and motivates him/her. Or, in the words of Csikszentmihalyi (1975), the user should be in flow: “People are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”.

Although in general we coincide with Michael & Chen’s view, but we have to raise the issue of fun in games and its voluntary use. Play is defined as a voluntary activity while serious games can be compulsory (as a training tool integrated in a course, for instance). Per se, that does not eliminate any of the game characteristics of the environment. But in a certain number of cases it can prevent the player from feeling the fun, enjoyment and pleasure associated with a game. This is a well-known effect with youngsters: when simply told they will play a game, they engage in it with fun but when told they will play an educational game (the same game), they immediately tend to reject it as part of a formal learning process. This can also happen with trainees that do not have the habit of playing games and reject a training action based on serious games (for lack of confidence or interest). For these users, these tools are educational and training applications and not games in Prensky’s sense. But that is also true when we play a game, for entertainment, that we don’t like: we do not feel the fun and enjoyment associated with a game – we get bored, anxious and reject it. That does not mean it is not a game but simply that it is a game that does not suit our gaming style. The same is true for serious games: even if they are games we cannot ensure that they will be fun for everyone and that they will be engaging and motivating environments for skill and competence development. An when we have a compulsory situation ti will be more likely that we’ll have a game that does not “feels  like a game” to a lot of users.


  • Overmars M., (2007), Game Maker Tutorial: Designing Good Games, YoYo Games Ltd
  • Prensky 2001   Prensky M. (2001). Digital Game-Based Learning, McGraw-Hill
  • Zyda 2005   Zyda M. (2005). From visual simulation to virtual reality to games. IEEE Computer
  • Michael & Chen 2006   Michael, D., & Chen, S. (2006). Serious games: Games that educate, train and inform (1ª ed.). Thomson.
  • Csikszentmihalyi 1975   Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-87589-261-2
  • Lindley 2003   Lindley, C., (2003). Game Taxonomies: A High Level Framework for Game Analysis and Design
  • Salen & Zimmerman 2003   Salen K., Zimmerman E. (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, MIT Press