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Getting serious about gaming

- Shivan Parusnath

Games from the Game Design programme at the Wits School of Digital Arts tell important stories, and allow for solutions to many real-world problems.

Digital Arts and gaming © Shivan Parusnath | Curiosity

Play is a concept as old as work. Many species, including ours, play often during childhood. The games played serve as a vehicle for lessons needed later in life, such as hunting or defending themselves. 

In today’s world, gaming is perhaps the most popular form of play. However, it is generally seen less as lesson learning and more of an escapist pastime – delving into worlds or systems that differ drastically from the one in which we live. 

Educational games are not new, but they tend to be veneers of the promise of fun pasted over a conventional learning system. These veneers tend to be thin, and are seen through by the intended audience who quickly realise they are being duped into learning something. 

“Just sprinkling game design on top of learning content doesn’t make it a game – it is still a multiple choice test if you take away all the effects and visuals,” says Henrike Lode, who heads up the Serious Games course offered as part of the game design degree in the Wits School of Arts - Digital Arts.

Serious games are those that have a narrative that is educational or informative without compromising on the quality and enjoyment of the gameplay itself. Importantly, games of this nature can bring empathy to other human experiences – helping people understand what it’s like to be someone else, by exploring themes such as sexual identity, language and privilege.

Making teaching fun

“I struggled with education and authority in high school. It killed my love for learning, because it was about authority, and not about the excitement of finding out more,” says Lode. This drew her to the idea of making games that offer education through playful interaction. “Gaming can transform education with joy,” says Lode. 

Many of Lode’s students were drawn to game design for the same reason: learning through games is more effective than traditional teaching methods. Alice Seremane, a 2019 alumnus of Wits game design, chose to take this course because of her challenges with traditional teaching methods for complex subjects like physics.

“Schooling is not something that people typically describe as enjoyable – but if you can incorporate fun into teaching, where the person is unconsciously learning, you can expose learners to more information without them even realising it,” says Seremane.

“I found physics very challenging in school and there were many concepts I just couldn’t grasp – but seeing physical models and demonstrations made it so much easier.” This made her think that if physics could be explained in a more fun and practical way, it would be so much more accessible and easier to understand. 

Seremane designed a game called Time’s Up!, in which players use a variety of electrical components such as electric wires, batteries, resistors and switches to create a closed circuit with a specific set of components and requirements.

Levashan Pillay, a 2020 alumnus of game design at Wits, found a gateway into gaming through difficulties with traditional learning at school. “I found that my maths skills improved dramatically when I started playing on an educational gaming console in my spare time,” says Pillay. 

“Aside from the fun that you experience when playing an educational game, there is a real sense of feedback and accomplishment when you get something right, and that is missing in traditional learning systems.” Pillay’s game Code Wiz centres around teaching the player the logic of programming which can be transferred and used in any form of programming language.

Breaking taboo barriers

Serious games can extend beyond just learning content in a different way. They can also be used to explore complex or taboo issues that may otherwise be difficult to broach in casual conversation.

Janharm Labuschagne, a 2019 alumnus, developed a game called birthright which explores the topics of gender and racial privilege.

“I learnt so much about social context when I arrived at Wits, and it was important to me as a white Afrikaans person to explore and learn more about the concept of privilege,” says Labuschagne.

“This can be a difficult concept to talk about, but hopefully my game allows for this concept to be explored through play.” In birthright, players start the game with a roll of the dice that determines their race and gender.

Each identity has different rules for how they play the game and move across the board – and so players experience the game differently. There are some barriers or paths that are more difficult to cross depending on the identity you have been given.

When the rules are in your favour you may not notice the injustices in the system, but you might find the game frustrating when the rules are holding you back. “My hope is that serious games can lead to a higher level of consciousness and awareness in our society,” says Labuschagne. “There are a lot of difficult conversations we need to have about topics that may be abstract to some, and games can make these concepts feel tangible.”

Diverse perspectives

Game design is still a relatively new field to be taught at university level in Africa, with Wits being the first university on the continent to introduce it into its curriculum. Since its inception in 2012, Wits has produced many award-winning industry experts who have gone on to work at leading international game design houses. In that relatively short period of time, the game design field seems to be transforming.

“There are a lot more females and people of colour in game design since the degree was first offered at Wits,” says Seremane. “Perceptions of what it means to be a game designer are changing, and with a more diverse group of game designers out there, we can experience different stories from unique perspectives.” 

Although the games designed within the game design programme are not released to the public, the new Digital Arts building has incorporated a ‘playtest’ area, where the Wits student body and members of the public can get a chance to play the games.

Games alone aren’t enough to provide solutions to education, discussion of taboo topics, or achieving true empathy. “Discussion after playing a serious game is key to the experience,” says Lode.

In that way, these games may serve as sparks to further thought and discussion on problems we face in our society and how we can overcome them. But we have to be the ones to work on them, to keep the fire for learning, for debate, for empathy burning when the game is over, and perhaps in that way we can arrive at the solutions we need. Game on. 

  • Shivan Parusnath is Senior Multimedia Communications Officer for Wits University and Curios.ty Pictures Editor.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 12th issue, themed: #Solutions. We explore #WitsForGood solutions to the structural, political and socioeconomic challenges that persist in South Africa, and we are encouraged by astounding ‘moonshot moments’ where Witsies are advancing science, health, engineering, technology and innovation.