At last year's Different Games Conference, Professor Mary Flanagan revealed the results of research on narrative, gameplay, and learning outcomes for two related games. POX: Save the People, a public health game that promotes understanding of vaccination, shares the same gameplay as ZOMBIEPOX, which, as you can imagine, is about the zombie apocalypse. Same game, different narrative. The verdict? The fictional trappings of Zombies vs. Us did promote better learning outcomes about vaccination. In fact, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) started issuing fictional zombie apocalypse alerts as a way to push emergency preparedness, public interest was so high that it crashed the CDC's Web site.
Hold on. I wrote in my last blog post, When Game-Based Learning Doesn't Work, that some serious games, especially those in corporate training, do need to simulate real-world workplaces in order to be perceived as relevant to their target audiences and give better learning outcomes. Why the contradiction? Zombie apocalypses are not going to work for everyone and that's because there's a difference between work time and leisure time. I don't doubt that a laparoscopic surgeon wouldn't mind brushing up skills in a simulated laparoscopic surgery trainer as part of work, but I find it doubtful that the same surgeon spends all of his or her leisure time in such a program.
For the general public browsing through varied options and seeking general entertainment during leisure time, sure, a more exciting narrative is going to capture interest. The same holds true for educational titles used in the classroom. Students may need that extra incentive to get interested in subject matter they deem otherwise boring or confusing.
While the CDC did succeed in engaging the public with its humorous zombie apocalypse campaign, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) received sharp criticism for actually staging a simulated zombie apocalypse to train US Marines and Special Operations forces. Government watchdogs lumped the extravagant exercise into other examples of frivolous taxpayer money waste, such as a $240,000 armored car to protect pumpkins, and questioned if killing zombies was even useful training for soldiers. The CDC has since released a free iPad game called Solve the Outbreak, which has nothing to do with zombies.
As always, a developer needs to be aware of the preferences of its target audience and the context of usage for the serious game. Even in less exciting locales, as in an office or retail shop sim, narrative can still be an asset, adding spice through interesting dialog and case studies. We don't all have to put zombies in our games, but we can certainly strive to find a happy interchange between gameplay, narrative, and learning outcomes.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.