Chaos Theory wants to transform the world of ‘serious games’

Chaos Theory Games is currently working to transform how we think of 'serious games' in practice.
chaos theory games sydney australia

‘Serious games’ can be many things. They can be educational, tell experimental stories, or evoke deep emotions. While they’re primarily defined by a goal other than entertainment, their true purpose is to encourage a transformational moment – whether that be via teaching, or some form of emotional change. For Sydney-based game developer Chaos Theory Games (KangaZoo, Blendy!, Samsung Galaxy ExplorAR), this transformation is what truly defines the ‘serious games’ industry.

‘I definitely prefer the term “transformational games” because I think it’s more descriptive of the sorts of experiences that we build,’ Nico King, Executive Creative Director at Chaos Theory told GamesHub of the team’s approach to serious games. ‘Serious games was coined a number of years ago … it self perpetuates. Not many people use the term “transformational games” but hopefully we can change that.’

King believes that beyond being a simple language change, tweaking the ways we talk about serious games can help to better identify the purpose of this niche video game genre, and aid integration with learning experiences. ‘Serious games’ may imply a lack of fun, or dense subject matter that lacks a wider appeal – but in talking of transformation, the crux of ‘serious games’ can be illuminated.

The value of transformational games

‘When using the term “serious games”, it can exclude a lot of games that have real-world value, and have a lot of transformational value,’ King said. ‘[Transformational games] come in all different shapes and sizes … they are a storytelling medium that we can use to solve real-world problems.’

King talked of CHANGE by developer Delve Interactive as a core example of games that fit outside the rigid bounds of ‘serious games’ that still encourage a major, educational transformation.

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In CHANGE, you play a rogue-like point-and-click adventure that explores the challenges of being homeless on city streets. While it incorporates elements of traditional gameplay, it’s also designed to encourage empathy in players – a transformation of knowledge and emotions. King believes this game doesn’t quite fit the ‘serious’ label, but is built on the same values of the genre, and can help players to understand the purpose of these experiences.

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Chaos Theory’s own games straddle the traditional idea of what makes a game serious’. While the company has worked closely with major organisations on projects designed to educate and teach – the Australian Government, UNSW, ABC, UTS, Telstra, Samsung and eBay are amongst Chaos Theory’s clients – the developer is also working to transform these experiences, and shed the stigma of the ‘serious’ label.

After all, many games that contain fun, traditional gameplay can fit seamlessly into the modern idea of serious games. Classic edutainment games like Freddi Fish, Spy Fox and Putt-Putt can be considered ‘serious’, for example – because while they are designed to be fun adventures, they also provide transformative, educational opportunities. The line between what is a ‘traditional’ video game, and what is a ‘serious’ one is fairly slim – and Chaos Theory is looking to cross those lines with a variety of projects.

KangaZoo balances education with colour and fun

One of these transformational projects is KangaZoo, a title developed with PentaQuest, at the request of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). In KangaZoo, you play as a wildlife ranger looking after Australian bushland. As you advance in the game, you’ll meet a variety of native animals, and work towards creating a safer outdoor space for everyone.

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The primary goal of KangaZoo is to educate players about Australian wildlife, and teach them about native diversity. To do so, it incorporates features of traditional games to create a fun, wholesome experience – you can collect decorations in KangaZoo, and help to raise a range of creatures, all while learning fun facts about the environment.

To create the concept for KangaZoo, and help elevate it as a learning tool, Chaos Theory began with a hearty brief from DFAT which guided the elements of gameplay.

‘We like to look at “what’s the problem that you’re trying to solve?” first, and really try and understand what that problem is. [We] ask questions to make sure that is the right problem that [the clients] are looking to solve,’ King said of the creation process.

‘A lot of the time, we do initial information gathering to make sure we are solving the right problem, and understand as much about that problem as possible. From there, we’ll look to identify a game design framework to help solve that problem. That’s essentially looking for gameplay, or systems, or mechanics that are similar to the problem we’re trying to solve … then it’s usually quite similar to regular game development, where you build and do a lot of testing.’

According to King, the focus of game development in transformational games is usually on an issue to be solved, or a way to get people engaged. ‘Fun’ isn’t necessarily a priority – but according to King, it can be an extremely powerful tool to drive interest in new or confronting topics.

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Image: Chaos Theory Games

‘Originally, the objective of [KangaZoo] was to get more people interested in studying ecology-related subjects at Australian universities,’ King explained. ‘The goal was to target a global audience of people … to raise interest and awareness for the research that’s being done in Australia, and Australian plant life and animal life, and conservation.’

‘We worked with PentaQuest and [DFAT] to clarify what those goals were, and made sure we were focusing in the right area. Then, we came up with a game design framework to go around that, and picked an arcade adventure mobile game … where you take on the role of a park ranger, and explore different national parks in Australia … Through that process, you’re collecting information about the world around you, and collecting animal friends that you learn more information about, and then you release them back into the wild and restore the environment.’

Games like KangaZoo have major potential as transformational experiences, particularly for the future of education. While video games will never replace traditional classroom learning, they have the potential to be robust educational tools that engage players on multiple levels.

Strict curriculum guidelines mean introducing games to the classroom isn’t a simple feat, but King is certainly enthusiastic about the potential for transformational games to teach young kids more diverse skills and knowledge.

‘As time goes on, and the entire world has played games and still continues to play games, the perception of the role that games have in our lives, and what they can actually accomplish will shift,’ King said.

‘I think everybody can benefit through gamified learning … Inherently, people learn best through play. When kids are really young, they learn by playing around with one another, by developing social skills, by using their imagination to make up games … Play is often used to explore real-world concepts, and to practice, and to challenge one another. I think that gives it value in the classroom.’

Beyond school, transformational games can also be used to teach adults new skills, with gamification helping to encourage memory retention and engagement with source material. Duolingo is the perfect example of a transformational game working in practice – it teaches users a language using gamified mechanics, and a reward system that encourages repeated engagement. It’s also extremely popular, and is widely used around the globe.

Learning isn’t just for kids – and many of Chaos Theory’s creations have worked to address this holistic learning need.

In collaboration with the creators of the 2008 Beached Az animated series, which educated on the risks of climate change, Chaos Theory developed Bleached Az, a mobile game that focussed on the detrimental impact of coral bleaching and climate change on the environment.

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Image: Chaos Theory Games

‘It’s a simple game, in the likeness of Fruit Ninja, where you are protecting three corals on the Great Barrier Reef,’ King said. ‘They’re having a conversation amongst one another, and making jokes, and [it’s] just a generally irreverent look at ocean conservation, and the problems our oceans are facing. Very heavy on the comedy, and it’s fun to play … and has a lot of good, educational value, in terms of the topics talked about.’

In addition to fun gameplay, this transformational game also included a tree planting program tied to scores, and a leaderboard that told players exactly how much carbon dioxide they’d personally pulled out of the atmosphere. In encouraging competitive spirit, Chaos Theory provided an engaging, gamified experience that transformed how people thought about the environment, and their impact on the world.

But as King makes clear, this game doesn’t quite fit the traditional notion of ‘serious’ games – with tongue-in-cheek humour and a level of entertainment value that places it more in line with mainstream video games. It crosses lines, and showcases how educational experiences can be couched in mainstream video game tropes and gameplay.

The future of transformational games

Chaos Theory has a diverse portfolio of games, created for a variety of purposes. Some of its games are designed to familiarise players with new topics or concepts they may have otherwise avoided. Some games help players to explore more of the world, or help to relieve the pressure of modern living with relaxing, rewarding gameplay.

The Sydney-based studio has long been known for creating ‘serious games’ – but it has outgrown this terminology, as has the entire ‘serious games’ industry. At the heart of this genre is change – education and transformation. Ironically, change is also needed to understand the power of transformational games, and their importance in the games ecosystem.

Labelling this genre as ‘serious’ has siloed these educational experiences, and created a distinct separation in the games industry – but transformational games are more powerful and pervasive than most people think.

They’re in the process of being introduced to classrooms, and university lecture theatres, and in workplaces – teaching people new skills, knowledge, and empathy. They have a deserved place in the future of education, and it’s only through understanding that we can appreciate their integration and value.

Transformational games, like those currently being created by Chaos Theory, have phenomenal potential – and we’ll likely see their rise over the coming decades as the understanding of their purpose grows.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.