The word "fun" is probably the last thing that comes to mind when discussing work, government bureaucracies or geopolitical crises.

But thanks to a growing trend known as serious games, learning about such topics could get a lot more engaging.

"Games are an incredible tool for teaching kids critical thinking, decision-making, and analytical and problem-solving skills," said Anita Street, an environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Science Policy.

The office is working on a game that calculates people's "carbon footprint" — their contribution to the global greenhouse effect, measured in carbon dioxide units.

It's just one example of the medium — often dismissed as frivolous — helping to explain sober and complex issues.

"It's a huge trend," said John Beck, senior research fellow at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Beck also directs research at the Thunderbird Graduate School of International Management in Phoenix.

Games in professional training used to be seen almost exclusively in the military, Beck says.

But that's changing.

"Now business and other government agencies are interested and paying real money to adopt video games as a major component of training," Beck said.

Today's workers grew up with video games, and video game logic is built into their neural pathways, which are formed from birth to the early teens, Beck says. So games are a familiar medium to them.

"Using games in training for that generation actually ties into a natural process for learning," he said.

Future games will be specifically targeted to the learning style and learning speed of the individual playing them, Beck says.

"They're going to be adopted much more widely," he said.

Games that address serious subjects aren't new, but interest in them is increasing, says David Rejeski, a public policy researcher.

"What's happened in the last three or four years is that a social movement has grown around this idea," he said.

Rejeski runs the Serious Games Initiative, set up to promote collaboration between the game industry and education, training, health and public policy sectors.

The initiative is part of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan policy research institute in Washington, D.C.

The EPA's Street says games show promise in all sorts of scenarios.

A fictional case study of a wastewater toxic chemical cleanup requiring collaboration between scientists and engineers is one example of the potential for games in employee training, Street says.

In "Food Force," created by the United Nations World Food Program, players save and rebuild a disaster-hit island in the Indian Ocean.

And in "PeaceMaker," developed by Carnegie Mellon University students, players try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The project drew the interest of ImpactGames, which is creating a commercial version set for release in early 2007.

Games can help people understand complex situations, Rejeski says. They can illustrate different approaches to problems.

"That's part of the real power of these games — to put people in a role in which they see another person's or country's perspective," Rejeski said.

One of the things games do well is provide opportunities to role-play, he says.

Other federal agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, are interested in games, Street says.

Still, not everyone is embracing the idea.

Using games is a significant departure from business as usual, and developing them costs money.

"There are a few barriers there, some economic and some philosophical, that prevent us from moving ahead as quickly as we would like," Street said.

One solution to that would be for the government to establish a sort of "Corporation for Public Games," Rejeski said.

It could be modeled after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was created in 1967 and led to public television and radio.

"My argument is that serious games, like serious TV, could remain almost a sidebar in the history of mass media unless there's some significant funding," Rejeski said.

Ben Sawyer agrees.

"The opportunity is applying gaming technology and design outside of its entertainment market," said Sawyer, co-founder of Digital Mill, a consulting firm that helped establish the Serious Games Initiative.

Games potentially have applications in multiple areas, he says.

"That includes government, health care, defense, learning and even general application development for the workplace," Sawyer said.

The most important element in all of these scenarios, he says, is an open mind.

"Organizations have to be willing to experiment in this area," he said.