GDC 2009: Serious Games Opportunities
written by Chris Harz, Ed.D.
The Game Developers Conference 2009 featured several specialty categories of videogames with strong potential for new types of creative expression and careers (read: “jobs for animators”). The GDC’s Serious Games Summit was an object lesson on how many areas of the world can be affected by games—and how effective Serious Games can be in teaching, affecting opinion, motivating exercise, and medical healing, to name but a few. A Serious Game is one where entertainment is not the primary objective—though the game still needs to be entertaining, as many developers pointed out, else no one will use it.
The Serious Game segment continues to grow; it was estimated at about $2 billion in 2008. It is still a very new industry, based mostly in the US, which is not surprising, since the US government was and continues to be a major sponsor. The number of government agencies using games has grown since last year—if you want to work for the CIA, DIA, FBI, DHS or other “alphabet soup” agencies, this is a great way to do it (in fact, the CIA has supported many game companies through its investment arm, In-Q-Tel). The demand for medical games is expanding, and the business training market is becoming solid. Surprisingly, the one market segment where teaching games would seem to make the most sense—schools—has still not taken off yet; there are a few successful games for schools, but they are mostly bought by parents for use after school, not by the schools themselves. Teachers are still puzzling over how to use gaming technology in the classroom, and many of them seem afraid to use anything that their students would probably understand much better than they do, so the poor kids are still stuck with dry and hard to understand textbooks.
Some other trends are emerging. Whereas early Serious Games were often extensive 3D projects, more of them are now simple games, so they overlap two other categories—Casual Games (games that are simple to learn) and Mobile Games (for handhelds). This makes it easier for new companies to enter this area—instead of having to pitch an expensive 3D game to a client, creative developers can offer content that could be delivered via iPhones, where the content might be simple, but the total effect could be dramatic because of its outreach to an entire work force, and the ability to add and update content continually.
For instance, a Serious Games panel on Political Games listed many games that were developed this past year, most of them short Flash-based products. The list included The Bailout Game, Oiligarchy, Shoe Toss (modeled on the infamous Iraqi journalist), Bush’s Billions, Harpooned (a “save the whales” game), Rock the Quote, Gaza Conflict (there are games on both political sides of this issue), Democracy 2, Cooking Mama (a pro-vegetarian game by PITA), The Political Machine, and Polar Palin (a game on Palin versus the Polar bears).
A typical game, Oiligarchy, by Addicting Games, describes gameplay as: Play the OILigarchy Game and do what the rich big oil companies do: lie, steal, cheat, bribe politicians, bribe scientists to give false reports, ignore Greenpeace environmental campaigns, and pollute the air at will. Many such games need to be short and inexpensive because they are topical, that is, they need to come out within days or weeks after a political event happens.
Besides being used to attack opposing viewpoints, Political Games are also used to support candidates, explaining their histories or training volunteers to run campaigns and get out the vote. Some political games have become very popular—the United Nations-sponsored game, Food Force, which is about fighting starvation in the world, has been downloaded by over 4 million players. Ben Sawyer, a Serious Games guru, predicted that the role of political games would grow in future campaigns. “A lot of States in the 2008 race were very close,” he noted, “and could have been swung with issue-related games that provided ‘eye openers.’ Games will supplant direct mail in the future. They will probably be bought by big media firms that are starting to specialize in ‘social media’ such as texting, Twitter and Facebook.” There was also a discussion of using such games for newspapers. Chris Swain of USC said, “Newspapers are dying. Smart partnering of game companies with newspapers could really pay off.” Some types of Political Games (aka “Games for Social Change”) are produced as families—the UK government, for instance, sponsors a gamesite called DirectgovKids where kids from 5 to 11 can learn about government and public services.
Business games are finally emerging as a strong category. One example is ReFresh: An Introduction to marketing, which places students in the role of marketer at a beverage company, with the job of test marketing a new juice product. Players have to research the market, formulate product, set price, promote and advertise, and then react to how customers buy their product (or not). The game is produced by Muzzy Lane Software, which also produces Making History, a history game for high schools and colleges, Cell Saver, a biology learning game for Middle Schools, and American Dynasties, a 3D game for teaching social history.
Ed Heinbockel, founder and President of Purple Vision, a Serious Game company with great success in training games for the IC (the Intelligence Community, all those companies with 3 letters in the name), demonstrated Winning in Wireless, a business-oriented game to train middle managers, which he is marketing with BTS of Sweden. “Videogames are proving their effectiveness for organizations, and are replacing the old CBT (Computer Based Training) programs, which are dying a slow death,” he said. He also recommended that Serious Games be called “sims” for certain customers (who don’t like the term “games”), and that they be produced by a company’s design team and training experts, not just by the coders. “Our programmers build tools, not customized software,” he noted. “We’re good at building such tools so that real people can rapidly build and modify sims for our customers.” In a world where Serious Games are moving into the next phase—being created as products for large markets instead of as one-off applications for specific clients—that seems like very good advice, indeed.