Anyone who’s ever learned something about city planning from SimCity. Anyone who’s had their views of war shaped by a military game. Anyone who’s made a screenshot comic or a machinima movie of their favorite game. Anyone who’s ever posted to a gaming forum.

Every gamer is a serious gamer and every game is a serious game.

That’s the impression that the developers, publishers, middleware coders and various other interested parties seemed to be conveying at the two-day Serious Games Summit in Arlington, VA. The message seemed to be that serious games (which generally have a larger educational or social goal) and entertainment games (which generally have the goal of selling as many copies as possible) often share the same underlying principles, and the cross-pollination between the two spheres is improving them both.

imageThis idea was hammered into attendees heads at the summits first keynote, where MIT professor and gaming advocate Henry Jenkins stressed the theme of “social convergence” in game design. Jenkins argued that the technology surrounding a game is not as important as the social structures that rise up around them – the fan communities in forums, chat rooms and web sites that help players feel connected to each other and the game. Increasingly, Jenkins said, today’s games are not about what’s in the box, but the outside-the-box experience players glean from these communities.

The engagement and group-learning these communities engender is what serious games are striving for and entertainment games are already largely achieving. A presentation later in the day on the “Serious Things Gamers Do” by Serious Games Initiative Co-Director Ben Sawyer showed off just how true this is. From Halo players playing with Warthog physics to school-children transcribing the Halo theme for an orchestra to a gamer turning Guitar Hero controllers into music sequencers, gamers are stretching past the game designer’s idea of what a game should be to squeeze their own idea of fun from these pre-packaged experiences. It was refreshing to see the summit treat this side of games as serious and important as the side that produces simulations of the travesties in Darfur.

Some serious games are already integrating this social gaming idea into their fabric, and in fact have been for years. In nine years, Whyville has grown into a community where almost two million mostly tween girls spend hours engrossed in subjects from rocket science to disease control in a Java-based, 2D world. There are no fancy graphics or complex artificial intelligences here. The secret to success, as Whyville creator James Bower told the audience at SGS, is the community-based structure, a sort of mySpace meets Second Life economy where players can buy and sell player-designed “face parts” for their avatars, as well as other items of virtual social status.

The personalization and control Whyville players have over their character creates a personal investment in the game that can’t be matched by games that let you choose from a limited set of character options. It also leads to some interesting social dynamics, such as when a mysterious “WhyPox” started giving characters avatar-blemishing acne on Valentine’s Day 2002. The community sprang into action — independent reporters at the Whyville Times did investigative reports, players modeled the spread of the disease scientifically, and a sub-economy economy of fake vaccine even developed. At no point were they told what to do to extract the “learning” out of this experience. They learned by doing, their engagement with the game the only thing driving them.

imageThe military also sees the potential in teaching soldiers by doing, and their involvement with games was a big part of SGS. Besides the well-known examples of America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior, there are now over 100 simulation programs being designed for military use according to Department of Defense analyst Brian Williams. These games are becoming more specialized, splitting off from games for people to play in their living rooms into highly detailed simulations suited for specific combat situations. While the clashes between the defense industry and the games industry are clear (one is used to having their orders followed, the other is used to questioning how things are done) the benefits of collaboration can be great. Simulations allow for soldiers to be trained at a fraction of the time and cost of real world training, and could open up more training options for underserved non-trigger-pullers like medical and tactical personnel.

Time and cost are also the main drivers behind first responder training games like Zero Hour. The developers at Public Health Games talked about their unenviable task of training 19,000 health workers to distribute antibiotics to millions of Chicagoans within 48 hours of an anthrax attack. The goal, of course, is getting as many people through in as little time as possible – there’s even a leaderboard of sorts where you can compare yourself to other workers. Using technology designed to run on lower-end computers, the game gives volunteers direct experience with problem patients through videos and multiple-choice response options, all without tying up human trainers.

Not everything in serious games is low-tech, though the high-end Unreal 3 Engine attracted lots of interest at the Summit. Epic Games VP Mark Rein showed off the engine to a packed house, emphasizing how the power allowed for huge, detailed worlds that could be created quickly. To prove it, Rein brought out designers from Virtual Heroes, a serious game simulation company that built a fully navigable Martian landscape using the Unreal Engine and real NASA elevation data in four days. The crowd was duly impressed by the barren landscape’s beautiful hills and vistas streaming straight off the disc.

There were many more interesting games and projects discussed at the conference – much more than one person could take in over two days. But the brief glimpse I got into this space showed me that it’s much more than a niche market of academic and government types trying to horn in on our fun. Serious games and entertainment games have a lot to learn from each other, and the fact that they are starting to do that can only be seen as beneficial for both sides.

– Kyle Orland


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