Serious Games

“We don’t do that type of thing” was the response I got when looking to partner my small startup studio with a larger game studio for a serious game project six years ago. We wanted to create a simulator to present, in an interesting way, the policy decisions an EPA official would have to make to protect both the economic development of a region and its natural resources. It sounded cool to me, but it was alien to many developers I talked to. In their minds, serious games were nothing more than distractions if not outright evil attempts by the government to twist games to their own wicked ends.

There was no doubt dealing with the government was very restricting. There were rules, regulations, procedures and accounting (shudder). Many developers didn’t want to deal with annoyances like running a business or project management, much less fill out multiple-page grant documents. There were exceptions, but most developers were only serious about fun.

Isn’t a “Serious Game” an Oxymoron?
No, but they are very popular with the military intelligence community. In fact, some of the best known serious games came from military applications, and the genre owes a lot of its success to government contracting. Marine Doom, a Doom mod designed to teach teamwork, coordination and decision-making to U.S. Marines, helped catapult the serious games genre into notoriety. Doom‘s popularity – and its questionable content – helped generate the initial buzz about this emerging market.

The term “serious game” really caught on when the incredibly controversial America’s Army was released. Not only were our precious games being used by the government to recruit children, but they were giving it away for free! This would anger both developers and publishers as well as many in the American public. It didn’t stop the Army, but it did give the spotlight to the growing serious games market.

The limelight given to controversial games with flashy graphics outshone the long tradition of military gaming. Some of the earliest examples we have of games in history have martial traditions. Serious games just happened to be a sexier turn of phrase. I know it’s hard to imagine something taking off in America just because of its sex appeal, but it’s true.

All this hoopla overshadowed the existing $20 billion modeling, training and simulation market already in existence. Companies like Northrop Grumman and Boeing had been building applications that used interactive elements and computer graphics for decades. Usually attached to multi-million dollar sets of computers, the graphics were lacking, but the number crunching was spot on. There’s a huge debate over whether a simulation is a game or something else, but as long as Microsoft Flight Simulator is considered fun (more power to you; enjoy), I’d say the distinction is moot. When you use an interactive interface as the primary delivery medium for an application, you’re stepping into game territory.

But that’s just the military. The term “serious game” has moved far beyond this limited shell and now encompasses a huge variety of activities. Today, a serious game is simply a game with a primary purpose other than entertainment.

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But Seriously, Who Would Make These Games?
Large defense contractors aside, some game companies have been involved in serious games for decades. BreakAway is a notable example of a game company with strong roots in government contracts. With multi-million dollar deals in the serious games side that dwarf their traditional game budgets, it’s not hard to see why it’s an important part of their company.

It is easy to find issue with some practices in the videogame industry, and a company with a focus in serious games can address many of these complaints with ease. Want your work to be meaningful to the world? Why not help train people to better save lives and treat diseases. Companies like Virtual Heroes are using this angle, combined with a focus on quality of life issues, to attract some top videogame industry talent to the Serious Side.

Today, some of the most popular games on the market can be considered “serious games.” With a focus on training your mind, Brain Age has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that a game can have goals other than entertainment and still be a commercial success.

Once upon a time, game companies paid to use recognizable trademarks in their games. Now, advertisers’ monetary contributions are an important part of many game budgets. There’s nothing subtle about some of the more recent forays of advertising into games. Games are being used as a powerful medium for communicating brand images and political ideas to the world.

Corporations are even getting in on the action. We are a demographic that, if in front of the TV, is more likely to be playing a game than watching a show, and the aging corporate hierarchy has finally realized this. After a decade of trying to reach out to the best and brightest college grads and losing over and over again to younger, sexier companies, they have finally realized that ours is a generation weaned on games. Corporate recruitment is now becoming the focus of these behemoths as they struggle to find the talent they need to grow and beat the competition, and they are turning to games to do it.

While serious games may have begun life as mods to existing game engines, they have grown to become incredible areas of collaboration with academia and playgrounds for experimental game design. The tables have turned. As we struggle in our sequel-driven, licensed-based market, if we want to continue to be serious about fun, we should all take a hard look at what serious games are doing today.

After years of serving as a liaison between giant squids and their hated bio-luminescent jellyfish neighbors, Chris Oltyan emerged from the watery depths to work at 1st Playable Productions, where he is currently the Production Coordinator.

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