Serious Games Summit Report

A Cordelia report, 01.12.04

1. Introduction

Serious games are coming of age. As the price of technology drops and computing power increases serious games move from the mainframe and into the office and home.

The draw of serious games is a simple one – use the addictive and entertaining power of games to inform, educate and train. Of particular interest are safe 3D environments that would be near impossible or prohibitively expensive to expose people to, e.g. hazardous environments, the surface of the moon, or letting novices free on expensive equipment.

To discuss the possibilities the first Serious Games Summit was held in Washington D.C. on the 18th and 19th October 2004 receiving over 500 attendees with seminars covering games for schools, the emergency services, the military and society.

2. Market Overview

The potential for serious games is obvious, but their full value is unknown; IDC predicts that roughly 40% of the US corporate e-learning market will be using simulations by 2008, placing that market’s value at £6bn by 2007.1

Projects such as EnterTech’s welfare to work simulation have already begun to affect the corporate training market. EnterTech created a three week (45 hour) training simulation that taught basic job skills, with 67% of trainees who used the software finding employment or enrolling in continuing education.

There is another unknown market in products for schools, healthcare, defence and the emergency services, which could be even bigger, but which is still new. Breakaway games, who work with the US government, asses the US Defence Department’s modelling and simulation budget at $8b in 2002, and expect it to grow at 14% annual.2

3. Summit Overview

The Summit had up to four sessions running simultaneously covering the full range of serious games. Projects discussed included military simulations that have become successful recruitment devices and home hits, e.g. America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior; medical training programmes that train children to handle diabetes, e.g. the Glucoboy3; and simulations that allow fire fighters to train in hazardous environments that would be extremely difficult and expensive to create in the real world, e.g. Hazmat4.

Not all games discussed were training simulations; others were focused on political activism e.g. Take back Illinois by Persuasive Games5. Educators were also there with discussions focusing on the best way to bring the power of games into schools, including options such as the historical recreation of the American Revolution built by The Education Arcade6 using the Neverwinter Nights engine, and suggestions on how to merge traditional teaching methods with games that are already being used in the classroom, such as Sim City. The practicalities of creating serious games were also tackled, covering modding7, working with partners and coalitions and the role of open source software.

This report will outline some of the projects discussed at the Summit and will attempt an introduction to serious games through offering examples.

4. Sample Projects

4.1 Education – finding the fun and learning sweet spot?

Games are addictive and educators have long hoped to combine addiction with teaching. The potential for education through simulation is being used in corporate and vocational training; however, getting the power of games into the classroom requires meshing very different teaching techniques. Games are not a one size fits all teaching device: instead they complement current methods, giving children the chance to explore their environment with the added advantage of soft failure provided by being able to save and reload.

The technical capabilities of computers have made new education projects possible and so the potential for games in education is growing rapidly. The Tactical Language project of USC Information Sciences Institute8 was created to teach US soldiers to communicate in Arabic, including body language. Players navigate around a 3D environment meeting non-player characters (NPC) and speaking to them through a microphone, their Arabic is assessed and the reaction of the NPC is determined by the player’s language skills and characters’ body language. There is no reason why it couldn’t be modified to cover French, German or any foreign language.

Software is not the only changing force in education. Hardware is also becoming cheap and widely accessible. Of particular interest are the next generation of portable consoles, such as Sony’s Playstation Portable and the Nintendo DS. Both will have wireless capabilities allowing multiplayer and instant messaging. Gamers will be plugged in, able to share experiences and work as groups and with retail prices expected to be around £100 to £150 they could cost much less than creating a dedicated computer room.

The Summit discussions acknowledged that there are also challenges for games in education. Teachers are often unfamiliar with games, leaving them at a disadvantage when teaching the games literate. Teachers and parents may require convincing that games are not just frivolous, and curricula often require learning to be evidenced with facts, whilst games are better at providing experiences and training behaviour. A lack of familiarity with games makes them seem pointless or alien, and to overcome this there is no reason why games cannot teach teachers, bringing them into the gamer fold, e.g. a school trip simulation to help teachers practice herding children. The problems cannot be ignored, but the potential of using games in education could be considerable9.

4.2 Military – cheaper than giving new recruits tanks

The most dominant player with the serious games market is currently the US military. The initial budget for America’s Army recruitment and training simulation was $7m, more than the budget for most commercial video games. The ability to put military trainees into simulated environments that would be too dangerous or expensive to create in the real world is a powerful draw and today’s rich media skills allows detailed virtual worlds to be created.

The most successful example is America’s Army, a recruitment and training simulation created by the US military. As of November 2004 it has 4,280,670 registered players, of which 2,514,793 have completed the game’s basic training, with November adding 92,583 new players. Downloads of America’s Army are free. America’s army is an effective recruitment ad, with links to signing up in reality on the game’s home page. Development hasn’t stopped for the game though and additional content is being brought out to include vehicles, military robots and new weapons. The game not only promotes technical skills but also philosophical ones, as it has strict rules regarding the unacceptability of civilian casualties, training the player in the ideal mindset of the modern US soldier.

Cheaper, but similar, tools exist for the emergency services. Hazmat: Hotzone uses the Unreal 2 engine, a free first person game engine for academic and non-profit uses. Hazmat was created by Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Centre working with the Fire Department of New York. It was designed to train fire crews in handling emergencies involving hazardous materials and it supplements existing lectures and real life training by giving the fire crews practice at recognising situations and symptoms in simulated environments. An instructor controls the simulation, whilst the crew navigate around the 3D world using headphones to talk to one another. This kind of training is an ideal use of serious games, it works with existing teaching to provide training that might be too difficult or expensive to simulate in the real world.

4.3 Health – better simulations for real health

Serious games have obvious applications in healthcare. Surgery simulations allow doctors to identify complications before encountering them in real life as well as providing vital practice for keyhole surgery techniques. However, serious games have another role, that of educating and helping patients as well, with serious games providing motivations and encouragement to patients. Games can help train patients in dealing with medical conditions, either through positive affirmation or outright simulation.

The Glucoboy slots into the Gameboy Advance, acting as a glucose meter and motivational tool. The meter works independently if necessary but its strength is that in return for maintaining good blood-sugar levels the Glucoboy downloads games to the Gameboy Advance, rewarding the patient for their hard work. The Glucoboy is perhaps the first desirable medical device for children and it combines motivation with the cool factor that games can deliver.

Simulations have also been used to help treat phobics and burn victims. For burn victims games can provide distraction from extensive injuries. Phobics have their own simulations, and the Human Interface Technology Lab has created a detailed simulation of spiders to help condition patients out of their phobias10. By carefully and safely exposing phobics to their fears they can learn to overcome them, and this is far safer with 3D simulations than actual tarantulas.

5. Summary

Flight simulators have been successful for years, and today’s military is embracing the power of simulations to train soldiers, whilst doctors train on Gamecubes and the Unreal game engine is being used to help treat phobics11. Ever more powerful processors allow for increasingly accurate simulations, giving players the chance to experiment and learn, and even old games such as Alter Ego12 can offer the chance to try different lives and see the consequences. There are real benefits being offered by simulation and serious games are becoming a serious business.

1 The Financial Times, How playing power drives lessons home, page 12, 8th September 2004. See also Serious Games
2, originally from the Baltimore Journal.
7 Modding is the process of modifying existing games including changing graphics, levels, in game models and setting.

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