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Serious games: the revenge

Nevermind is a psychological horror game that is not meant for all hands. In fact, it is aimed at already traumatized people, like victims of terrorist attacks or Iraq war veterans. With the help of heart rate sensors, patients explore their emotions and learn to manage them better. Like any game, Nevermind has a purpose: to identify the origin of trauma, to then move toward healing and recovery. It is a serious game. Do not worry, they are not all that somber. But brace yourself, real world – they are coming in full force.

March 2013
lire en français
lire en français
Executive Resume

Of course, compared to the $ 70 billion of recreational video game market, the 2.35 billion spent annually on serious games may seem trivial, even if the growth rate of the sector is in the vicinity of 30%. However their social and cultural impact is anything but negligible. In areas such as health, safety, education or management, they are becoming ever more important.

The United States is the leading global player in terms of the number of games developed, but many countries in Western Europe are on track, starting with France. With such an evolving market and the enthusiasm of the press and of specialized blogs, let us take a closer look at this growing industry and what we can expect from it.

Firstly, what is a serious game? It is a learning software, that uses multimedia resources: image, sound, and video. Under the guise of a game, it actually provides a simulation of a complex issue, with serious stakes: saving a life, managing a project or a team. A serious game can have various objectives: to inform, to communicate, to educate, to train. In order to reach these objectives, it capitalizes on our playful side. The quality of the simulation is essential because it allows players to immerse themselves in the world that is created. This allows the player to learn, more easily and perhaps more effectively than he or she would have by reading or attending a conference.

Gaming Culture 

Learning while having fun? The idea is not new: as early as the nineteenth century, educationalists had developed innovative approaches in this area. The idea of using video games for non-recreational uses is itself as old as video games, but it’s taken time for them to translate in a convincing way. The time it took, in fact, for gamer culture to mature, after taking shape in the realms of entertainment and leisure.

The first leisure video games were put on the market in 1971, and four decades later, a veritable culture has developed, with its codes, its references, its insiders and outsiders. In total, there are more than 500 million gamers in the world, children or adults, who together spend a total of three billion hours a week in front of a video game.

Until the early 1980s, there were high hopes for educational applications that could derive from the information and communication technology. It is in this state of mind that MarkStrat was created, a game developed between 1974 and 1977 by Jean-Claude Larréché and professor Hubert Gatignon, in which players run a virtual company. First used at INSEAD, a French business school, the game has been further perfected over the years (notably with the inclusion of a multiplayer mode) and its latest version is present in most business schools in the world.

However one swallow does not a summer make, and generally the first experiments turned out to be disappointing. In the late 1980s, the explosive boom of leisure video games literally left educational productions behind: “educational CD-ROMs” and other historical games were just no match for an industry fueled by enormous investments. Technically outdated, boring, condemned never to leave to the PC screen at a time Gameboys and other Wiis were multiplying, they only appeared as pale copies.

It’s taken the industry ten years easily to emerge from its slump. And it has achieved that through some sort of perspective shift. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, such games were designed in the service of culture or of learning. The point was somehow to turn them into vehicles that would bring culture or knowledge, otherwise not readily available, to children or students. The idea was to embark players in a fun journey towards serious things. The game was but a tool, a transitional stage, whose very stake was its own negation.

Everything changed in the early years of the twenty-first century, when it was found that for an increasing proportion of the population, gamer culture came first no matter what and that it was therefore illusory to use it as a springboard towards other reference universes: instead, those universes did have to comply with the new rules of the game. It was at this point that serious games truly started flourishing.

There was one particular moment that crystallized this switch. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. military started recruiting for Afghanistan. How to reach its public? Commercials were shot with heroic images exalting an intense lifestyle and the spirit of camaraderie, modeled on “You'll be a Man, my son!” values. But the memory of Vietnam was heavy and young Americans were not easily seduced anymore. Young twenty-year old men had changed: did kids raised with Gameboys really want to become men? It is in this context that Michael Zyda, professor of computer science at the University of Southern California, co-developed America's Army: Operations, a promotional game for the U.S. Army, which is both a recruitment and public relations tool.

Available for free on the Internet, this application, based on the Unreal Tournament (UT) video game engine, offers simulations of military training exercises and combat missions. The player, in the shoes of a soldier, must follow the rules of engagement of a military operation (whose purpose, it should be noted, is not about shooting everything that moves). The best players receive an official letter offering to join the U.S. military. The operation cannot be reduced to mimicking the language of the youth to convince them. It also leads the institution to portray itself differently and to redefine itself via the model of a giant video game: a world of rules, organized into levels and stages, driven by awards, the main one being completing the game with honors.

Some concerns were voiced at the time over manipulation, as well as the kind of relationship with reality that could be expected by twenty-year old kids raised with video games and equipped with assault rifles. But the main question lies elsewhere: what is interesting is rather that an institution – and some institution! – addresses its public by choosing to see the gamers within it, and that to some extent it agrees to let itself be redefined according to the worldview of these gamers.

This reversal does not only affect the way institutions engage their audiences, through marketing or communications operations. It also has an impact within organizations themselves, to the extent that some observers now suggest the world is undergoing a true “gamification” process.

Debates on learning

This shift in perspective raises other questions, especially regarding games with educational purposes. Isn’t the challenge of learning to transform the learner? Must methods adapt to what he already knows, or should they instead seek to disrupt his habits to take him to other reference universes?

The pedagogical relevance of video games is being debated, and we are by no means suggesting that games can pave the way to all learning processes. Yet a game has real benefits, especially when viewed from the perspective of constructivist theories, which argue that knowledge is acquired through the interactions between a learner and his environment. A learning experience therefore assumes the creation of a credible context, which reflects consistent situations. Video games can precisely create very realistic narratives, in which the player will be able to develop strategies and procedures to solve problems. The benefit is twofold: not only are narratives a great way to integrate knowledge as a coherent system, but when it is anchored into realistic situations, learning also promotes involvement.

Even though exact replication of reality is impossible, video games are now able to render a good imitation of it. Providing a great way to have a “hands-on” learning experience, they fit well in a constructivist perspective of learning: narration, realism... and emotion, adds the American researcher K.D. Squire, who sees in the latter element an essential criterion in that it facilitates identification and decision making.

The educational relevance of digital games is also based on the principle of flow, developed by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990. It denotes the state “in which people are immersed when absorbed in an activity that seems to be the only one that matters, totally ignoring their environment, while enjoying the task at hand, and experiencing pleasure.”

Such extreme concentration – a teacher or manager’s dream! – is achieved thanks to the quality of the simulation, but also thanks to narrative rhythm, which is of crucial importance: in order for the player to be caught in the game, it is necessary for its pace to vary or to be able to vary, ranging from a certain slowness associated with discovery, to an increasing speed, associated with progressive mastery. “Levels” can also revive interest, while setting the tempo of learning through successive achievements.

Gradual mastery gained by the player is the focal point of simulation games that allow to progressively take control of one’s place in a given universe. This idea of control is central to another type of games: management games, designed to administer a particular activity. This factor, barely present in games like America's Army which serve advocacy objectives, is very much used in the development of newer serious games which are used in workforce training.

Lastly, the relevance and effectiveness of games when it comes to learning is the interactions they allow between different players. Those are not limited to competition. In this regard, researcher Sonia Mandin notes the specific interest of multi-player games that simulate a real environment – for example for learning a second language. Building knowledge through social interaction, questioning the meaning of words, or becoming aware of the importance of language in a given situation... all make the experience at once challenging and effective.

Whatever the game mechanics, says Olivier Mauco, a consultant who holds a PhD in political science and blogs on (Game in Society, in French), each product questions the place of the subject-player. Inside the game, your place is constantly challenged. But the very fact you are playing allows you to escape your social status (rank, age, sex) and to unlock your learning abilities.

Seriously, folks…

It would be then be a mistake not to take games seriously. When someone is playing, he does his best, throws himself into the game, and follows rules: his playful practice, to some extent, is serious! Anthropologist Brian Sutton Smith thus describes the ambiguity of play activities, where rhetorics related to progress, identity, power, and personal experience… play out.

Damien Djaouti and Julian Alvarez have identified three dimensions defining “serious” gaming. The first one is persuasive, and seeks to highlight a message via graphics or audio. The second one is informative and gives the learner an opportunity to interact with the message. The third level is demonstrative/educative, and is the one which best characterizes serious games: it aims to convey a message or to train the learner. The videogame’s scenario then becomes one with the pedagogical scenario. When they are intended to provide training, serious games offer to play a role in a simulated system.

The term “serious game” ultimately invites us to reconsider the very definition of games. Refusing to define set boundaries, Gilles Brougère defines it by a series of criteria: “second degree” (“not for real” stuff); decision to play (and to continue to play), uncertainty regarding the end; frivolity; minimization of consequences...

“Consequences” are precisely what might characterize the functions assigned to serious games. Serious games are entirely designed around an objective. Utilitarian components (with training or communication purposes) and video gaming components are nested inside one another from the outset. This implies that all stakeholders behind the production of serious games must work together, from sponsor to publisher, developer, sociologist, educationalist, physician, military consultant, communication agency...

Market and scope

“In theory, serious games are open to all existing market segments, with the exception of entertainment”, according to the French agency Observatoire des Territoires Numériques (observatory of digital domains), which suggests the potential magnitude of the market.

Thus, in 2010, IDATE/the DigiWorld Institute observed that new target areas had been reached, with more releases in the health segment, for example. A logical evolution, according to Albert-Claude Benhamou, CEO of the Francophone Digital University of Sport and Health Sciences, who reflects on the French case: “Video gaming teaches the art of decision-making, which is sorely needed in our hospitals today. It is going to become the most fundamental educational tool.”

The main sponsors for serious games are governments. In the United States, although private foundations (HopeLab...) are launching serious games projects, they are primarily produced at the request of the Department of Defense, which is spending large sums (about ten million dollars per year).

Companies, however, are on track. In France (the second largest serious games producer in the world in 2010), more than half of CAC 40-Euronext companies have already sponsored serious games at this point. Elsewhere, it’s multinational companies such as Cisco, IBM, or Shell. Within these firms, the keenest interest comes from human resource departments. In HR, serious gaming has proven its worth on many fronts: development of complex plans, skill-building, development of the capacity to work collaboratively and to share resources... all with a sense of being challenged, not judged.

The economic model of serious games is marked by the prominence of sponsors. Entertainment video games belong to another model, in which the publisher funds the project, hoping to make a profit through sales. Conversely, it is not the developer/publisher who take the risk of financing a serious game, but the sponsor, who owns the game and is responsible for its dissemination.

The market for serious games is therefore not based on supply and demand but on specific requests made with providers capable of designing a serious game destined to be used by a single sponsor. Given the average cost of production (from 50,000 to several million euros, like the medical simulator “Pulse”, which cost nearly $ 10 million to the U.S. Congress (see video), one of the central developments in the coming years will be to find a model that will at once allow lower production costs and the ability to adapt content to diverse customer expectations. In other words, basic modules will be pooled between several sponsors, with customizable parts. Thus Olivier Mauco envisions “generic serious game production, off the shelf, based on the modularity of content, with marginal costs.” This could help the content of serious games overcome the imperatives dictated by sponsors and thus to liberate the gaming component.

With an aim to move away from the dominant model of procurement contracting, the United States is now promoting competition: the U.S. Army holds the Serious Games Showcase Challenge and in 2007 Microsoft launched the Games for Change program. For its part, the MIT houses a think tank on serious games called The Education Arcade. This cooperation between government, industry and academia is manifestly spurring the rise of the market for serious games in the United States. This strategy is also practiced in the United Kingdom, Japan and France. If one looks closely, it is undeniable that such synergy perfectly matches the product itself, which is in fact a result of the collaboration of very diverse stakeholders.

Meanwhile, prospects are opening up on the European front. Established in 2010, the Games And Learning Alliance (GALA) is a European network of excellence that brings together researchers and industries from all over Europe. Its purpose is to structure the scientific community through the construction of a European virtual research center, but also to support the integration of serious games into existing training courses and curricula, and to create a dynamic transfer of technology and knowledge through continuous dialogue between research and businesses. And, the American model definitely being an inspiration, the first edition of the European Serious Games Awards was held in October 2012.