Console games are getting more serious
By Jinny Gudmundsen
Gannett News Service
By Jinny Gudmundsen
Traditional console games have been hogging the spotlight for years, especially with events like the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, allowing vendors to hawk their wares in Hollywood. But there's a movement afoot that's quietly trying to do something more substantial. It's trying to merge the video game and the educational software markets.
Known as the Serious Games Movement, this genre is "about taking resources of the (video) games industry and applying them outside of entertainment," says Ben Sawyer, co-founder of Digitalmill Inc., and one of the organizers of the Serious Games Summit. This means creating games that play roles in areas such as education, health, public policy, science, government and corporate training, he says.
The Serious Games Movement got a start in 2002 when the Army released the video game "America's Army" as a free online download (www.americ asarmy.com). That game "was the first successful and well-executed serious game that gained total public awareness" says Sawyer. More than 5 million people have become registered users. By exploring the video game, you experience what it is like to be in the Army.
As academics began to recognize the potential scope of video game technology, conferences sprang up. In 2003, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars held a "Serious Games Day."
In 2004, the first Serious Games Summit was held at the Game Developers Conference. That same year, MIT Comparative Media Studies helped to sponsor the first Education Arcade: Games in Education Conference in Los Angeles two days before the E3, the video gaming industry's yearly conference.
In October, the Federation of American Scientists held its own Summit on Educational Games in Washington. Shortly thereafter, again in the nation's capital, a second annual Serious Games Summit was held. Most recently, on March 20 and 21, another Serious Games Summit was held as part of the Games Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif.
As the Serious Games Movement has gained credibility, funding is starting to become available. Foundations, government agencies, nonprofits and venture capitalists have provided money for development of serious games. Even universities are supporting development by permitting students to produce serious games for academic credit.
In 2003, the Liemandt Foundation became an incubator for serious games by starting the Hidden Agenda Contest. As part of the contest, college students compete for $25,000 by creating educational games for middle schoolers.
Lauren Davis, the Liemandt's program director, requires that the games contain a "stealth education" component. "The hardest part of my contest is not building a game in six months — granted, that is challenging — but it really is coming up with that great concept that has the education baked into the game play," she says.
The contest ran for two years but took a break last year so the foundation could fund further development of two of the games produced. Polished versions of the winning games will be available for free by this summer at www.hiddenagenda.com, the Web site for the contest, which will resume this fall.