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Can games be taken seriously?

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Now that influential game developers like Square Enix intend to develop "serious games," the genre appears to be poised for a major breakthrough. The Serious Games Summit track of this year's Game Developers Conference featured a series of lectures focused on the goal of developing interactive products for training and instructional purposes. But is the interest of Square Enix, Columbia University, and even DARPA enough to get games taken seriously?
The realization is beginning to dawn on industry experts, and even government agencies, that videogames could serve as a permanent fixture in such institutions as the military, health care, even public education. The idea of introducing "serious games" designed for such purposes as training soldiers and prepping surgeons was the focus of the Serious Games Summit track of this year's Game Developers Conference. A diverse selection of professionals from the fields of cognitive science, the military, and computer programming were assembled to discuss the progress made since the inception of the Serious Games Initiative and identify the main obstacles to the acceptance of these proposed gaming applications.

Richard Van Eck
In a lecture entitled "3 Up/ 3 Down," vocal proponents of serious games identified some signs of progress since the subject became a topic of discussion at last year's GDC. Richard Van Eck, an associate professor of the Instructional Design & Technology program at the University of North Dakota, conveyed the impression that the acceptance of serious game design is spreading like wildfire in academia. While it may remain anathema for most university professors looking for tenure to openly involve the mainstream media in their college courses , texts on serious games like A Theory of Fun Game Design and The Journal of Interactive Learning Research are now finding their way to college syllabi. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation even set aside $50 million over the next five years to support innovative uses of digital learning. The main impediment to videogame-based research? Professor Van Eck says, "Bad memes." Independent initiatives in developing serious games have not yet coalesced into a unified discipline--a social force capable of challenging the conservative notion that videogames are inherently lacking in educational content.

Jesse Schell
CEO of Schell games, Jesse Schell, has designed virtual reality applications for Disney and currently teaches at Carnegie Mellon University. He calls 2007 "The Year of the Wii." Nintendo has opened up interest in unusual and alternative game designs like Brain Age and Wii Sports. The addition of broadband penetration suggests that similar games with educational content and unconventional gameplay could be supplied to niche markets by without having to deal with the costly hurdle of retail distribution. The Long Tail phenomenon is taking effect in game marketing: a potential asset for serious games developers . His main qualm with the current status of videogames mirrors that of his colleagues. The gatekeepers suffer from "illuderacy," his tongue-in-cheek designation for pathological gaming illiteracy.

Doug Whatley
Doug Whatley, the founder and CEO of Civilization III's BreakAway Games, believes that serious games are finally getting some due attention. The designers are no longer just chasing windmills, but are being perceived as legitimate entrepreneurs by academia and the media. Still, serious game developers lack a viable business model. What they need at this point is a Larry Probst: someone who is not necessarily knowledgeable about games, but can compete as a CEO. They need someone who can demand more from billion dollar development houses and make serious games designers a force to be reckoned with in an increasingly competitive industry. In a nutshell, now that serious games are raising interest, the game developers of the experimental new genre need an economic infrastructure to support them.

Roger Smith
What then is the biggest market for serious games in the world? Roger Smith, who manages computer simulations for the military, says it is the United States Army. According to his Game Impact Theory, "Games are being adopted for defense, medicine, architecture, education, city planning, and government applications." The military could serve as an environment for bringing these various serious games applications together. Ambush! is one example of a PC game funded by DARPA, which is aimed at training army personnel in road-convoy operations, and has been deployed to Afghanistan for training purposes. Smith sees these simulators as the natural extension of the airplane spotter playing cards used during World War II to identify enemy aircraft by their silhouettes. Simulated military training, he says, does not just mean first-person shooters. Smith foresees MMOs being used to plan strategic actions as part of what the military terms the Command Post of the Future.

Warren Blyth and the TrackIR
One development that is likely to allow games to be taken more seriously for recreational and training purposes is the advent of more immersive technologies. On the expo floor of the Game Developers Conference, Warren Blyth demonstrated for us a new controller designed by NaturalPoint called TrackIR, which allows players of flight sims, racing games, and first person shooters to control the in-game camera with six-degrees of freedom. The human-computer interface allows the wearer to integrate new intuitive play mechanics like looking around, leaning sideways, or even nodding to teammates, using only natural head movements. Around seventy games have special support built-in for the controller, and it is affordable enough for the average consumer.

Columbia considers serious games in education
Programmers entering into the field of computer science now have another venue to consider in writing software. Corey, a computer science major at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute attending the summit, considers it possible that serious games can be informative, even educational. Citing the work being done by researchers Gus Andrews and Charles Kinzer at the Columbia University Teachers College, there is reason to believe that fun and seriousness need not be mutually exclusive terms. "This is really what I hope to see: an eventual merger of entertainment and serious games, so that they're not so much completely separate genres any more. If you could play serious games to enjoy them, and play entertainment games and learn a great deal, there'd be no need for such a harsh distinction between the two."

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