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Postcard from GDC 2005: Serious Games Summit: How Serious Games is Helping the Commercial Industry

Moderated by Sherpa Games founder and president Warren Currell, this question and answer session addressed the convergence of commercial and serious games and how they can further benefit each other.

The Monday afternoon session featured Sherpa Games founder and president Warren Currell moderating a panel of three: Dean Ku, the vice president of marketing for dance pad manufacturer RedOctane; Ubisoft Director of New Business Management James Regan; and Roger Arias, from Destineer Studios. The format was question and answer with Currell directing a series of three questions to his panel regarding Serious Games and the consumer market. With those questions expended, an audience Q&A session would begin. His first two questions were as follows:

Question One: Under what pretenses is the Serious Games sector providing inspiration, talent, or technology back to the commercial games industry?

Question Two: Can it ever become pervasive enough to forge stronger links between publishers and Serious Game projects or studios?

As the panel progressed, the panelists' responses tended to blur from one question to the next, forming more a set of themes rather than specific answers. To the first question, for instance, James Regan replied that UbiSoft was busy porting the America's Army game to consoles. Regan and Arias then explained in detail how consulting "subject matter experts" helps to add realism to a game. To the second question, they suggested that having good relations with the Army will result in the Army "speaking well of you" to others. Over the first two questions, Regan observed more than once that it can be "tough to have one game work as both a trainer and an entertainment device;" the solution he offered was to "tune" the game: to add features and extra game modes, to make it more of a satisfying commercial product. Even then, some games might be impossible sells. He described an air traffic control game that was so detailed and accurate that he couldn't fathom that anyone other than he or his father would be interested in it.



A pamphlet given
out at the session.

As counterpoint, Dean Ku spoke of his attempts to work with Washington-area schools on the use of videogames in the classroom. Citing a study that suggested a higher level of reading comprehension after fifteen minutes of exercise, Ku described a game that combined his company's dance mats with reading. In turn, Regan brought up a game that simulated the U.S. electoral process: you choose two candidates, and you run them through the system. As Regan described it, even if you knew nothing of how American politics worked before you played the game, you had a pretty good sense of them when it was over. He cited a number of schools interested in the program.

The final question, Currell presaged with an explanation of what he dubbed the "Pandemic Epidemic":

• Most Serious Games projects are boring to the average gamer.

Full Spectrum Warrior is a great example of games created for the Serious Games sector but also had commercial appeal.

• The military paid Pandemic to make Full Spectrum Warrior .

• Pandemic also published a commercial version through THQ.

• Excellent method to attract world-class talent to the project.

• Taxpayers were upset.

The issue at hand was a St. Petersburg Times article claiming that, in regard to Full Spectrum Warrior, Pandemic cut corners, making a game that was useless as a training tool so it would be more appealing to a commercial audience. The audience offered groans and objections; it seemed many attendees were familiar with the piece, and few agreed with it.

Question Three: Given this recent reaction to the Full Spectrum Warrior game, do you think that this will deter any future collaboration between Serious Games and commercial games?

Arias explained that, in the civilian sector, game developers "do stupid things" because they're trained to think about what makes a videogame fun, rather than what makes it accurate. He offered as an example a situation where a single ground troop explores foreign terrain, using the tools at hand - the angle of mountains, the position of the sun, GPS hardware - to determine his position; he uses special goggles to draw the distance from his position to a foreign object; he then can call for an air strike, using the coordinates he has calculated. The impulse of the commercial designer, he said, is to simplify a situation like this to make it more rewarding to play, not even thinking that his design instincts might pose a problem. The solution he offered is that Serious Game developers need better communication. It is their responsibility to consult an expert whenever a question arises.

After the presentation, one man from the audience explained that he had nothing to do with the videogame industry or the army; he was in health insurance, and had come to the conference in hopes of seeing a broader discussion of Serious Games, and their utilities. He explained that the panel did little to answer his questions. Someone explained to him that he should have been around earlier; there was a great talk about medical technology in the morning. "I guess I should have," he mumbled.

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