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The State of Serious Games

With the Serious Games Summit set to take place next week, SGS Chairman and 'serious gaming' advocate Ben Sawyer takes a survey of the serious games landscape, presenting his findings and thoughts in this address.

October 24, 2005

14 Min Read

With the second annual Serious Games Summit in Washington D.C. [coordinated by the CMP Game Group, as is Gamasutra.com] nearly here, it seems a good time to take stock of ‘the state of serious games.' Firstly, meetings like the D.C. Summit do provide a basic sense of where things are going. This year's summit will be bigger then last year's and in general, the sense of growth I've experienced both with larger summits and smaller events throughout the serious games space, encompassing games created for training, health, government, military, educational and other uses, has been of 20%-100% year-over-year since 2003.

For example, the Games for Health Project's second annual conference grew over 100% from the event held in 2004, and the press coverage also increased significantly. I expect a high rate of growth to continue for the next two years and before settling down to a more moderate rate that is still outpaces the mainstream game industry's overall growth, resulting in a larger share of the overall game pie. Given that Gizmondo has lost more money in its current operating year then the entire serious games space has made over, say, the last four or five, basically, we don't have anywhere to go but up.

Incident Commander, which teaches NIMS compliant incident management for multiple scenarios, including terrorist attacks, school shootings, and natural disasters.

Moreover, the diversity of content is growing and the quality of organizations, developers, and companies participating is also ratcheting up. This year will we see sessions at major ‘serious games' conferences involving Cisco Systems, the Fire Department of New York, the United Nations, Microsoft, PBS, Sony, Computer Sciences, and the National Academies. Even though we had some great organizations like the U.S. Army and the Department of Education at major conferences last year, this marks a significant increase, and, based on private calls and items I know are pending, the number of top-tier organizations and Fortune 1000 companies jumping into serious games is going to grow even more.

So, the buzz is growing as the summit and other indicators show, but we still have a way to go before we're at what I would consider the tipping point, which for me is sustained trackable gross revenues for the space of over $150 million. I use that as a barometer, because that would be equivalent, at the developer level, of funds derived from $1 billion retail sales of conventional video games. Right now, I feel confident we're somewhere around the $30M-$50M level in sustained revenues. In the serious games space, revenues are money directly spent building a product or sales of a packaged product or services directly from serious games creators.

Beyond the Summit

While the D.C. Summit and Games for Health provide a visual face to the growth and energy, and a format for moving things forward, the state of the space is made up of much more then this. As I look beyond the summit, the key gauge I rely on is data we're beginning to collect, activity on the various serious games listservers, and the many emails and conversations I have on a daily basis.

Most of this does fall under the anecdotal banner. However, in such an emergent market, such anecdotal information is useful. If I can even collect the names of the 20 most recently funded projects, I can raise my confidence level on predictions for overall revenues. Just in the last week I've seen about $300,000 in new projects get put together. That may not seem like much but it's a $15 million per year run rate.

So what are the tea leaves telling me? I've broken it down into the following critical items:

The State of Branding and Sector Definition

Much of what we can now make of the serious games sector does have to do with the branded aspect the moniker that ‘serious games' creates. It may not be perfect in all its glory, but it does the job. Serious games is now a branded aspect of the overall games space but it still means many different things to different people, and narrow views or opinions can sometimes poorly define the big picture. Towards these ends we're working on the Initiative and with others to help improve the talking points and examples that provide the broadest landscape of possible projects.

The Key Growth Factors

We are still primarily fueled by the triumvirate of gaming's ascendancy as a media form, positive press coverage, and a willingness to experiment on the part of various individuals and organizations. The space is not driven by lots of proven results and sustainable business models. It is important we keep our eye on what is driving the market, because it informs us that we need to keep things close to commercial gaming (not to define ourselves apart from it), and continue to generate more positive press. We need to nurture the risk takers who are making this possible, so they and others willing to take risks continue to do so until other findings can take over and become new contributors to growth.

Generational Gains and Existing Projects

The serious games space is still experiencing growth from existing projects. This means that we are able to add to the body of work and generally advocate what seems like "new" projects by putting the spotlight on existing projects that come to make themselves known. Overall, this adds to the sense that, in some ways, the entire serious games space is still very supply-side driven in terms of visible activity. I'm beginning to see more customer-side activity, and we are truly starting to see the benefits of more seasoned projects, developers, and funding activity. There is no doubt in my mind that more projects are coming online, and regardless of the overall state of universal justification for serious games it is critical we get to keep building software. It's one thing to say people want to measure outcomes, it's entirely different for people to wait until we've had the chance to build three or four generations of things and proclaim we're giving it our best shot. Right now, the current developers are showcasing the end of generation one of various projects, and the beginning of generation two. Of all the projects shown in the previous Serious Games Summits, only a couple are back for new looks - the rest are virgin efforts or severely revamped versions of previous projects. This reminds me of the progress I've seen in the past at successive GDC and E3 shows, and I'm glad it's proving itself in the Serious Games space as well.

What I'm seeing for next-generation projects are much more robust efforts at not only improving on the audio-visual fidelity of games, so they're more approximate to their commercial cousins, but also much more work being done to mature in areas like integration with learning systems and other simulation systems. If you can't integrate your game with other important technologies, then it will only get so far. I'm also seeing more work done to create games that are themselves serious game systems. The Army Game Project will further detail their effort to go from one-off game to a serious games platform, but efforts at BreakAway Games and other developers I've spoken with indicate the shift from hard-coded custom delivery to something more robust and platform-like is taking hold. The success of this will be an important point to watch for.

International Growth Booming

In 2005, international growth really seemed to take hold. At GDC this year, we held the first Serious Games Japan session, where Toru Fujimoto presented an overview of the state of serious games in Japan . Given his overview and where things stand, I expect we will see more activity coming out of Japan in the next couple of years. Already, Nintendo's experimentation with its educational DS Brain Trainer has provided some very interesting results, as highlighted in Satoru Iwata's speech at Tokyo Game Show. Japan has always had a wider spectrum of content for its console sector then in the U.S.

Games like Nintendo's educational DS Brain Trainer contributed to the international growth of serious games.

In Europe and Canada, specific regional efforts are reaching maturity. Several events were held in London during 2005, including a Ministry of Defense meeting attended by over 100 participants and a Serious Games Showcase on the eve of Game Developers Conference Europe that drew over 100. The Edinburough Games Festival also featured some sessions devoted to serious games and related efforts like machinima. In Sweden, on the eve of the Serious Games Summit D.C., there will be a NATO meeting on exploiting game technologies, earlier this year in Finland there was a Nordic Serious Games meeting, and in Lyon, France, this December, the first official Serious Games Summit Europe event is being hosted alongside the Game Connection event.

The activity in Europe is itself fueled by more direct grants through various government educational agencies, although some local media agencies and economic development agencies are also taking part. As more action takes place in Asia, I would expect similar direct government efforts as well. Over time, these efforts may rival what we're experiencing in the U.S., although the sheer size of our market and government spending (while more indirect) may allow it to keep pace.

Research Gap Exists but Isn't Hurting Things Yet

We still are dealing with a huge research gap in serious games, but so far it hasn't hurt things because people are still getting new projects online. At some point, however, the justification and design issues related to determining the return on investment and outcomes from game-based approaches may become too hard to overcome without more and better research. There is, at this time, not nearly the same fervor for research as there is with building, and it will continue to be this way for a while. We can only hope to pick up some important pieces with the amount of research that is taking place.

It is also important to note here, though, that there is a problem within the research community where some people expect us to find a so-called silver bullet - a piece of research that spans many major questions about games. We will never be so lucky. Instead, we must eat at the edges more, and be more specific to the traits successful projects share, versus finding the secret formula to Coke. Not so ironically, there are those who think that once we find out such features, they will drive the ease of creating slews of successful serious games - that eventually we can boil down game design to series of recipes you find in The Joy of Cooking. This sort of mistaken thinking is more common then you might imagine, but like the lack of research, it isn't necessarily hurting things yet - but it does lead to some people making some fairly bold statements.

Thankfully, through efforts at DiGRA, FAS, Education Arcade, Future Play, and key institutions we are seeing research that is meaningful, More importantly, the systems through which the collective community can address research needs is getting better. Some of this research is showing up at GDC and now at the Summit. Over time, we will need to see more of it appearing, or this could become a dangerous house of cards. If major national groups like NSF and their equivalents in other countries can come through, things could move much more forcefully then they appear now.

The Development Community is Struggling

A key factor in the current state of the serious games space is the struggles within the greater game development community. Many serious game developers are either only doing such work, or are doing some commercial work and serious games work as a mix. Most of the professional developers working (or looking to work) in the serious games space are coming from the PC gaming market. A handful of known serious game developers are doing or have done console work. Given the state of the PC market, we're often not talking about the world's most secure developers. This business sees a lot of ups and downs. While serious games can help mitigate cashflow, it also can become a victim of the fact that developers can't find healthy living in other sectors. And as more developers move into the space, it requires them to learn different skills and operating procedures.

The size and scope of many serious game projects don't lend itself entirely to larger size studios, or fat profits. This means we have a sector living much more hand-to-mouth then it may appear to the outside world. All of this lies against the backdrop of the struggles that pervade the entire games industry, where there are long hours, fast moving technologies, constant change, and finicky customers and retailers. To some extent, this creates the picture of a small, rickety ship in stormy seas - and that may be accurate. But don't forget - such ships can still mount major voyages of exploration and wonder.

Next-gen Systems and Tech Ready to Provide Major Effect

I've always maintained that a critical reason for the growth in serious games has been the continued progression of commercial games and game technologies. When we were just stick figures a few years ago, serious games just wasn't as big a part of anyone's equation. With new mobile systems debuting and next-generation consoles about to set foot, we should see some major effects. While I believe part of that effect will be a positive recognition regarding the power games have to render useful environments and scenarios, I also think that the leap in technology power, and subsequently the capabilities of top-end (or even medium-end) games will be quite significant, and that the gap in what is possible with many serious game budgets and efforts will widen.

The question right now is whether serious games (or at least some of them) will be able to keep pace. If we can't, at least in theory (i.e. budget and developer capability notwithstanding), then it could create a sense that serious games are antiquated. On the other hand, if next-generation technology (i.e. better graphics, interfaces, etc. not platforms) is seen as aiding at times and accessible to a point, just as things stand today, then it will be hugely beneficial and serious games will continue to benefit from the gains made in commercial gaming.


What I think is true most of all is that we are moving forward. In the last few years, it is clear that there is a positive direction for gaming overall and serious gaming specifically. Given how close I am to the serious games space, I tend to think more of the roadblocks and challenges. But progress will increasingly stem from overcoming these issues, not just from the initial good circumstances that existed at the start

The fact remains, though - games as a medium are changing, and need to change if the overall game world is going to remain healthy. We need to broaden gaming and create not just new games and gameplay, but new reasons to game. Serious games can play a major role in that, but this is not a problem specific just to serious games. Thankfully, I see an industry that wants to work on this preeminent problem, because it is the common link that sums up the state of what we experience as game creators.


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