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SGS: Inside The Army Game

In our continuing coverage of this week's Serious Games Summit D.C., we look at the Department of Defense's projects, with Bob Bates and the DoD's Brian Williams discussing the challenges of government contracting, and the viability of the serious game ma
In our continuing coverage of this week's Serious Games Summit DC, we look at the Department of Defense's strong showing, with independent designer Bob Bates and the DoD's Brian Williams talking the challenges of government contracting, and the viability of the marketplace within the DoD. Here at the Serious Games Summit D.C., an annual conference now in its third year, I’ve spotted a smattering of well postured young men in military garb and standard issue boots — though in the nation’s capital, men in uniform are hardly a rarity. But among the rest, among the suits and jeans-and-jackets developers, among the smartly made-up women in heels, a surprising number of people have identified themselves to me as being involved with the Department of Defense. At one session this morning — “When Worlds Collide: Insights into the Collaboration Between DoD and the Game Industry” with Bob Bates and Brian Williams — almost one-fifth of the audience raised their hands when asked if they were currently in progress with a DoD project. But getting them all under one roof has been a long time coming. “In the Department of Defense,” says Bates, “there are many serious games efforts that are underway. The field is quite broad, but it’s the result of a grassroots movement rather than any centralized effort on the part of the DoD.” Bates is an independent game designer, writer, and producer, and also currently serves as a board member of the IGDA. When it come to working on DoD projects, Bates has the point of view of a game developer, more than a federal employee, though his understanding of the business and politics is well balanced. “Probably the biggest thing holding back serious games is we don’t have a marketplace” where the different players can connect, Bates says. Brian Williams, Bates’ speaking partner, has a different point of view. He’s a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He agrees that there is no viable marketplace for the DoD to do real business with developers, and adds that additional challenges prevent the two groups from speaking the same language. “There’s this fundamental business challenge. For game developers, this is the area where you butt your heads a little with the DoD. ... It’s actually very difficult for the two groups coming together for the first time to understand and to accommodate [one another].” And from the other perspective, he does cut developers some slack, acknowledging that the DoD has a labyrinth of contacts. “It’s really hard for them to identify whom to work with,” Williams says. Despite whether developers, contractors, consultants, and the DoD can all learn to work together in a productive and streamlined way, many feel the need to at least put all the groups’ work together in one place in writing for others to reference. “There’s a huge desire to build archival literature in the serious games space,” says Mike Zyda, a speaker at the conference and a man who wears a number of hats at the University of Southern California in the sciences and game-related departments. “It’s too expensive to build games to not have [a library of literature].” In informal conversations, some attendees mentioned that they harbored sore feelings against developers who work with the military on tax payers’ dollars, then re-purpose those assets in a commercial way, as in the game America’s Army. However, it seems from those who have worked with the government that no rights (nor money) are handed over so easily. “We made a game for the Department of Justice called Quandries, and from the first phone call to the time we actually delivered it was four years, and it was a simple, simple game” with most of the time spent in the contracting process, says Bates. Plus, small development companies are used to being paid in advance for the work they’re going to do, “but in the government sector, you get paid for the work after you have done it,” he says. Other issues raised so far in this nascent discussion include software or code developed in countries that developers may be used to working with but that the government has securities concerns about. User-authored content is one subject that military officials are keen to use more, suggesting that MMO developers may be able to serve their needs better than traditional console developers. And the sentence, “Let’s not reinvent the wheel,” has been uttered more times than anyone would care to know, with listeners nodding their heads every time they hear it. It seems the problem is becoming more and more clear to all, even though collaborative solutions are still probably several years off. [Further coverage from this week's Serious Games Summit in Washington DC (operated by the CMP Game Group, as is this website) includes details of Henry Jenkins' Day 1 keynote.]

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