At the Nesta Serious Games conference the other morning, Anjali and I listened to Mary Matthews from Blitz Games and Alex Fleetwood from Hide & Seek discuss the application of games that make a difference. Her post, The business of games is an excellent read that covers pretty much everything that happened, so here's my take on the idea of serious games and the rising requirement for everything to be playfully interactive.
Serious games are all about purpose and reward, and using those mechanics to encourage players to learn and practice within a game. They are accident and diagnostic simulators for use in the awkwardly named "gameification" of health care, for example.
More interestingly, though, it appears that Serious Games need funding just like every other game, and in the search for new business models they are looking at social games for inspiration, which may or may not be a good idea, not least because people are going to stop buying videogames soon.
Given that the social gaming industry seemingly creates games purely to extract money from players over an extended period of time, looking to micro-transactions as a business model to fund serious games is unfortunate. Paying to learn in a game environment on a piece-by-piece basis will ultimately lead to a popularity contest, and the other, implied mechanic of progress and reward, the leaderboard.
But is this the future of games that we want? Education by the penny over education for its own reward? Discovering that serious games are looking to micro-transactions for revenue makes me think that we still have a say in how the future of games will take shape. With our attention, or a direct choice not to consume or produce, we still have a chance to shape what the future of games will look like. I don't want points for brushing my teeth, and I don't want to see everything I do infantilised to such a degree.
I wonder if this trend for levels, points and badges has happened to any other industry. I built and produced advergames, and watched them transform into casual games on the basis of a lot of news speculation and a handful of success stories. It felt like a goldrush, and the acquisitions that followed seemed to verify that. I know from experience that when an industry explodes in the way casual gaming did, it's great to be a middleware company, and not a producer. If serious games are struggling for funding, then I'd rather be an advertising or analytics company than a developer or designer.
However, it would be interesting to find other examples, outside of the entertainment industry, of a trend changing an industry so that we can discover what might happen, and what we can do to avoid or benefit from that change. These might be overly simplistic questions, but I'm interested in how the health industry reacted when Omega-3 oils became the answer to all our ills, or when class size because all-important to education. Have we seen the full effects on television of this ongoing culture of empowered audience judgement fostered by reality television and, ironically, gameshows?
Now that's a serious games question.