The Business of Games

I wrote a post on the Serious Games event on the Made by Many blog not too long ago; the Society of Digital Agencies requested if they could re-post it there as well.

I’m re-producing it here, for those who are interested.

This morning, Duncan and I went to ‘Serious Games’, a talk at NESTA about how games can create lasting change in fields such as education and collaborative problem solving. Mary Matthews from Blitz Games and Alex Fleetwood fromHide & Seek presented their views on the subject (in short, Mary’s central thesis was that all games should have a purpose, and that they should be part of a larger plan in order to create impact, and Alex spoke about the increasing prevalence of pointsification and badgification as distinct from the much-discussed concept of gamification; more about that on the Hide & Seek blog here).

The NESTA site already has an excellent collection of resources that were mentioned or discussed at the event, for those who are interested, so I’m not going to re-cap the event per se. I’d like to focus instead on a few key things that I got to thinking about afterwards:

Games as an instrument of education vs. games as an engaging experience

Patient Rescue
, a proof-of-concept simulation game created by Blitz Games, is very useful for training medical students by replicating the discomfort faced by ailing patients. It is being used in County Durham and the Darlington NHS Trust, and has been validated by UK practitioners. I wouldn’t call it a game as much as a simulated training experience. So do educational tools like Patient Rescue have similarities to games like Farmville or even Ludo, which have no real objective other than to entertain you? Should they be compared at all?

I was at BoardGameCamp on Saturday and delighted in the experience of doing nothing but play board games the whole day. Alex also mentioned Melvin Konner’s treatise on childhood which mentions the importance of games to the all-round growth of children. Games for the sake of games is a worthy cause in itself, but things like Patient Rescue demonstrate the positive use of technology as an instrument to better the lives of others – is that a nobler cause?

As we hear more about the gamification of systems and processes, we will start to think, as a group, about what exactly the word ‘games’ means to us. Alex Fleetwood mentioned, for example, that Foursquare isn’t really a game; I tend to agree – you get points but what is the ultimate purpose of it?

Games as an instrument to encourage subversion

There was an interesting question about whether certain games encourage subversion. Mary made a valid point by responding that if we go back to our childhood, many reward systems were designed to encourage the naughty children to fall into line; with the well-behaved children it was just expected they would carry on behaving properly. Today, services like the Good Gym and Mint use the opposite principle – they encourage and reward positive behaviour even though technically adults should be healthy and financially aware of our own accord. And it has also been used by a New York school who have designed their entire curriculum around games to “help students take on the role of explorers, mathematicians, historians, writers and evolutionary biologists”. So rather than encourage subversion, games today, on the whole, encourage positive behaviour.

Where is the money?

So where do these projects get their money from? Social benefit games like Patient Rescue and Visible Body will get government funding much more easily than Minecraft, for example. Fiat Eco: Drive and Nike+ on the other hand are examples of branded games – a phenomenon which I suspect we have only seen the beginnings of.

Social gaming is growing quickly; the recent acquisitions of smaller players like Ngmoco and Playfish and the investment that companies like Google and Amazon are pouring into the sector mean that it is here to stay, but there is a lot to be said for applying the principles of gaming to achieve social change.

Going back to the issue of games as an education tool compared to an instrument of playfulness, encouraging individual progress through real-life simulation (which has elements of playfulness built in) will, given the herd mentality of humans, potentially lead to social change as a side-effect. And that is where the two categories, potentially, can have the same end-result.

Made By Many has been taking a serious look a gaming and gamification, a topic that will continue to gain exposure as digital properties look to game mechanics as a way to increase user engagement on site and within applications. They have two more recent posts on the topic that are worth a read:

Serious Games by Duncan Gough
The Opposite of FarmVille by Duncan Gough

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