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Video Games Turn Serious 

by Bennett Voyles

June 25, 2018

Serious games are used for teaching and therapy

In this three-part series, we looked first at the videogame industry and where it may be heading, and second, we talked to veteran game designer Jordan Mechner about the changes he has seen in the industry since the Eighties and how it may evolve. In this third article, we examine the growth of serious games–videogames designed with an educational or therapeutic purpose–and their potential to change society.

Part 3: Video games turn serious 

People love video games. One study estimates that the average high school graduate will have played 10,000 hours of video games between fifth grade and graduation day.

Educators and organizational psychologists have taken note and created a new genre – the serious game – to focus some of this obsessive energy toward more practical ends. Today, soldiers, surgeons, and securities traders and many other professions train with these specialized games. The Brookings Institution estimates that the U.S. military alone spends more than $6 billion a year on video games.

“Serious games allow a safe way of rehearsing actions and learning about their consequences. As well as transferring previously learned knowledge in as an efficient and effective way as possible. With as much of its context as possible,” says Dr. Andreas Oikonomou, a Senior Lecturer in Computing at Nottingham Trent University. 

It might be tempting to view serious games as a last resort for reaching brains dulled by those 10,000 hours of running and jumping and shooting, but game experts argue that games are actually a more natural way to learn than conventional teaching methods.

Oikonomou, for one, says that we’re hard-wired for this kind of purposeful play. “If one looks at nature they’ll find that many animals like to play games.  Especially when young,” he writes in an email. “Basic survival skills like hunting and learning to socialise are learnt by playing games.”

“Playing games as an activity seems to be both ‘programmed in’ biologically as well as rewarded biologically. This is via the release of relevant hormones in the brain. The release of such hormones creates the sensation of joy,” he explains.

“Successful gamification uses fun to deliver an otherwise potentially bitter but necessary medicine. By fun I mean an array of emotions, from laughter and joy to the quiet satisfaction of knowing more about things one cares about,” adds Oikonomou.

Games are also being used as a therapeutic tool. Oikonomou has developed a game that encourages children with cystic fibrosis to make a game of their vital but dreary mucus clearance physiotherapy with a special mouthpiece that connects to their PC. Other designers have worked on games that help people fight internal demons. More than 500,000 people have downloaded SuperBetter, for instance, a game developed by game designer Jane McGonigal, which clinical studies have found helped players reduce their symptoms of depression and anxiety, strengthen their relationships, and make them feel more optimistic.

As a management tool, Sir Cary Cooper, 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at the Manchester Business School of the Univesity of Manchester, believes games can be extremely useful in recruitment, assessment, and in training.

Done right, games tend to be good to keep people in the kind of state of mental flow that tends to make the work go faster. Gamification as a management tool is nothing new: archaeologists have found graffiti inside the Great Pyramids that suggests teams were racing each other to build the monument, according to a TEDx talk by Ethan Mollick, an Associate Professor of Management at the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Limiting factors

But if games are so powerful, why don’t organizations use them more?

One is that a high-quality game is expensive to develop, much more than a book or an instructional video, according to Oikonomou.

Designing a serious game is also not easy work. “Many things can go wrong,” warns Oikonomou. “The designer is not listening or able to understand the needs of the client/user. The user doesn’t express their needs clearly or are not aware of their actual needs in terms of the product they seek. Technology is too immature for the timeframes involved, project management is inefficient, budgets are inaccurately scoped etc.”

The biggest problem however is if that the designer forgets to add enough fun. “The main and most important purpose of a game is to be fun,” Oikonomous insists. “To entertain. Everything else is secondary. The challenge then becomes incorporating all the educational aspects in it whilst still keeping it fun. You cannot get your priorities wrong on that. Achieving that balance is both an art and a science.”

For employers, the other aspect that’s important to get right is to make sure the employee actually wants to play. “Every choice of game you make is going to motivate some people and demotivate others,” warns Mollick.

One 2013 study of employee attitudes towards a sales-training game by Mollick and his Wharton colleague Nancy Rothbard, the David Pottruck Professor of Management and the Chairperson of the Management Department, found that people who wanted to play the game tended to like their company more after playing but people who hadn’t wanted to play saw it as “mandatory fun” and liked their company less.

Mollick says managers should draw three lessons from the study.

First, make sure that if you do decide to add a gamified element to your management strategy, make sure it’s an opt-in program, Mollick suggests.

Second, explain the rules and the purpose very clearly. Understanding tends to encourage a greater degree of consent. Think about the particular employees you want to attract, and design your game to reflect that, he suggests.

For instance, if you want women to participate, offer a valuable prize. “Men are more motivated by token prizes,” Mollick says. Many women, on the other hand, will only play if they consider the prize to be valuable.

“Research on prizes has shown that female employees are less prone to respond than male employees until the prize is of significant size, and then women are actually more motivated than men, according to a recent study,” Mollick explains.

It’s important to keep your goal in mind, Cooper suggests. “What’s your objective? What do you want this person to get out of the game from a training point of view?” When it comes to managerial training, it’s also helpful to think of games as one more developmental tool, not the only one. “You still need eyeball-to-eyeball work,” he says.

Next Moves

Oikonomou believes that the technology will continue to advance. “I expect game development tools and technology to be significantly better in 20 years. Possibly beyond what can be imagined today. I am talking about VR systems that for all intents and purposes feel real and are completely portable.”

All that additional computing power will be applied in other ways as well, Oikonomou predicts. With respect to serious games, he envisions large-scale simulators that will allow governments to test the impact of policies before implementing them. “We already try to predict the weather and sometimes run simulations with our environmental models. I can see this happening with human behaviour as well at very large scales,” he says.

The crossover between real and gaming life is also likely to become even deeper in other ways as well. The Pentagon, for example, is trying to entice game developers to collaborate with them on the design of real weapons and information systems. “It’s Call of Duty for real,” says Will Roper, director of the Strategic Capabilities Office in the US Department of Defense, as quoted in a 2017 Wired article.

And what about the holodeck?  “I like to imagine my grandchildren coming back from school and telling me “I dove with whales at school today” or “I installed a new solar panel on the International Space Station with my friends” and know that they are not talking about watching a video or reading an article on the screen of a tablet. Maybe not in 20 years but I would be disappointed if it didn’t happen say in 40 years.”

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