Levelling Up

Source: Pixabay

Frankfurt, Germany (Weltexpress). A lull in the densely-packed European games events calendar gives us a chance to examine how far we’ve come this year and what’s in store in the future. What trends most clearly point the way for the games industry in Europe, and why should you care?

In April this year, GDC Europe once again injected its exhilarating presence into the Koelnmesse in Cologne, hand in hand with gamescom, the largest gaming event in the world. Organised by UBM Tech Game Network in the USA, GDC Europe provides a showcase for newcomers to the market, new games and services from established companies, fielding high-level conference sessions on topics such as Programming and Design, Production, and Business, Marketing & Management. Both GDC and gamescom underscore the importance of Germany as the single largest market in Europe, but the content of the GDC conference programme this year demonstrated quite clearly the shift that the games industry worldwide is undergoing. Game designers, developers and publishers are all ramping up their orientation towards running broader-based businesses whose central service is interactive entertainment.

This trend is also being reflected by the inclusion of games or gamification programmes in conventions, summits, conferences and other events put on by industries (animation, interactive storytelling, computer science, publishing etc.) that are allied to the games industry around the globe. The games industry is coming of age – we are now seeing more “industry veterans” popping up at conferences, invited to share their memories of the ‘early days’. In one such session at GDC Europe this year, Charles Cecil of UK-based Revolution Software and progenitor of the iconic Broken Sword series, recounted his experiences – including the frustrations of having to use up to 20 different disks to store just a single game! – to an amused young audience unable to imagine the challenges he’d faced just a couple of decades back.

Computer or video games now touch the lives of more people on this planet than anyone could possibly have foreseen twenty years ago. But whereas in the past, the lumping together of these skills – storytelling and the technology framework that delivers the game experience to users – was a more or less haphazard business, with tech frequently ending up on top, industry players have realized the importance of finding more intelligent and effective ways to harness and mesh them. To satisfy their audience’s insatiable appetite, game designers and developers now need to devise much more broadly-based ways to attract users and, especially important in the mobile and app sectors, keep them engaged. The skills needed to create and retain a loyal user base now often include those hitherto deployed exclusively in the service of industries such as animation, movie-making, literature, television, graphic novels and so on. Now, games developers are reaching out to embrace the world of multimedia, Transmedia and cross-media, and those industries in turn are welcoming the approaches with open arms, although there is still some uncertainty as to how this will pan out over time. Another question is how to create a language to frame this new approach.

Across Europe, these issues are now the topic of earnest debate at events such as the Serious Games conference held as part of the GameDays event put on by the Technical University Darmstadt, Germany. Chaired by one of Germany’s foremost proponents of the serious games for health genre, Dr. Stefan Göbel, the conference styles itself as being “…dedicated to the technologies, research concepts and methods for the creation, control/management and evaluation of Serious Games in a broad spectrum of application domains beyond pure entertainment”. In a series of workshops, sessions and labs run by dedicated lecturers as well as experts from outside the world of academia, it explores the scientific side of just how programming and design interface with storytelling.

Less than a month earlier, at the world’s largest and most international computer expo, CeBIT, the annual Serious Games Conference took place. Hosted by CeBIT, Nordmedia (the Bremen and Lower Saxony media fund) and BIU (the German Electronic Entertainment Industry Association), the conference examined advances being made in the application of games designed for practical purposes across a wide range of industries. The central theme was the “Silver Gamer”, and it was moderated by Germany’s most prominent professor of game design and serious games luminary Professor Linda Breitlauch, whose expertise linked the various presentations around gaming for the 55+ generation. An appeal made by Al Lowe, one of the original Old Timers of the industry and a Silver Gamer himself, struck home: these games might be ‘serious’ “…But guys, please: “don’t make ‘em boring!”

But why should anyone outside the games industry care about any of this stuff? Well, for one thing, they should know that there is another side to games, which are usually featured in non-industry media for general consumption only when moral outrage is being expressed at the release of yet another 18+ “shoot-‘em-up” and the speculation is that this is probably a training ground for next-generation homicidal maniacs at large.

In fact, we should all care because the most useful spin-offs from the games industry are to be found within the serious games industry as described above. Also known as Games with Purpose, Applied Games, Persistent Games or sometimes just GamesPlus, the term covers a multitude of interactive environments in which for example surgeons practise keyhole surgery techniques in a fully 3D environment (manifestly reducing surgical error rates), trainee airline pilots practise landing at dangerous or difficult airports in increasingly sophisticated simulators, post-operative orthopaedic patients or people recovering from accidents can play kinesthetic games that are individually adapted to suit their specific physiotherapy needs, children suffering from diabetes can play games that subtly teach them the value of making the right nutritional choices etc. etc. And that is not to mention other applications such as games in education and training, games for change (those developed to boost environmental awareness and conservation), gamification of brand awareness programmes, CSR programmes and so on. The list is endless. Games now impact the lives of more people on the planet than anyone could ever have realized even a few short years ago, and there is no stopping the flow of endlessly creative ways of adapting the technologies to lifestyle, health and other issues.

We have arrived in an age where we humans now interact with our own entertainment more than we ever have before in the history of mankind. And it’s gradually dawning on other industries that this engagement can be harnessed in an almost bewildering variety of ways to enhance and amplify other seemingly unrelated areas of activity. It is both incredibly powerful and incredibly empowering. The DNA of storytelling is changing and a 360° approach to communicating a central idea, brand image, entertaining tale or particular skill can now include any element that can be imagined – an exciting prospect for the creative minds and newly-minted futurists among us. IBM, Siemens, Lufthansa and other traditional blue-chips are latching on to these possibilities and employing full-time staff to manage their interface with gamification and games, and yet, especially in Germany, there is still resistance among government bodies to sanction and incorporate games into e.g. mainstream education or healthcare. This would – and should – open the way for centralized and targeted funding of centres of excellence for research and development, and the uniting of fronts – academic, science, business, creative – in the efforts to raise standards across the board. And make better and better serious games. And more interesting, fun and creative games for entertainment.

Back to the funding: developing serious games is not quite like developing and publishing games for pure entertainment. With serious games, the consumer, i.e. the one who pays, is rarely the end-user, i.e. the one who benefits. This means that a certain degree of altruism must lie at the core of each serious game, especially where the game is distributed free – as with ReMission2, a game recently re-released in the US last year for older teens and young adults suffering from cancer. As a consequence of the research carried out several years after the release of the original game by HopeLab in 2006 (including neurological fMRI research done together with Stanford University) ReMission2 has incorporated many new features and is widely expected to be an even bigger success in its aim: to impact the brain’s positive motivational and emotional circuits in patients undergoing ongoing medical treatment. This has proven to lead to longer remission periods of young people whose lack of adherence to medication regimes would otherwise predetermine a poor recovery outcome. ReMission was funded by donations from a philanthropic organisation – and there are many of them around the world, especially in the USA. But who pays for – and should pay for – these games here in Europe? Equally, who funds the post-release studies in order to determine whether the game is in fact effective? And who will then stump up for the results of this research to be integrated into the next iteration of the game – or scrap the game if it’s rubbish, and create a new one? It’s an entirely different business model to that of a game designed and released purely for entertainment: the game is created and then either sold outright to players or released as free-to-play (FTP) and then monetized for ROI via in-game purchases, merchandising and the like.

What the games industry in general – and those involved in Serious Games in particular – must do is to join forces across the board and step up the lobbying work already being done to lower barriers towards serious games, help increase acceptance levels among potential funders in industry, and mine any form of willingness to collaborate outside established comfort zones in raising the game, so to speak, for serious games here in Europe, starting in Germany.

So now you know why you should care. If you are blitzed going too fast as you enter a town, and you just know you were going on or below the speed limit well, maybe your registration plate will be entered in a speed camera lottery and, if drawn, you’ll win some of the money coughed up in fines by drivers caught speeding at the same spot by the same camera. That’s the gamification of speed regulations. Has that got you thinking? It should have!

Just wait till I get started on how eSports is set to rock the global boat. eSports? you might ask, What’s that? Well – watch this space.

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