Serious Games Summit 2004 Report
by David Michael and Sande Chen


The Serious Side of Having Fun by David Michael

If you think that games are only for having fun, for entertaining yourself by matching colors and killing time and ogres in fantasy worlds, then you would've been in for a shock at the Serious Games Summit in Washington, DC.

Over 600 people came together to discuss "serious games": games with a purpose other than just entertaining players. "Serious games," said Jim Dunnigan in his opening keynote address, "are games you have to play."

At once nascent and as old as computers, serious games represent a new way to design games--and maybe a profitable new market for game developers. However, far more than just game developers were in attendance. Representatives attended from the military, education, healthcare, corporate training, psychology, cultural studies, and more.

Military Games

The United States Army's new recruiting tool, America's Army, has become the poster child of serious games, showing what can be done and opening up new possibilities. Built on the Unreal Engine from Epic Games, targeting a demand for a realistic, team-oriented combat game, America's Army has been much more successful than the Army expected. "We thought it would be big," said Col. Casey Wardynski, Director of the US Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis. "But not this big." With over 17 million downloads, 4 million registered players, and growing at a rate of 100,000 new players each month, it's easy to understand why America's Army is generating attention.

The combat training applications of video games are obvious, but there has also been work in using games to train soldiers for non-combat arenas. Hannes Vilhjalmsson, a researcher at the University of Southern Califormia, demonstrated the Tactical Language Skill Builder, a game-based effort to teach language skills to predominantly monolinguistic US soldiers before they ship out. In a similar vein, Thomas Santorelli showed off VECTOR. With the nature of warfare changing from pitched battles to peacekeeping and clashes with insurgents and guerillas, soldiers need to better understand and interact with foreign cultures. VECTOR uses cognitive and emotional modeling to provide cultural training to soldiers, while also trying to be an "engaging game".

The military is easily the largest market, at least currently, for training games and simulations. And not just the US military. The success of America's Army has generated interest for similar projects in the British and French militaries.

Learning from Games

Col. Casey told us that America's Army, by being a free download and a good game, had become a goodwill ambassador to the world, showcasing American values of teamwork and loyalty to the world. Such positive messages, however, are not the only ones being presented. Brian Williams, in the panel "Non-Combat Military Game Efforts", discussed how open source technologies were "empowering people" to create games that attempt to influence philosophically--including games depicting the United States as the "bad guy".

Do games really present messages like this? And do the players notice? The video game industry has an interest in the messages, if any, that games send to players, and in what effect those messages might have. Since serious games are based on the belief that games do teach ("All games teach," Jim Dunnigan declared), the video game industry might soon find itself in an odd position in the on-going debate of the influence of games on behavior and attitudes. On the one hand trying to promote games as vehicles for learning, while simultaneously trying to defend themselves from efforts to regulate and censor their content--for exactly that reason.

In the panel "How Can Games Shape Future Behaviors?", James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, talked about the amount of "transfer" (of ideas, skills, etc.) that happens between games and players. The views on the subject have shifted over the years, from "transfer is easy" to "transfer is impossible" to the current position of "transfer is possible"--but it isn't cheap, quick or easy.

In the same panel, Debra Lieberman, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, talked about experiences in games as being "real", since we respond to those experiences in much the same way we do real events. "The player is the character," she said. With the engaging nature of games, the power of in-game consequences and rewards, she saw a lot of potential in games to do more than just entertain or teach, but to actually change behavior.

The corporate training industry is also looking to use games. Paul Medcalf, Director of Multimedia for InSite Interactive, talked about the "trinity of educational game design", bringing together subject matter, game design, and instructional design. To integrate games with training, he talked about "games as momentum" to generate enthusiasm among trainees, "games as a measure" of retention of the material presented, and "games as instruction" via simulated situations. Andrew Kimball, CEO of QBInternational, talked about three kinds of educatational games: assessment games, learning games, and information-gathering games. "A game's success," Andrew said, "is directly related to the learner's motivation" to play the game.

Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and editor of Water Cooler Games, moderated the panel "Games as Mass Media Dialogue Devices". Ian described games as a socially expressive media, as much as any other medium, and capable of expression beyond war and education. He saw games as capable of advocacy, activism, politics, and (of course) advertising.

Healing through Games

An area of serious games that I found interesting was in healthcare, for both physical and mental training and recovery. A number of products already exist, like the "exer-gaming" stationary bikes from NeXfit, and "The Wild Divine Project", which is described as the "first 'inner-active' computer adventure that combines ancient breathing and meditation with modern biofeedback technology for total mind-body wellness".

Dr. Mark Wiederhold, co-founder of the Virtual Reality Medical Center, talked about the many uses of video games (which he equated with "virtual reality") in modern medicine. Some examples:

  • using video games to distract patients during painful medical procedures
  • using simulations to improve rehabilitation
  • using VR environments to improve motor skills
  • using video games for therapeutic interventions

Dr. Mark focused primarily on using inexpensive ("if it's not inexpensive, it won't be used"), off-the-shelf software and equipment. Some games are less suitable to healthcare purposes (he talked about using FPS's to treat fear spiders, since shooting seems effective in that case, but he added that he would like to move past that to gameplay mechanics that offered more depth), but others have been surprisingly effective. For example, the driving game Midtown Madness has been used to treat driving phobia. And Super Monkey Ball has been shown to improve the hand-eye coordination of surgeons.

To improve the state of games in healthcare, Dr. Mark expressed a wish for more avatars in games, and more and better interaction with objects in the game worlds. In closing he said that there needs to be more proof, with validated metrics, that training in video games transfers to the real world.

Learning Assessment

Throughout the Summit, no one asked if was possible for games to teach. This was a given, where the whole conference started. There was a Big Question, though: How do we measure what has been learned?

"There is no magic bullet," Aaron Thibault declared at the beginning of his lecture "Assessment and the Future of Fluid Learning Environments." And from what he had to say, it didn't sound like there was any of the more mundane ammunition available either. The nature of games as "fluid learning environments", or learning environments that adapt to learners over time, makes it difficult to assess what the player learned, how quickly he learned it, and so on.

Currently, assessment is limited to more traditional testing approaches, and self assessments given by the players before and after playing. Without a gauge of both before and after, it's impossible to know if anything was learned--and just because the player thinks he learned something doesn't mean that he actually did.

Aaron talked about the need to construct a framework for assessment of game learning, based on cognitive psychology, game design, machine learning, neurobiology, educational theory, et cetera. Until some methodology can be created and agreed upon, it will be necessary to "keep humans in the loop". That is, someone will have to present to administer the necessary tests.

"We know that learning occurs in games," said Kurt Squire in his presentation, "What Happens when Games go into any Classroom Situation?" What we don't know, he added, is:

  • What makes a "good" serious game?
  • How do people interpret game play?
  • How will the technology of serious games be socially constructed?

When games have been introduced into classrooms and other learning situations, there is a blending of cultures: the teaching culture, the classroom or school culture, and gaming culture. The gaming culture is evidenced when experienced game players take on the game as a game and create a result unexpected by the game designers or educators. And not a harmless result, either, since it can skew the assessment of whether the game succeeded at teaching the desired skill, information, or attitude.

Kurt stressed the need for more research on how people play and learn, and how they learn while playing. "We tend to use technology to reproduce what we're already doing," he said. An example of this is in the early uses of film and video to simply play back pre-recorded lectures. Games and traditional schools function very differently, and we must revisit our theories of learning before we can make any progress in this area.


Serious games have been around for decades, but have seldom received much attention from the greater part of the video game development industry. As games mature as a medium of expression, and as they become a still more important part of mainstream culture, their use in education (and training, and physical therapy, and pyschotherapy, and ...) is inevitable.

How video games will be used in education, and how their effectiveness will be tested and proven, are still very much in question. There is a lot of research that must be completed, both to find new ways to use educational games and to discover how educational games should be designed.

There can be little doubt, however, that serious games represent one of the most significant trends in video game development.

About the Author

David Michael is the author of "The Indie Game Development Survival Guide" (Charles River Media; ISBN:1584502142) and is a regular contributer to

Serious Games Summit D.C. by Sande Chen

The Serious Games Summit had a feel of slapdash haphazardness, even though CMP (who hosts the annual Game Developers Conference) was involved. For example, the schedule of the conference remained a mystery until the last minute - even though the website said 'Check back in early August' since before midsummer. There was a sense that maybe there just weren't a lot of speakers coming to this. Still, I had a lot of high hopes for this conference. The Serious Games Summit at GDC last year had been well attended and I know for a fact that a number of game developers benefited and landed contracts. The development cycle is short, or at least shorter, for serious games, so it seemed reasonable that some of those developers would be there to present their findings to the community. There was a sense of optimism, a feeling that we are breaking down the doors to a grand new possible market. Rake the dough in, baby!

To start things off, though, the schedule provided in the conference material was pretty much useless. First, you had to go through the alphabetical index and note the rooms and tracks (there weren't any tracks, really- maybe because military was so much of the focus, but ah, wouldn't it have been nice if there had been tracks with names like For People Who Don't Know Anything About the Game Industry, or Anything Not To Do With the Military, and maybe even Self-Indulgent Case Studies …). I definitely didn't want to attend stuff like "what is a mod", or "how a game developer studio is really run".

For example, as I sat in a roundtable (more like a "call-out") of 50 -70 people, eager to learn about funding possibilities, I found I was in a room of people who also wanted to learn and didn't have much to tell me that I didn't already know. All the people who had the info didn't need to go to this roundtable and they were probably going to some other more interesting session instead of altruistically sharing with us. And where were the government people? Most of the people I met were game developers.

As press, I didn't meet other game press. Where were you guys hiding? Was it because there was no Press Room? No place for us type out up-to-the-minute reports and check our e-mail? I saw evidence that the mainstream press was interested. The Washington Post had the Serious Games Summit on the front page! Later on in the week, though, they had an article on Erotic Games and sex sims… Maybe next year, we can have a S&M Game Summit!

I came to the conference because I wanted to know facts. I wanted statistics. I wanted proof about serious games and their potential. I was hungry for learning. Poking around the Serious Games site ( site, I learn that Ben Sawyer of consulting firm Digital Mill estimates market size or potential market size for Serious Games to be around 20 million. But his methodology seems a little dodgy - some kind of explanation that the budgets vary, but 1 mil might be a good average and he knows of 20-60 projects going on. First of all, as the conference keynote speakers noted, Serious Games isn't a new thing. Walking around the exhibitor booths, I learned that some companies have been around since the mid-1990s. Good or bad, there's e-learning, judgmental software for law enforcement, and military training sims. These markets already exist. While these people may not have had the Serious Games Summit before, they had their own trade magazines and conferences. Rather, I find out from Ben Sawyer in an interview wedged between Newsday and a call-in radio interview, Serious Games is an ideal. According to Ben, if we could take what's fun about the game industry and merge our knowledge of game design into e-learning, why, we could take over this market. No more boring edutainment games!

What I was yearning to know was what the size of the current market for Serious Games-type stuff was in sales. Yeah, it's great to know about budgets as a game developer. But apples and oranges, that's a lot like saying the market for a film is 100 million just because the budget is 10 million and I know of 10 films currently in production. Even if my budget for a film is 10 million, I'm going to go out and use marketing to sell tickets and hopefully, the box office exceeds 10 million.

And it's true there are some lame-ass boring edutainment products. Serious Games is such a tag word that even a low-end food-matching game is a "game." You can see why the game industry has traditionally looked down upon and distanced itself from edutainment. It was education without much understanding of entertainment. By calling itself edutainment, this industry was stressing education and trying not to connotate "game," which educators might have viewed as "wasteless timesuck." Other more serious companies in this market also distanced themselves from the game industry. They made "simulations" not "games."

The government (beyond the military) is learning from the success of America's Army that games may have a place in the training. Before, they might have veered away squeamishly, "Games? Eek," but now they fully embrace games as a powerful training tool. They may even view games as a "too powerful," an ultimate panacea to training.

The military already evaluates COTS or Commercial Off The Shelf products for its own uses. It's way cheaper and faster to have a lot of soldiers go through a virtual training program than to have them all go through physical training with weapons.

Here's some data of interest. In data from previous wars, the death rates of pilots were correlated with raiding runs. As a pilot made more excursions, he was less likely to die. The first run was when the pilot had the most chance of getting killed off. So, veterans of skirmishes were more seasoned and knew how to survive. Makes sense. But what if we could make them all "virtual veterans"? Wouldn't they be better prepared? We've all heard the stories of some guy that learned to pilot from Flight Simulator.

Here's where mainstream games differ from Serious Games. For the sake of fun, game developers often simplify things. Would you want to aim at a target and miss? That's what might happen if we stuck in Newtonian physics in our space epics. Would you want to go through all the safety protocols and all the buttons on a real space shuttle dashboard? Software developers know about critical software. That's where if you mess up your programming, somebody might Die because the rollercoaster flew off the track or the heart-lung machine miscalculated. Is that serious enough for you? Take it seriously.

Even if it's not critical like for military uses, it's serious enough that the company might get sued because the game it used to illustrate sexual harassment policies instead of the regular corporate training film was a laughfest that failed to teach anything. The attendees probably immediately sexually harassed every NPC in the game because that choice was more entertaining than the dull answer that everybody knew was the correct corporate answer. And just because they finally ended up with the correct corporate answer at the end, is it because they learned anything or they were bored enough to look at the other content?

I think that game developers, especially independent game developers, should view Serious Games as a potential market, but should know what they're stepping into. Research your niche market carefully. What are other companies doing? Can you improve it? What can you learn about this business? If you're in the game industry for entertainment, then you should think of Serious Games as a separate business because there are different models for funding and different timelines. Bigger companies who already have big publishers in their back pockets probably don't need to care. After all, the game industry does make a lot of money.

If you want to see the presentations or notes of the actual conference, more info is up at the Serious Games Wiki at:


Col. Casey Wardynski

Ben Sawyer

DavidRM trying out some of the guns for America's Army

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Date this article was posted to 11/8/2004
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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