How ‘serious games’ could help save lives

Students at Coventry University’s Serious Games Institute aren’t just learning to model 3D environments and tweak reward mechanics, they’re creating games to save lives.

“There are so many problems in the world that need to be solved. We believe you can save the world with games technology,” says the SGI’s director of research, Professor Sara de Freitas. “Games are such a powerful media. And we are so thrilled to be part of a movement around serious games.”

For ‘serious’ read ‘non-entertainment’ games, according to de Freitas’ broad definition of the term. And before several patent lawyers grown wealthy off the back of huge lawsuits and a captivated global audience of many millions baulk at the implication that all ‘entertainment-first’ games aren’t serious, we really are talking about another breed here.

The disaster survival, social learning and health software SGI staff and students create for clients around the world engage children and adults in fun games with an often stark educational point. SGI’s roster includes titles designed to monitor forest fires, help Italian youngsters escape earthquake-hit schools and even a quiz which educates British teenagers about sexual coercion.

Call of Duty this aint. But then SGI is hardly on the same funding battlefield at triple-A game firms. “It would be good to have a £200 million budget. But it’s difficult in these times of economic downturn,” says de Freitas.

The Institute’s work has been made possible thanks in part to grants from a wide range of organisations – with the UK’s Department for Transport, The British Council and the European Regional Development Fund all making contributions.

“Given this Government’s work on tax breaks they will probably put money into the serious games area. It’s in health where we will see more funding in the next two years. A lot of money could go into games to help with stroke rehabilitation and autism, for example,” says de Freitas. “There are social problems and grand challenges and the tools we have to tackle them are quite limited. Games technology offers a real solution to problems we have. We want to plug our students into that excitement.”

De Freitas sees the sector as a small, but growing, pocket of the game industry. And it’s one which could offer graduates of her two-year-old MSc in Serious Games and Digital Media a chance to land a job in games, she believes.

“One of the main reasons we set up the MSc is that we were already working closely with the serious games sector and one of their issues was that graduates didn’t have the right skills. We were surprised by that and realised the course could attract a lot of people from different background who needed to acquire the right skills for the industry,” de Freitas explains.

The Serious Games Institute’s director of research, Sara de Freitas.

The one-year course, which can be studied part-time over two years, is being renamed for the 2013/14 intake as MSc Digital Games and Business Innovation. That change reflects the increasing business focus of the course at a time when, as well as altruistic games, SGI are also looking at advergaming – the development of titles which engage people with brands.

There are no projects slated for SGI involving defence initiatives, but the training of soldiers to use vehicles and weapons is an acknowledged part of serious games, and a direction de Freitas is not ruling out. “All the technology derives from military technology,” says de Freitas. “I’ve worked with the British Army – not through SGI – and have links with them, but it’s not easy to access military funding streams. It’s hard to predict where funding will come from in the future.”

De Freitas has got one eye on that fuzzy horizon, however. Several serious companies in the UK have been acquired by large American publishers and IP companies. But it’s hoped that companies such as Hildebrand – a London-based technology solutions firm providing gamified products – will continue to offer job opportunities for graduates.

“We want students who can serve these companies and help smaller companies to grow,” says de Freitas. “Because companies are often quite small they need people who are independent, who have great interpersonal skills, empathy and a lot of soft skills.”

“Serious games are often educational or training based so they need to have sensitivity about learning theory and approaches – that’s critical in this field. It’s a hard task to ‘skill up’ people into that sector – they need to be well-trained. Givent the current apprenticeship model where people learn on the job we are trying to take some of the pain of that out for the companies.”

But given the undoubted power of games to engage young people especially and the focus of SGI’s work on education, isn’t there a danger that teachers could be forced out of classrooms? Absolutely not, says de Freitas. “Face-to-face teaching is still the gold standard and games can add to that,” she explains, adding: “Games engage, immerse and excite and bring things alive that are difficult in the classroom setting. It’s not either or, it’s both. And it’s great that learner groups who are normally hard to reach can be engaged through games. We need to use all the tools we have to make learning as engaging as possible.”

And de Freitas is, perhaps understandably, predicting a bright future for serious gaming with an explosion in understanding of the power of play for learning in the next five to 10 years. “The future of human-computer interaction is fascinating and we are interested in brain-computer interaction. There are other strands of research including neuropsychology looking at how to use brain to send signals to feedback within the game,” says de Freitas. “What we have done so far is the tip of the iceberg.”

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