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The recent discussions I have stimulated around attempting to define this space, if it is indeed a single space have lead to many conversations both electronic and real world.  

Chris Brannigan, CEO of Caspian Learning, outlined a model of the space at yesterday’s ETSA conference on Serious Games and Simulations – www.etsaweb.org – which built upon a concise model that Clive Shepherd has on his blog at this URL.

Patrick Dunn, another very well respected UK Instructional Designer shared with us a blog piece on what he sees as the factionalism taking place in the serious games space and likens it to a famous Monty Python sketch in the film The Life of Brian. Read it here.

Finally, Eliane Alhadeff – who writes at:

 http://elianealhadeff.blogspot.com/ 

http://seriousgamesportal.blogspot.com/ 

…sent me a very eloquent email in which she drew upon chaos theory to describe the bonds and divisionary forces that are apparent in the serious game space. Read it here.

I stimulated a debate on the www.seriousgames.org discussion listserv about the nature of the supposed ‘serious games community’. The discussions have been very passionate and generally well presented. For those of you that don’t subscribe to this daily digest I have pasted below my most recent post.

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There are numerous issues and discussion points being raised – all of which I am following with interest and all of which illustrate the group’s passion for what we do – however as my opening question was around the notion of community I’d like to focus on that a bit more. 

I very much take the points raised by several people that maybe ‘community’ isn’t the appropriate grouping descriptor. Some suggested ‘market’ (and just as pertinently, ‘markets’). Others have talked about ‘movement’. Ben has eloquently described a hierarchical structure that centers upon entertainment games industry ‘tradecraft’ and squarely places serious games as a clear subset of the overall computer games industry.  It is interesting to note that even thought I explicitly sought to avoid the ‘What is a serious game?’ debate, several people replied to me and commented on my blog with suggestions that we seek to find a better term that serious games. Once again I want to reiterate that I think this is a largely academic debate that scores a much lower priority than the need to define the nature of the uber group and, as I see it, the fact that we are actually several different groups.  

With that in mind – trying to resolve multiple crisis’s of identity if you like – and in order to enable each of us to form coherent messages for the audiences which we serve I’d like to submit the following: 

1.             The core serious games element of this community see themselves very clearly as ‘games people’ who focus on applying their skills, know-how and, yes, technology to end-user problems rather than entertainment. Their outputs span tackling many spheres of societal challenges (from military to health, education to social activism) and the experiential nature of their applications tend to be based on a diverse range of overt ‘game play’ techniques in order to provide problem-centred environments in which one is engaged and challenged rather than, for example, taught. 

2.            Immersive Learning Simulations etc (‘That community’ as Ben described it) – The human development (trainers, coaches, eLearning specialists, HR people, subject matter experts etc) amongst the community are primarily not from the game industry and have, as their focus, a vision relating to taking their respective fields forward to address the weaknesses (real or perceived) of traditional classroom and 1st generation eLearning approaches as well as attempting to address the time, technical and funding/budget pressures of their industry. Their outputs tend to be less about open game play and more about mastering domain-specific skills (small and big) and knowledge through, for example, business and process simulations. These outputs tend to have much more of what we would term ‘content’, are by nature more (but not absolutely) linear and time-constrained and involve assessment in some form or other. 

3.            The virtual worlds/environments element seem (to me) to be somewhat more embryonic in that their outputs appear to range from graphically-enhanced (glorified?) chat rooms through to very structured situational simulations with 3D, physics etc used to foster awareness of real world physical environments. The emphasis (and strengths) rest upon their ability to foster meaningful social networks of like-minded people (often in a very spontaneous manner) and/or their ability to enable collaboration of some form or other. The factors that hold us together are the opportunity to observe and learn from one another but fundamentally we do serve different market needs which we approach with different drivers, needs and restrictions borne of what is acceptable to these markets in terms of what we can actually sell and what we can actually implement in the short, medium and longer term. And yes, some of us are in competition and yes, some of us deliberately blur the definitions around the space for commercial or other advantage. 

In a way we are like a very big family gathering where nobody is actually certain that there is a genealogical relationship but hey, whilst the band are playing and the drink is flowing we might as well enjoy the party right?

 I think I know why I choose to engage in this group (listserv and conferences) and why I still do (not the same reasons), and I’ll happily disclose that privately but this discussion is not about me, but rather the idea of exploring the motivations of the multitude of diverse sub-sectors of the SG group. I’d like to do this with the explicit objective of “keeping us all honest” – if we are not a largely homogeneous group then lets just openly recognize that.  If we as practitioners of these various fields can at least do that then we should achieve one critical goal affecting our collective sustainability namely avoiding confusing our various customer groups.   

By Kevin Corti, CEO PIXELearning, November 2006 

 http://seriousgamessource.com/features/feature_120806_where_its_at_1.php 

Serious Games – to use the rapidly emerging term for the application of computer game and simulation approaches to training and education – is a market space that is currently at the early stages of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle (TALC) but one that is gaining momentum at a pace that often takes even those of us that are in it by surprise. My motivation for penning this article is to attempt to summarise the stages that vendors in this space (and for that matter our clients) are working through to encourage others in both the supply and demand space. It takes, after all, a critical mass to build an enduring industry that is sustainable and which can really push the boundaries of what is possible.  I have drawn mainly upon personal and anecdotal experience and I do not operate under the pretence of creating herein a body of work that will stand up to significant academic rigour. I hope, though, to both stimulate further thought and to help others to rationalise the current state of this fledgling industry. Just to be clear: I have deliberately limited the scope of this article to the application of digital games and simulations to adult training and personal development in the public and private sectors. I am, of course, aware of the tremendous level of activity that is propelling the application of Serious Games within the military and medical sectors.  That is not, however, my area of experience so I’ll leave discussion about market development in these areas to others better qualified than I. 

In ‘Crossing the Chasm’, Geoffrey Moore described six stages of market development or, more accurately, six types of ‘customer adopter types’ which he categorised by their willingness to purchase technology products at a certain point in the life cycle of those products. I lack sufficient (formal) grounding in such weighty matters as to add genuine new thought to these concepts. I can, however, relate the observations that my own company and others have made and are still making as this infant industry struggles to reach adolescence. Herein (below) is my humble attempt at doing this.  

Stage 0: “We can do this better” People from inside the game industry and many from outside it take a long hard look at the way that technologies are being applied to training and education. They conclude that the videogame industry is, in the main, extremely good at captivating an audience that can quite easily choose to go do something else and spend their money on something else. They then compare that to eLearning, CBT and edutainment and realise that there lies an industry that has a captive audience – employees and students generally have to take the course whether they want to or not – but which is serving up a diatribe of extremely dull, linear and pretty ineffective boreware. Said individual thus hand in the resignations, cash in their pension funds and obtain second mortgages on the family home and excitedly start up a Games-based Learning or Serious games venture.  

Stage 1: “Doh! Referring to ‘games’ is getting us nowhere!” ‘Work for hire’ studios, boxed product vendors and technology providers alike all realise  – hopefully fairly quickly – that using terms such as ‘game’, ‘play’ and ‘fun’  leads to many a slammed door (both virtually and physically)  in the great halls of the blue chip/Fortune 1000 company training department. Before 2002 there were very few companies that were brave enough (or should that be stupid enough?) to pitch innovative learning technology solutions ‘where your staff can play games, have fun and be, like, engaged dude’.  Terms such as ‘Interactive, experiential, goal-based, learning pedagogies with a constructivist foundation that fit all learning styles’ were manifest as GBL providers sought a protocol that they could use to establish effective dialogue with potential customers. 

Key takeaway: The investment that you have made spending nocturnal hours mastering WoW, Doom, Sim City and the Unreal editor will be of no commercial value to you until you can relate the central characteristics and capabilities of computer games to mundane (but important) organisational needs in a terminology that the customer understands. You are in foreign lands now so learn to speak the language!

  Stage 2: “Sales meetings with the super-impressed interns” Vendors/studios start to receive numerous unsolicited ‘sales enquiries’, get very excited, create terrifically impressive revenue forecasts and spend an inordinate amount of time on a series of ‘opportunities’ characterised by complex sales cycles that never end. This stage is where we start to reap the initial benefits of our networking, PR and unrelenting self-belief. The trouble is it has a tendency to lead companies down numerous blind alleys that contain only ‘techno junkies’ who have possess seemingly endless enthusiasm and time but who also have a correspondingly low ability to place orders or commission projects.  Vendors take comfort that the message is at least finding some reception within their target private and public sector organisations but realise, after much frustration, that getting to the senior decision makers is going to take something extra. 

Key takeaway: The reason that you cannot close the deal is, well….because there is no deal to be had. There is a kind of person in every large organisation (particularly universities I find) that takes delight in being associated with and/or becoming knowledgeable about COOL STUFF just in case it actually ends up working so that they can do the whole ‘I told you so’ thing to their peers. These wannabe gurus will suck up your valuable time, give you false confidence and just damn well get in the way of developing a proper business. If you detect a wannabe guru ask then straight out whether they are someone that can secure budget in the next three months. If they offer anything other than a solidly convincing ‘Yes!’ then move on.

   Stage 3: “Finally, they’re starting to get it” After going through much introspection (not to mention numerous rounds of proof-of-concepts, marketing material re-prints, web site refurbs and several sales/marketing personnel) vendors finally manage to identify a select number of qualified and, at least, semi-senior customer contacts. Both vendor and potential customer are starting to get to grips with each other’s quirky languages leading to novel conversations and where terms like ‘real time physics engines’ and ‘end-user compliance issues’ coexist awkwardly in some surreal Douglas Coplandesque setting. Vendors have learned that they must get customers to articulate their organisational needs in an optimistic attempt to be able to define something tangible that they can bid for. The problem is that the customer’s people really struggle to grips with this and, after wasting many months searching on Amazon for “The Dummies Guide to Commissioning Serious Games Solutions for Corporate Governance” they finally furnish the crest-fallen vendor with the classic “Maybe in a year’s time” email.  

Key takeaway: The customer contact has to take a mighty personal career risk to sign off a budget at this point no matter how convinced he/she is in the potential of Serious Games. Most will not be willing to make the jump at this point (even though it is also a massive opportunity for them to make a mark for themselves). Patience and reflective perseverance are in order.

  Stage 4: The penny drops…the trouble is that is also the budget! Suddenly the Serious Game vendor is inundated with RFPs, invitations to tender and phone messages declaring that customer X “has budget and needs a proposal by last Tuesday”. The vendor does their (now studiedly prudent) probability calculations and realises that with so little competition in the market place and so many opportunities that even a 10% success rate is going to start to look pretty impressive. That is, however, before they are able to quantify the tiny budgets, ridiculous feature requirements and highly compressed timeframes mentioned (or not) on page 187 of the Ts and Cs of the boilerplate RFP. Vendors (and lets not forget to praise the now well-renowned ‘industry gurus as well here) have done a remarkable job of hyping…sorry…raising awareness of the business benefits of Serious Games and now it seems that everybody and his dog wants one.  But before you start trebling your headcount wait a moment.  Unfortunately the vast bulk of customers will not have had the privilege of working on a Serious Game project before and consequently they will fall back on their trusty eLearning commissioning survival guide.  This ‘handy publication’ preaches the following vital tenets: 

  • eLearning is linear content (text and pretty pictures)
  • eLearning content can be rapidly developed in a RAD/WYSIWYG tool
  • eLearning content development can be outsourced to Mumbai for 1920’s prices
  • eLearning developers in Mumbai work 47 hours a day, 9 days per week
  • eLearning developers in Mumbai possess the power to read customer’s minds and never say no
  • eLearning developers in Mumbai will assign IP to their customers and the content will conform to all interoperability and accessibility standards known to man.

 Despite all of the above points being actually true – how on earth do those guys pay the bills? – they are of no use to the Serious Games vendor who knows very well that games development is a complex, time-consuming and, often, very iterative process. It is a very different thing indeed to its eLearning cousin four times removed that it has encountered only once previously at a drunken wedding in 1994.  Serious Games companies will struggle to make the software applications meet full standards compliance (repeat after me…it is not ‘content’) and will live and die by their ability to retain and reuse IP over the code that they write. There is a saying in software sales circles that goes along the lines of: “Quick, good and cheap – pick two” referring to, for example, the extremely low likelihood of a low cost, rapidly hacked out software application being any use to the end-user.  That ‘softwarian’ law, which is reasonably well appreciated in other areas of business, has yet to penetrate the corporate Serious Games space where it is very common to receive an RFP that upon initial estimation requires 9 months for development and at least $150k but which actually allows 2 months (including Christmas and beta testing) and for which the budget is $20k. 

Key takeaway: The customer now pretty much believes in games as a tool to enhance their training initiatives. They don’t yet know how to cost, spec and commission a Serous Game project. Take note! The customer is NOT wrong, they are simply in need of………education. Believe in your offering and be prepared to walk away (politely) if the project constraints are too painful. If the project does indeed go pear-shaped then chances are that the customer will recall your professional advice – which they choose not to take the first time round – and realise that this Serious Games malarkey is not quite as easy to implement as eLearning. You will thus become the trusted expert and a preferred supplier.

  Stage 5:  Woohoo…we’ve got ourselves a big name case study! The Serious Games market WILL explode. We haven’t even got to create a market really as it already exists. Apparently, according to ‘a big market analyst’ the corporate training market and eLearning market are already worth 18.9 zillion dollars per annum!  Whatever the actual figure may be, Serious Games vendors can take confidence in the fact that they don’t have to cultivate a market from scratch. They ‘simply’ need to persuade customers to repurpose some of it. Before that can happen though, this industry needs to have generated enough verifiable evidence to prove the case to the mass market out there. We’re talking efficacy here. We need to demonstrate that Project X actually saved the client significant money and had no down side. We need to be able to show that by using a Serious Game, client Y significantly improved the effectiveness of their core business processes. We need to illustrate how a Serious Game implementation led directly to a marked increase in profitability for customer Z. When the industry as a whole cracks this stage then we will all be driving around in uncomfortable Italian sports cars and getting to actually spend time with our kids but the evidence suggests that this is not yet the case.


Moore, G. A. (1991) Crossing the Chasm, HarperBusiness, New York 

A colleague of mine borrowed my copy of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy, by Andrew Keen. He is writing a column for eLearning Age magazine and asked me for my comments on how I saw ‘democratization of content development’ will affect eLearning……

A metaphor

“Teacher walks into a classroom of 16-year old history students, gives them all a blank exercise book and a pen and tells them to write an account of The English Civil War by pooling their knowledge and tells them that whatever they come up with will be the ‘collective wisdom’……then walks out the door never to return”.

The pro’s

New and widely available ‘Web 2.0′ tools have made it very easy and cost-effective for anyone to publish ‘content’ onto the corporate Intranet and to the Internet. This approach, when applied to eLearning, has given rise to a plethora of ‘rapid eLearning development tools’ as well as access to the general tools such as Word Press upon which this blog is written.On the face of it this considerably reduces the technical barrier of entry i.e. it enables anyone with experience and knowledge that is of value to an organization or wider community to be able to share what they have with others. That frees customers from the ‘only we can do it’ lock-in mentality of some technology firms.

The con’s

The downside of this ‘democratization’ of publishing, as it is referred to, is that literally anyone can publish anything. In the context of Learning & Development, where accuracy, validity and efficacy are of paramount importance, how do we ensure that our staff, for example, are consuming content that acts to enhance performance improvement rather than to be detrimental to that cause? When the sense-checking oversight of an empowered editor (or Instructional Designer) is taken away, corporations literally throw themselves (and their staff) at the mercy of the myopia that is the Internet.Multiple perspectives are a welcome attribute to any learning experience. They are the basis for driving sound discussions (e.g. after action reviews and performance assessment) but with a million amateur experts out there, the scope for mass confusion (at best) and purposeful misleading is significant.

The challenges

Organizations and technology vendors need to work together (quickly please!) to work out how to leverage these new tools and the content which is produced in a way that can be controlled, monitored and, if necessary removed. I predict many ‘interesting’ turns of events over the next few years, not least around security – protecting a company’s Intellectual Property in a knowledge society will be very difficult when your staff are all busy uploading their knowledge to the WWW.

I’ve been motivated to pen this article by a long-standing observation born from being involved with numerous initiatives, groups and associations over the last five years, from attending numerous Serious Games and related events (many of which I have spoken at) and from amassing a very large collection of reference material, articles and publications about Serious Games.

 

It is utterly not my intention here to re-ignite the tiresomely academic “What are Serious Games?” debate. What concerns me deeply are what appear to me, and to many people I know, deep divisions amongst the various sub-sections of this supposed ‘community’ in relation to ‘who should be allowed in our gang/clan/Christmas card list’.

 

If this is indeed a Serious community, then why is it that the work of people like Clark Aldrich seem to achieve a fraction of the attention that other less-commercially orientated contributors achieve? Clark’s blog site “Style Guide for Serious Games & Simulations” (http://clarkaldrich.blogspot.com/) and his two traditional media books are, in my humble opinion, outstanding contributions to this community.

 

Is this because we have a crisis of identity going on? If so should we be raising up our hands and start admitting that in actual fact we have several very different sectors co-existing in a very transient manner and that there are more differences that divide us than there are commonalities which bind us together? I hope not but clearly the very often differing needs of the (US) military, school systems, higher education, social initiatives, public sector and private sector do suggest that this space is a community busting at the seams to fracture.

 

My company has a clear and unequivocal focus on business education and corporate training. The very nature of the end user organisations we work for has taken PIXELearning down the Internet technology route. If you do not understand why that should be so then try deploying a diversity awareness and inclusion training game to several thousand food and drink retail outlets across the USA and see if you can use the Unreal engine as part of your development approach!

 

The trouble with this is, so it would seem, is that the technology decision seems to be a qualifying factor in the determination of what is or is not a Serious Game. I utterly disagree with this sweeping generalisation but have witnessed on numerous times the shunning of people, vendors and products purely on this basis. The statement; “but it is only developed in Flash” might as well be tattooed on the chests of many a ‘proper’ 3D games technologist and researcher.

 

Why is this problem? Well, to my mind this community will only truly begin to realise its considerable potential if we pull together. I am not naive to think that there are not considerable commercial interests at play here that serve, at times, to counter that effort but come on guys and gals, this is a very immature space; we need to get over petty semantics and move things along.

Let me ask this open question; “Do customers truly make a purchasing decision based on whether a proposed solution utilizes high fidelity, real-time 3D”? In some cases this may indeed be the case but only where that technology approach is appropriate to that customer’s needs. The key word in my question is ‘solution’. We really need to get away from dry academic definitions of the umbrella terminology and recognize that the only reason Serious Games will achieve large scale adoption is if they are proven to solve real world problems be they of a societal, educational, performance improvement or any other nature. And I am sorry, but we also need to get away from the entrenched view that a Serious Game must be ‘engaging’ especially when people take that to mean ‘fun’ or use phrases like ‘stealth learning’. The harsh reality is that this is not always the case nor indeed should it be.

 

I have had, on a number of occasions, our company added to the Wikipedia entry for Serious Games only to see it removed, in some cases, within a few hours. The most recent removal edit included within the explanation (opinion actually) for our removal, a reference to “2 bit companies”. Leaving aside the messed up world that is Web 2.0 sources of ‘reputable’ information without sound editorial control, my initial reaction is relate to the early years of the entertainment games space where most developers would hardly have been characterised as, for example, ‘major players.’ I’d happily wager that my company has achieved revenues that exceed 90% of the players in this space so am I to believe that commercial success – along with sound governance and business processes – is not a key determining factor in what defines what is or is not a ‘real’ company?

 

I am not writing this article to justify our inclusion in a Wikipedia entry – there are far more serious issues to concern ourselves with here – rather I am trying to force an open debate about whether this really is the tightly knit community which we like to think it is or should we openly admit that it is the nature of our customer groups (or funding sources) which define several quite different sectors? That is certainly the view of the eLearning Guild, a highly respected (and very large) community of eLearning professionals which, earlier in 2007, published a very well-researched report into how the corporate space responded to the term Serious Games and concluded that the term ‘Immersive Learning Simulations’ was far more appropriate for describing how game and simulation techniques can bring tremendous benefits to corporate training.

 

It is my earnest view that technology choices are not the defining factor in this debate. Teachers use chalk, ink pens, white board markers and interactive white boards but they are still teaching irrespective of the ‘technology’ they choose to adopt. If ‘Serious Games’ is in fact the best umbrella term for this space then surely ‘qualification for entry’ is based on the following criteria:

 

Does the nature of the application draw upon strong game design principles, simulation design competencies and a capability, derived from the worlds of training, education, marketing, advocacy etc, to meld these to solve real world problems where ‘entertainment’ is not the primary goal?”

 

If we are honest with ourselves and put our preconceptions aside for a moment we all know very many companies, products and services which defiantly fit into this criteria but which do not use ‘game technology’. Similarly it is also pretty easy to identify those so-called applications (or, more often than not, content) which is/are being sold as such but which are in fact solidly based in more traditional edutainment, eLearning or CBT approaches.

 

So my challenge to you, Mr Wikipedia watcher and, indeed, this entire community is this; put aside your negative preconceptions, knock that chip of your shoulder and go do something more productive instead. If we don’t act like a community and focus on building it out then the Wikipedia entry for Serious Games in 2010 will probably read something like:

 

“Serious Games, 1999-2007; a short-lived uncomfortable coexistence of hard core computer gamers, 5 star generals, social activists, training professionals and academics which was characterised by short term thinking, manifest in-fighting, territory grabbing and overzealous hype that promised so much and delivered so little.”

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