Sue Bohle built a public relations agency (The Bohle Company) that handled tech and game PR for more than 25 years. But before that, she was a high school journalism teacher, and she was always intrigued by the idea of using games to teach. She helped the Game Developers Conference grow into a huge show, and within that, she helped promote the Serious Games Summit, a mini-conference about using game technology for educational and training purposes.
Years later, she is now the executive director of the Serious Games Association, which staged the Serious Play conference this week in Seattle. The Bohle Company, Clark Aldrich Designs, and the DigiPen Institute of Technology pooled forces to create the event, which shows that games are about more than just having fun. This year’s topics included discussion about the use of games in government, military, health, and corporate training programs. We caught up with Bohle for an interview this week. Here’s an edited transcript.
GamesBeat: What got you interested in the subject of serious games?
Sue Bohle: Well, my interest in serious games goes back to the beginning of my interest in games, period. Just a little background…. My family background is in education. When I went to college to study journalism, my dad didn’t know or understand what kind of career that was. It seemed really unstable to him, and back then, women were supposed to be teachers or nurses. So he insisted that if I really wanted journalism, I should teach. I was licensed and did my student internship and everything at Evanston Township High School while I was going to school at Northwestern, and I became a teacher for three years. But my brain was atrophying from being a high school teacher teaching journalism and English over and over. I went back and got my master’s degree at [Northwestern's] Medill School of Journalism and then came to California.
I got involved in PR, I started my own agency, and I decided I was going to focus on technology. So I was there in ’82 and ’83, and I started working in games. What really interested me about working for Atari in the early ’80s was they had done a contract with Sesame Street to produce games for preschoolers. Atari, of course, mostly went under, but I had been interested in that. Then we continued with all of our game work. We got involved with GDC. Then, with CMP and the Game Developers Conference, we launched the first Serious Games Summit. It was an event in Washington, D.C. We promoted it and got a lot of press for it.
The message for that conference was, hey, games can be used for all of these educational and training purposes. The government and military guys were very involved with the conference, showing how they were using games for training. Also, there were little software developers that were showing how games could be used for health training. It was the beginning of when people began to recognize it as a segment of the game industry and started to call them “serious games.” As I understand it, the military was very uncomfortable calling what they were using “war games” or “war training,” so they called them “serious games” instead. A lot of the technology was coming out of the Department of Defense, and that fascinated me. Like I said, I was trying to run a PR firm, but any time there was anything that related to education or training that involved games, I was just fascinated by it.
GamesBeat: When was the first Serious Games Summit? And what led to the Serious Play conference?
Bohle: [It was started in 2004, as part of the Game Developers Conference]. Ben Sawyer was the one that pushed CMP into doing the first Serious Games Summit. He’s been affiliated, but also separate from them, because he also started the Games for Health initiative. We kept doing games. About three years ago, I was talking with the author of a lot of entertainment game textbooks for use in the university environment. I mentioned to her that was fascinating to me, because of my interest in education. I said, I think there’s room for a more visionary leadership conference that focuses on where the whole movement of serious games is going. We got to talking about it, and ultimately, she didn’t decide to do it with me, because she had gotten some new contracts for books from her publisher, but I had already approached DigiPen about whether they would host such a conference. They said, sure, we’re recognizing that our curriculum needs to be more than entertainment games. That was two years ago. I decided to go after a textbook author, Clark Aldrich. I approached him and asked him to be my conference director. We then produced the first [Serious Play] conference last year.
GamesBeat: What are some examples of the kinds of talks, then?
Bohle: One of the biggest sessions is: Can educational simulations and games become the key training method for large organizations? IBM is speaking at that one, Microsoft is speaking, plus a professor who’s researching the subject and a developer who’s working on games in that field. Another major session is on the challenge of measuring game effectiveness. There’s a whole lot of breakouts with some of the leading companies that are trying to assess how games should be measured, or whether they can be measured, as far as how effective they are. That’s probably the biggest challenge in the serious games market. Everybody’s excited about it, and I think everybody generally accepts that games can produce learning, but really good programs to help the developers understand how they need to design a game so that it can be measured, and then really good tools for measuring it, that’s one of the biggest challenges to moving forward and having it be accepted more broadly.
GamesBeat: How many people are you drawing?
Bohle: We have about 250. Last year we drew about 230. They are senior-level people. In two cases, the head of game development at a university. A lot of CEOs of companies are speaking and also attending.
GamesBeat: I wonder what some of the definition of serious games is as well. There’s a lot of gamification happening now. Is that the same thing, or is it considered to be different?
Bohle: Gamification is a new term that’s been used to address some of the types of games that are serious games. I’ve had a long discussion about that with Wanda Meloni, who gave the speech at the Gamification Summit conference and gave a number about how big she thinks that market is. The way that she came up with that number was to look at a certain type of game. A game that, as she described it, creates a leaderboard or has points that people accumulate, and they can see how they rank against other players. That’s a really small segment of the serious games market. Her number also attempted to look at that type of game in several different industries, like in the health industry and the education industry. It did not address, for instance, any of the spending in simulations or virtual worlds. I take a much broader look at what serious games encompass. The Serious Games Association looks at any game that is designed to educate or train that uses some type of game features or game elements. That’s how we define serious games. So it’s a much broader category than gamification. Some people think that’s mostly in the corporate environment. Wanda took a little broader swath of it but still only looked at a certain type of game.
GamesBeat: It seems like the gamification topic has exploded in the last couple of years. Is there some benefit for serious games as a whole?
Bohle: I think that behind the gamification term and the Gamification Summit conference is a very good marketer. He’s promoting a certain segment of the serious games market, and that’s good. For instance, there’s a conference that just focuses on the simulations industry, and serious products that are just used in defense and the military. That’s good for that market. It’s really specialized. But if we’re going to drive the acceptance of games, and we’re going to prove that the notion of “play,” which is really what entertainment games are all about, can have a positive impact on how people absorb information and possibly even reform education, then we need to share the knowledge of how games help people learn across any product that’s produced for that purpose.
Certainly I think the Gamification Summit helps people become more aware of where the state of the art is. But the industry is not at a place where games of any kind are accepted as a de facto way that people can be trained and learn. In the corporate market, the human resource departments seem to be putting a lot of effort into creating training through games. That’s a huge movement just by itself. I just went to an education technology conference where they were all saying, we need digital products that can be used in the classroom to reform education and games are our focus on that. I think the military, a long time ago, decided that simulations needed to be used to cut costs and create learning and training that wasn’t one-to-one, or even one-to-many. And then of course in the health care market, they’re using games. One example is they’re using games to teach things like surgery techniques. In another case, the Centers for Disease Control head of games is coming to our conference and talking about how games have been used to educate consumers. So in each market that we’re talking about, there’s progress being made. People believe that it’s going to change the way we all learn and absorb information. I think any exposure and any research and any conference that can help people understand the value of games is benefiting the whole. That’s why I got involved. I’ve been in this business for a long time. I could just shuffle off at some point and go travel. But I’ve become passionate about the fact that I do believe games can change education and training.
GamesBeat: Games for Change [for nonprofits] is also part of the movement?
Bohle: “Games for change” or “games for good” or “nonprofit games” are all terms used for that type of product. I also believe that they can be valuable to society. The Serious Games Association embraces them as one of the five major areas within the larger topic. But I think that their application will trail the development of standards and assessment strategies in the other markets. They’ll follow once the standards are developed for those other markets. The widespread use of games in the non-profit sector, I think, will follow the other markets.
GamesBeat: Do you detect a lot of progress here, or are you waiting for somebody to set the world on fire with a serious game?
Bohle: I wouldn’t say it’s a long process, but I would say that serious games will be an evolutionary process. I don’t think it will be a single game that will change everything. The question of how to put learning objectives that can be measured into a game, and then the ability to assess the game’s performance, is the Holy Grail. That problem has not been solved. That’s why the topic is an emphasis up here. It’s not going to be a single game. It’s just like education. There isn’t one math course that makes people learn everything about math. It’s the development of teaching methods that become standardized that help students learn, say, calculus. I think the same is true of serious games. The science of learning is what is fascinating to me here. We still have challenges to overcome in order to create the methods of designing games that will teach, that will train, and then that can measure the degree to which they achieve that after they’re introduced into a learning environment.
GamesBeat: What are some ways to inspire people to go into serious games, as opposed to making entertainment games?
Bohle: I believe that serious games are going to be the next big thing for kids to decide they want to go and pursue as a career. I’ve been doing a panel at the Penny Arcade Expo. While most of the conference opportunities there have been just fans wanting to talk and learn about games, there was a shift recently in the attendance at that conference towards people who want to get into games and study games. I offered to do a conference on how to get a marketing job in the entertainment games space, and it became the second-largest panel at the Penny Arcade shows that didn’t feature the two founders. Everybody wants to get into games.
For IndieCade, the independent developers’ group, they have chosen two serious games among the 30 finalists for the IndieCade festival this year in October. Once upon a time, there were no universities that offer game development curricula. Now there are about 350 different schools that offer game development programs. There are at least 25 that offer courses in developing serious games. DigiPen, like I said, opened up here to let us come because they realize that they want to build a reputation in serious games. I met a guy at GDC who started a university program that is only serious games. The number one engineering career choice for boys taking STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] classes is developing video games. What’s happening is, with the entertainment games becoming bigger and bigger, and as we’re starting to look at the application of games, people are starting to see it as a career that they could pursue. I think they will start asking at universities, and more and more universities will set up serious curricula. One of the things that the Serious Games Association tried to get going this year, although we haven’t gotten it up to speed yet. We hope to be able to offer guidelines for any university that wants to set up a serious games curriculum, as far as what kinds of courses need to be in that program.
GamesBeat: I wonder if serious games went through a hype phase, almost like the excitement over mobile games today. It seems like when IBM was inviting all of its people to work inside of Second Life. The expectations were getting way ahead of where the experience was. What do you think of that notion, that serious games have gone through a bit of a life cycle here?
Bohle: Well, in any industry’s development there are life cycles. There’s no question that Second Life was one of the early virtual worlds where people began to see what could actually happen in a virtual world. But I would challenge the notion that it’s a down cycle. I think we’re in a tremendous upsurge of interest in serious games. We’re struggling to see if we can get our arms around how big the market is, because the numbers are anywhere from $300 million to $8 billion or $9 billion. And that was several years ago. But if you could get your arm around it and find people to regularly answer a survey, you could tell how big it’s becoming. I think we’re going to find that it’s growing. What is interesting to me is that when I decided to start the Serious Games Association, it was because I didn’t see a trade group that could help rally everybody together and bring some organization to it. When I went out looking for other people who were interested in serious games, I found these huge pockets of development. In Europe, a lot of UK developers are doing more contract work in the United States than I could find American contractors doing. The American developers seem to be more focused in the education space. There’s different pockets around the world where one or another type of serious games is happening, and we don’t even realize how global it is.
But when I started the Serious Games Association, some of the first members were from Timbuktu, De Moines, and Nashville — places where you wouldn’t think games were on the radar screens. They weren’t only in places where there has been game development before. And all of the major games studios — Epic, Activision, Microsoft — are looking at not only continuing to develop educational games, but they’re looking at developing serious games. They’re not announcing those little development arms yet, but they’re all doing it; I can assure you. And it may only be 10 or 20 percent of their effort, but they’re looking at it because they think that’s another market that they should at least be monitoring. So I think it’s the opposite. Yes, Second Life is not as popular or embraced. It’s maybe failed after a while. But again, it’s part of what I’m saying about the fact that I don’t think we’ve created the tools yet to really put in the learning and training measurement criteria that we need. When we get there, serious games will be pervasive.