Defense contractor Applied Research Associates has acquired Virtual Heroes, a game developer which has shown a particular skill in creating games for business or educational purposes.

Albuquerque, N.M.-based ARA bought Virtual Heroes, based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, for an undisclosed sum. Virtual Heoes specializes in “serious games,” or those which have some kind of educational or business purpose beyond pure entertainment.

While serious games have been the subject of plenty of research and conferences (such as the Serious Games Summit at the Game Developers Conference), the transaction suggests they’re moving into a commercial stage.

Jerry Heneghan, founder and CEO of Virtual Heroes, said the company will tap ARA’s resources and still focus on games such as HumanSim, a game for healthcare education and training. Virtual Heroes plans to work on business simulations and other games that work on platforms such as the Sony PlayStation Portable, the iPhone and the iPod Touch.

Founded in 2004, Virtual Heroes most recently made headlines by signing an exclusive license with Sony to use the PSP as a learning platform. Using a game development platform from Morrisville, N.C.-based game developer Vicious Cycle Software, Virtual Heroes developed Ultimate Team Play (right) for Hilton Garden Inn. Hilton has bought 500 PSPs equipped with the new game and provided them to employees at hotels nationwide. The plan is for Virtual Heroes to modify this game to work across Hilton’s other 10 hotel brands in the future.

Virtual Heroes is also part of a three-studio international team that was recently awarded a contract to develop a massively-multiplayer online (MMO) game using the NASA license. An interactive demo for Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond will launch later this year with the first installment of the subscription-based game following next year. Virtual Heroes will be using Cary, N.C.-based Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3, as well as its new Unreal Atlas MMO game technology, to allow gamers to experience the future of space exploration today.

While many have been expressed initial doubts about whether serious games work or a fun enough to hold a trainee’s attention, Heneghan said that corporations, federal agencies and others are now more excited about using games — which are inherently more interesting than someone giving a lecture — to teach serious subjects.

After launching as an external team that worked on vehicles, physics and other aspects of the Department of Defense’s America’s Army game, Virtual Heroes took advantage of local partners in North Carolina. In addition to signing game engine licensing deals with Epic Games and Vicious Cycle Software, Virtual Heroes began working with the medical hospitals at the University of North Carolina and Duke University to create its HumanSim technology for the virtual training and education of medicine.

Earlier this year, Virtual Heroes worked with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment  to create Pamoja Mtaani, an educational game aimed at teaching youth about the spread of AIDS in Africa. Last year, the studio released Zero Hour: America’s Medic, a virtual training tool designed in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security to offer first responders a way to prepare for natural and terrorist disasters.

Founded in 1979, ARA is 1,200-person company that makes a wide variety of defense and aerospace, homeland safety and security, and transportation technologies. Neil Higgins, CEO of ARA, said his company will invest in Virtual Heroes projects for business simulation and medical education.