The world is being transformed by play. Serious games, or games that have a purpose beyond entertainment (not games that require serious effort to play, as their moniker suggests) are increasingly being used across industries as potent vehicles to educate, evaluate or make a social impact. Their influence is being felt across healthcare, where games are delivering neurodevelopmental assessments to children, to defense, where military simulations in virtual reality add an unprecedented, tactile layer to training.
Serious games are more ambitious than ever and their developer community is growing. It’s estimated that the serious games sector will be worth just over $9 billion by 2023. Across the United States and Europe, conferences and other annual gatherings have formed to bring industry specialists and developers together: Games for Health Europe is entering its tenth year; and Games for Change will be hosting its 17th festival in 2020. In short, serious games are having their moment.
Serious games as a strategy
While serious games and their associated communities seem to largely operate outside the games industry, they may represent a feasible but underused product diversification strategy for industry insiders.
To start, adding a serious games layer to an existing game could present another revenue stream for developers looking for ethical and even impactful alternatives to controversial microtransactions. The addition of a layer focused on education may seemingly present challenges in the form of increased development time and associated overheads, the advantage to retooling or repurposing an existing codebase means a second product offering with a potentially new audience.
Finding a serious application for your game could attract cross-industry partnerships or collaborations. For indie studios especially, building associations with other, notable brands is tremendously helpful in earning visibility in a crowded marketplace and among new audiences. Assessing a game’s utility elsewhere is also inherently an exercise in identifying potential in a product that may have otherwise not been identified.
Serious games are also an opportunity to drive innovation within an organisation. Adding a serious layer to an existing game provides a tremendous opportunity to tinker with an existing codebase; or use a studio’s IP in a new format for rapid prototyping. Thinking about the ways a game could be used beyond play provides creative fodder for studios focusing on building imaginative offerings for audiences.
Imagine if Gran Turismo included real-world driving simulators — featuring custom content for each country’s driving laws and regulations. What about if the Angry Birds taught children about projectile motion? Or if environmental agencies worked with Sega and its Ecco the Dolphin IP to educate players about plastic pollution in the ocean? The possibilities are endless.
Finally, serious games provide studios with an opportunity to make an impact beyond play. For larger studios, this may be an opportunity that augments corporate responsibility objectives. For some games, this may simply mean exploring relevant or topical themes as part of a character’s journey or a broader narrative or theme. A more ambitious strategy may involve expanding functionality, like the inclusion of an education-focused game mode in Assassin’s Creed Origins.
The current paradigm – that serious games largely exist on the fringes of the games industry for a reason – needs re-examination. While all games ought to prioritize play, a secondary purpose may present unique opportunities for studios to explore new business models and reposition themselves.
Crafting a strategy around serious games
To examine the growth potential of an existing game in another market or in developing an entirely new offering, there are useful considerations to make.
A smart first step is to audit an existing game for its application as a serious game. Sometimes, the addition of a serious layer is obvious: a game that focuses on medical simulation, for example, can teach everything from the finer points of business leadership in a health care context to human anatomy.
From here, it is about identifying the right collaborators who can bring the skill-set and talent you may not have enlisted. Reach out to university lecturers in disciplines relevant to your game’s narrative themes or its gameplay. Recruit academic consultants into your team to advise on content and gameplay mechanics. This can simply involve reaching out for a comprehensive review of a story bible or a game design document.
These collaborators can also help to identify useful strategic partners — and in more fortunate circumstances, create the connections your studio needs to deploy the game effectively in a new market. If your initiative is focused on making social impact, then ask for introductions to charities or non-governmental organisations that are also navigating the space. These partnerships can often prove critical in identifying and mobilizing the right audience.
Approaching clients and negotiating a path to market, along with a well-considered deployment strategy, may prove to be the most challenging aspect of crafting a strategy around serious games. Here, it is important that you engage with the serious games community to find out how best to navigate the market in unfamiliar territory.
A final word
While serious games have often been seen as a pursuit of industry outsiders, this wasn’t always the case. Game developers and publishers now have a tremendous opportunity to augment or build out “serious” products, and attract a wider and diversified audience in the process.
Shivani Lamba is a tech auteur and the founder of Brightlobe, which makes pioneering mobile ecosystems featuring unique vibrant narratives, offering immersive video game experiences which can assess health factors in children.