Correction to This Article
Geoffrey Rockwell's name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. The story below has been corrected.
Game Industry Finds Serious Outlet for Creative Energies
N.Va. Conference Showcases Growing Sector Devoted to Simulations for Nonprofit Clients

By Bob Greiner Staff Writer
Monday, October 31, 2005 6:00 AM

The public sector: A world where tight budgets demand a less expensive way to do things while still doing them at least as well, if not better, than before.

The game industry: A world overflowing with creative talent drawn in by the allure of a "dream job" working on the other side of the video screen.

At the intersection of these two worlds lies an emerging marketplace labeled "serious games." The Serious Games Initiative, a project of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, defines the term as "using cutting-edge entertainment technologies to solve problems in areas as diverse as education, health-care, national defense, homeland security, analytics [and] corporate management."

"'Serious games' is a funny thing to say because games are not serious. Isn't that the point?" wrote David Thomas, a video game reviewer, blogger and lecturer at the University of Colorado, in a text-message interview. "You don't really kill people in Halo. You don't really steal cars in [Grand Theft Auto]. That's why they are fun."

But the name has stuck, and perhaps no other term sums up both the selling point of the concept and the hopes of those who would like to see it actually bring about what the Serious Games Initiative calls "gaming our way to a better world."

Crystal City will play host Monday and Tuesday to the second annual gathering of professionals in this growing sector, a two-day event that illustrates the growing convergence between official Washington's stolid, request-for-proposal style of operation and the videogame industry's penchant for open-ended brainstorming.

Breakaway Ltd., -- located in the Baltimore exurb of Hunt Valley, an East Coast hub of game development -- may epitomize this marketplace. The company creates both commercial off-the-shelf titles like "Austerlitz: Napoleon's Greatest Victory," but also creates playable simulations for clients ranging from the Pentagon to nonviolence activists.

The company is developing "netStrike" -- a real-time simulation of command-post intelligence aggregation and battlefield management -- for the Pentagon at the same time that it nears completion on "A Force More Powerful," which aims to convey the Gandhian principles of nonviolent resistance to people suffering under oppressive regimes. The client in this case is the nonprofit International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Deborah Tillett, president of Breakaway, sees no paradox in producing games that enable both warmakers and peaceful resisters. "The ... basic tenets of the ICNC are that using a strict doctrine of military strategy and applying it to your nonviolent resistance movement only gives you power."

Teaching and Learning

Breakaway also has developed simulations designed to prepare emergency officials for disasters, and has begun work on software that will help train federal bank examiners in detecting fraud. The key to the serious-games development process, according to several people in the business, is squeezing a lifetime of subject-matter learning -- from police and fire officials, hospital administrators, generals etc. -- into the programming that underlies the game's processes.

"Incident Commander," a Breakaway product that confronts its players with emergencies like an imminent bomb explosion at a school or a chemical-train accident, isn't really about flashy graphics. The game's main screen is a top-down view of an urban area, and you don't see 3-D civilians running around screaming.

Instead, the screen shows you the little triangles representing men, women and children simply disappearing, while a text window dispassionately informs you that the people you're supposed to be protecting are falling victim to the disaster and that your score is being docked.

In fact, the game is designed to run on the older computers that typically populate places like a Midwestern county police headquarters, because there lies the game's target audience: Emergency "first responders" who may never get the chance to participate in real-world disaster exercises because of their prohibitive expense. The developers consulted with emergency response experts from around the country, according to producer Lucien Parsons.

Other companies offer virtual environments that let players start a small business, run a university, perform surgery, interact with a foreign culture, manage an office staff, or feed a famine-stricken nation.

Some serious games have no pedagogical or persuasive purpose. Breakaway turned a partially completed scuba-diving simulation into "FreeDive," an immersive underwater environment that serves as a distraction exercise for children undergoing painful medical procedures. The player wears a virtual-reality visor and uses a joystick to move through a soothing reef setting complete with sea turtles, undulating seaweed fronds and schools of fish.

Early testing, in which a group of 60 children placed their hands in ice water while playing a videogame based on the movie "Finding Nemo" -- which puts users in a similar environment to "FreeDive" -- showed an increase in average pain tolerance from 28 seconds of immersion to 78 seconds, according to the Catonsville, Md.-based Believe in Tomorrow National Children's Foundation, whose request initiated the FreeDive project.

Virtual Worlds, Real Money

In many cases, serious games are made available to users free of charge -- as with the U.N. World Food Program's FoodForce game ( -- or are distributed to trainees within the client organization, which means there is usually no sales revenue stream for the developer.

"The [business] model on the entertainment side is very much like a book deal, even a movie deal, where you're paid to develop something, but you are then paid a royalty [on sales] on top of that ... so there's a nice upside potential down the road," Tillett said. "The other side is all about a straight deal. You simply negotiate for time and materials ... and there isn't really any upside potential."

Nevertheless, serious-game developers see a lot of room for growth in their marketplace. Breakaway will make more then $10 million in revenue this year from its serious side -- about 75 percent of the company's business -- compared with $5 million last year, according to founder and chief executive Doug Whatley.

"It's pretty much been consistently doubling for the past four years for us," added Whatley, who said his company has about 110 employees and has been profitable for several years.

He believes that as more and more decisionmakers -- especially in the business sector -- see game-based training programs as an acceptable risk compared to traditional methods, the "floodgates will open."

"I do think we're ... just a couple of years away from a multibillion-dollar market," Whatley said.

If the serious-games sector continues to explode, it will be driven by one overriding factor: efficiency. The military -- which has used simulations in countless aspects for decades -- can now take advantage of recent advances in commercial computing power to put realistic training on the troops' desktops.

It's no longer necessary to deploy bulky simulator chambers or multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment to achieve virtually the same results, said Army Col. Casey Wardynski, who oversees the "America's Army" game program from his office at West Point.

"You can dump two zeroes off the end of the [training] cost equation," Wardynski said.

While "America's Army" -- an online first-person-perspective game with 6 million registered users -- is primarily a recruiting tool, one of Wardynski's other projects shows the potential of game-based training.

The Future Soldiers System uses a virtual environment to give new recruits a taste of basic training and experienced soldiers a look at new equipment. The goal is to familiarize the trainees with what they'll see, giving them a head start and "crunching down the learning cycle," Wardynski said.

Learning Through Play

The big challenge for an upstart industry is, of course, demonstrating that it's offering something better than the alternative. Within the blogs and other sites devoted to serious games, a bit of hand-wringing over the lack of concrete evidence can be detected.

"We are just now getting a body of knowledge big enough to try and understand whether it does make a difference," Tillett said.

"There are entire schools and colleges of education. There are thousands of scholars that study education. And they still have not quite figured out a mechanical recipe for education," Thomas said. "Add games into the mix and the questions don't get simpler."

"I worked in corporate training through the heyday of 'e-learning,'" Thomas said. "What I learned from that is that you can spend a lot of money on technology, and people still learn from the guy sitting in the cube next to them."

Geoffrey Rockwell, a multimedia professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, was a high school professor in the 1980s, and thought a text-based adventure game -- "you know, those games where you type, 'Go North,' 'Go South'"-- might intensify the learning experience for his English-as-a-second-language students.

"The first two days, they were saying, 'Oh my God, Mr. Rockwell is letting us play games,'" Rockwell recalled. "About the third or fourth day, I saw the penny drop when they realized they were supposed to be learning something. ... At a certain point the fun went out."

Still, both Thomas and Rockwell acknowledged that when applied to adult learning, which is the main focus of serious games, "fun" -- or the lack thereof -- might be less of a monkey wrench in the learning process.

"Typically what you get there is not games but simulations," Rockwell said. "They give you an opportunity to scale [out] ... complex situations ... where you can't really give [trainees] recipes for success, where everything is dependent on other things. ... They learn by playing it out under different rules, learn all the variables ... get them to understand nuances, like when there's a chemical fire, you hose it down and it actually makes things worse."

Facing the Consequences

Perhaps the biggest advantage of games over other training methods may be the flexibility they offer. Simulations can model consequences, showing players the results of their decisions, which serious-game proponents say is better than giving lectures on proper conduct.

"It's not just e-learning on steroids," Whatley said.

"Every kid we've ever come across has seen 'Full Metal Jacket,'" said Wardynski, referring to the 1987 Stanley Kubrick movie in which a recruit assassinates his drill sergeant.

"We'll let you do that [in virtual basic training], but you're immediately transported to a jail cell. ... The society you're operating in will discipline you," Wardynski said, describing how failing to follow orders or "going rogue" will land you "a lousy role" within the squad.

Wardynski emphasized that his office's simulation effort is all about conveying a sense of values, where the use of force is not the objective, but is instead one of many options to reach the real objective. "That kind of area is where we spend a lot of time and money."

Still, the developers of serious games -- which are invariably geared toward the improvement of the player's knowledge, skills or even moral character -- display a good bit of pride about the subjects their products address, and may prefer another measure of success.

"Incident Commander" producer Parsons told a story about one of the beta testers for Incident Commander being sent to Louisiana to help deal with the Hurricane Katrina aftermath after spending an entire week playing the game.

"He learned things that helped him set up an 800-bed hospital for refugees in Baton Rouge," Parsons said. "If through that process, people were made more comfortable, maybe lives were saved, then that justifies any amount of time and effort we've spent on doing this.":

Greiner is business and technology editor for

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive