The concept of serious gaming predates the mass adoption of silicon-based technology. Wars have been led, fought, won and lost based on simulation. Indeed, one could argue that the fundamental concept of gambling is based on the win or loss of a theoretical game.
Dr. Simon Scarle is part of the Serious Games Institute, an organisation housed within Coventry University. The role of the Institute is to design and develop intellectual and practical solutions to some of life's interesting questions about the past, present and future – through the fairly recent phenomenon of computer gaming.
Scarle's interest in the topic comes from a combination of, as you might suspect, an intellectually scientific approach – in this case, working with computational simulations as part of his Theoretical Physics degree – and a subsequent role at Rare. The techniques that Scarle used at Rare had a foundation in his earlier university work to simulate cardiac movements. This fusion led to a role as the senior programmer for a serious games project at Warwick, before his recent move to Coventry.
This new role focusses on a project called Vtrade, which is a virtual shopping environment. The creative idea of a virtual shopping environment has been addressed many times: from Barclaysquare in the mid-90s, through to Fashionmall and a host of similar companies. What makes Vtrade stand out is that rather than being akin to a shopping mall, it is attempting to virtualise a trade fair.
This is acknowledged by Scarle when explaining the history behind it: “The requirement is to create a virtual trade show. Previous virtual buy-and-sell environments have aimed to imitate real world shops. This is the worst of both worlds; it is cumbersome to explore. The trade show environment is more than just a shop; it shows a desire to engage.”
In essence, think of Vtrade as being a real-life market, with stalls. The idea is to produce a market for more technology-aware customers: a combination of Borough Market and Akihabara.
Vtrade is currently at the stage of gathering requirements, so there's a long way to go before it's possible for any trader to do business on it. That said, its intention is to allow clients to customise their goods and the purchasing journey.
This level of matching virtual customisation to manufacture of the physical product is something that Scarle is increasingly seeing; Dell, for example, allows PCs to be customised in Second Life, and for those PCs to be delivered according to the requested modifications. Vtrade will also allow physical products to be customised; CAD files can be imported into the system, allowing the environment to be understood and hopefully adopted by many more manufacturing companies than is currently the case in virtual e-commerce environments.
Another feature of Vtrade is the virtual shop assistant. We have all seen such services online, and their increasingly professional approach have become much more popular in recent years with large B2C companies. Scarle's take is different: rather than have a fairly anonymous, reactive assistant that the user instantly knows is virtual (and therefore helpful to a certain degree), Vtrade will include a shopkeeper's bell. A user ringing the bell will alert someone to attend the “market stall” - in other words, a user from the exhibiting company to participate in the environment.
Retail environments are not new to Second Life. According to Scarle, a replica of an entire Tesco has been built within it, for the company to test the effectiveness of proposed new in-store developments, as have many architectural and building developments projects. Vtrade is therefore just one in a long list of 3D developments that are designed to replicate real world features in order to drive what is very much a real world desire: in this case, acquiring customers from “the market”.
The Linden Dollar (L$), Second Life's currency, has remained buoyant, achieving 11% growth in 2009. The maturity, stability and takeup of the L$ has created many opportunities for people and companies seeking to invest in a secondary market. Scarle is clear on this being not the only financial parallel with real markets; prior to the bailout of financial institutions that we have seen in recent years, a virtual bank in Second Life folded, with investors and account holders losing their money. The cross-referencing of virtual and real worlds suggests that a wider number of sectors should consider such a simulation of potentially damaging situations, or at least monitoring such events when they occur in Second Life, and evaluating the outcome.
The timing of Vtrade's development comes as Second Life is increasingly seen as an environment where real business can be conducted. Scarle sees this as an opportunity: “There was a bubble at the start. There's a huge list of companies that joined, then moved away from it. However, those that have stayed and since joined have developed such environments as virtual meeting rooms, where diverse sets of employees from across the world can meet in one place." One of the reasons cited for companies departing Second Life is its reputation in some circles as being for adults only. While this is certainly the case in some parts of the environment, it is clearly not the case in all, so it will pay dividends for new members to fully get to know the virtual world that they have arrived in, and their way around it. Scarle says that while this might put some off, it is in fact a golden opportunity for SMEs: “Bigger companies are likely to block employee access, so this is a chance for SMEs to directly participate.” Safety outside of Vtrade can be delivered through the building of a private area, such as a private island; this also allows SMEs to develop their proposition and avatar before it is launched to customers.
The recent Games for Health conference in Boston gave a very clear signal that an increasing number of real-life disciplines are taking advantage of serious gaming. Many developments use virtual worlds, with Second Life being of particular interest to academics, through its almost infinite possibilities of customisation. Working with Blitz Games, the Serious Games Institute has developed virtual training programmes for triage after major incidents. Students are required to work out which patients to prioritise and operate on first, after a bomb has gone off. This level of realistic training can clearly prove invaluable in real life, and of course it can be repeated and practised infinitely if necessary. Elsewhere, Second Life's social therapy applications include meeting places for those with cancer, who use them in order to share experiences.
The next decade will be where serious games will prove their worth, within the wider context of convergence. The tools are obviously there to make educational television programmes, films and other media; games will become one part of this media mix. As part of the placing of serious games within a media context, the coming together of devices and media – such as Sky on Xbox – will be a strong driver in their acceptance and adoption on a mass scale. The more far-sighted broadcasters have already worked this out; Alice Taylor at Channel 4 is a commissioning editor with a brief covering serious games. This has been derived, to an extent, through Channel 4's public service obligations, which through serious games, become “public service media”. Educational content becomes “age-proof” and relevant to teenagers when packaged as a game; and teenagers, according to Scarle, don't care about which media they are using for screen time, as long as it's their screen time.
Games with a social purpose are increasingly gaining recognition as an ideal way to combine the recreational aspects of gaming, with the ultimate intention of doing something for the “greater good”. From protein puzzles to group-distributed scientific calculations and fictitious environmental cleanup projects, it is easier than ever to align educational and socially-beneficial objectives, with the sheer computing power that people and groups now possess. We have come a long way from distributed-computing screensavers, and Scarle sees distributed social interaction as being something of massive theoretical benefit to serious games: “The group dynamic of a lot of MMOGs is very powerful”.
This computing power also infuses its way back into real life. Taking a literal interpretation of virtual reality, the Institute's Roma Nova project is developing a highly detailed model of life at the peak of the Roman empire. Characters wander around and can chat away. Short games can be played within the environment. The experience is highly immersive, and an example of how school trips could evolve over time. Why just go to to the city museum, when you could actually go back to a reconstructed, "real" city?
The view remains with some, that there is nothing 'serious' about serious games, which rather irks Scarle: he takes the view that this concept is prone to rather burdening academic scrutiny and proof, where other media is not. There are simulations and environments which are gaining increasing interest and adoption around the world – as well as here in Coventry – all trying to make the case for serious gaming. In Scarle's view, this is simply a lack of understanding across the generations.
Serious gaming has a bright future. It clearly has high educational potential, and offers students of all ages and grades, the chance to participate in activities which have a direct impact on themselves and, over time, a wide range of groups in society. It will be interesting to see how the social acceptance of social gaming develops: after all, we have had 30 years of the belief that computer gaming is recreational, about avoidance rather than something with a fundamentally educational benefit. The opportunity is for serious gaming to present itself as a modern solution to many of life's challenges and problems.
Dr. Simon Scarle is Technical Developer at the Serious Games Institute, part of Coventry University. The Institute is participating in the Virtual World Conference 2010, taking place on 15 September.