Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Why we must support Serious Games

by Anand Ramachandran

Let's face it, except within a few select demographics and a few specific geographic pockets, video games are widely regarded as a waste of time, meant mainly for kids or nerds. Cultured, intelligent, successful people don't play video games - so goes the perception. And nowhere is this perhaps truer than in India.

Nobody says the same thing about movies. Or music. Or books. Why?

I believe it's because, by way of being more evolved and mature media, they are no longer viewed as purely entertainment. Think about it. Movies (documentaries, newsreels, instructionals) are often used to educate, inform, provoke thought. Ditto books, obviously. Music is used in teaching tiny tots a range of things - who doesn't remember the A-B-C-D tune, or those nursery rhymes that taught us how to count? Even comics have bridged the gap better than games have managed to do - TINKLE and Amar Chitra Katha being shining examples of products parents would happily buy for their children.

People tend to devalue anything that is purely recreational. For the mainstream to embrace a medium, it must be perceived as something that can be used to actually help people grow as individuals. Become smarter. Or more cultured. Or wiser. Or healthier.

While there are stray instances (America's Army, Civilization) of games that can be held up as products that are designed to educate and instruct, an overwhelmingly large majority of commercially made games are principally entertainment-oriented. Fun is the mantra - and rightly so.

In fact, I'm a great believer in the ability of games to build skills, teach and educate - I'm talking about commercially available, regular games here, and not games built specifically for educational purposes. Playing games can enhance, among other things, skills like hand-eye coordination, decision making, strategic thinking and memory. However, the fact remains that all this learning is hidden under a layer of entertainment. Hence the lack of understanding among the general populace. You can't really expect them to understand the hidden, subtle benefits of a game that, to all outward appearances, is about shooting things with insanely overpowered weapons. It's not even reasonable to expect them to take the effort to connect - the effort must undoubtedly come from the gaming community. Namely gamers, developers, and the gaming press.

This is where Serious Games come in. Serious Games are, for the uninitiated, games that are designed for purposes other than just entertainment. These games use the medium as a vehicle to educate, train or inform. They're used in areas as diverse as military, healthcare, agriculture, politics, environment and education. America's Army is probably the one everyone knows.Darfur is Dying is another that has gained popularity.

It's an important movement, and it's gaining momentum. Which is good news for all of us.

Because once Serious Games break through and begin to get mainstream press, people will begin to look at gaming as a medium, and not simply as recreation. A medium that can be used for purposes other than filling the minds of children with violent thoughts. And, as we well know, perception is everything. The same reality suddenly begins to look different - and as a result, more people buy, play and talk about games. And yes, more people have fun playing them. Just like movies. And books. And all that other stuff. Yay!

For this very reason, more of us need to support the Serious Games movement. By participating in the community. By talking about Serious Games. By working on projects, however small.

Consider the possibilities in India - simply enormous in my opinion. Make a game that teaches children to use fireworks safely at Diwali. Or an RTS that promotes communal harmony where factions must work together to win. Or a game that demonstrates the effects of pollution in cities, and how citizens can help control it. I believe that the press will give you quite a bit of coverage - it's an interesting story angle for them as well. When a simplistic crap-mountain like 'Kargil' can appear on India Today . . . enough said.

So that all those sceptics will stop regarding us as some sort of cultish group of outsiders. Yes, even Roger Ebert.

More on Serious Games here.


  1. that was a good post. i agree completely on the fact that games as a serious medium is the next step to go. however the mentality of development studios in India is still very vague. what we really need in India is visionaries. most of the games that come out of india are either quick patch jobs (dont know who buys them). the sole purpose of the industry right now is to make money, one way or another. there are just a few studios who have a benchmark for the kind of games that they make. what i am trying to say here is that Indian developers are at a stage where we still have to understand what a good game is before we take games one step further and use it as a medium.

  2. Fact:

    Gary Carleston, of Broderbund Software in the year 1985 shipped "Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego" this game was funded by the an Organization spreading Georaphical awarness.

    Who says such games are not fun.

    Good write-up!

  3. Commenting on Jayboy;s comments

    He says "dont know who buys them"

    Comment: Lot of game designers or developers make a mistake that the world thinks like they do and world likes what they like.

    The so called Patch work games are sold to 225,000 indians every month making a whopping multi million dollar turnover.

    These kind of stuff will happen and there is nothing wrong in it. It is the matter of time where your customers become matured and their demands increase and no longer you can sell shit to them. Does this mean making Shit is bad, nope not all. But keep on making shit is surely a path to disaster.

    Also The sole purpose of any Industry is to make money OFFCOURSE that is the reason it is called an Industry....but rather than just making money by squeezing the industry should mature and build a strong economic system......

    You think in the right track, but also think from Industry point of view, as you, me, Anand and many others are the INDSUTRY.

    Cheers Jaydev, i know you are doing a great job, hang in there buddy, do not get frustrated, USE your emotions as TOOLS, don't get attached.

  4. comments on Sumit's comments

    hey sumit, yeah i do agree that the industry is called an INDUSTRY because the purpose is to make money. I agree completely that that is an objective, even mine. it's hard to design games on an empty stomach :). the problem i think with indian developers is that they make it their sole purpose. meaning that all i want is money i dont care if i make good games or not. and in the deal end up loosing on another important asset for the company, GOODWILL. As you said its a matter of time that the consumers mature and they stop lapping up shit games. again thats exactly my sentiments and fears about the path developers are taking. soon enough the audiance matures, but since the developers are caught up in a constant churn of making shit games the developer has not really matured to cater to the audiance's demand. now i am not saying that the audiance will mature overnight and start demanding games like warcraft, zuma etc. but the developers need to mature faster and deliver better products before the demand arises.

    sorry to have gone off topic on the serious games disscusion. and thanks sumit for the good word. am not really frustrated just a little lost in the current development scene :)

  5. Jay,

    If you're referring to the Indian market - then my two-bit.

    A large chunk of potential buyers do not visit gaming web sites or get gaming magazines - they buy blind, or based on random hearsay, mainstream press etc. In the case of these buyers, quality games by Indian devs will actually drive demand - the demand is unlikely to grow rapidly in the absence of good titles. And good (particularly innovative) titles are what the mainstream press will devote space to.

  6. hi anand,
    what you are saying is true. that a large chunk of potential buyers do not visit gaming sites. their main source of information abou these games is the media and gamers who do visit the sites. in this scenario games which do get a mention are the games which are good games as in fun to play and stuff. most of these titles that get a mention are titles from big developers like EA or Microsoft etc. the potential buyer plays these games and now has a base of referance to compare other games to. Indian devs in their blind fury to make money tend to overlook quality most of the times. which has an adverse effect now as the potential buyer starts comparing a game by indian dev to games which are done by giants. thats also negetive scoring for indian devs. now i realise that there are games by indian dev which are highly publicised by the press and media, but its just a matter of time before they are put in the background as EA Microsoft and other giants start recognising India as a potential market. the XBOX 360 campaign shows that developers abroad are looking at india as a potential market. not only that but with the setting up of studios from microsoft and EA in india, they also realise the potential of developers, result the stronger studios take in the best talent and the studios stuck in a churn are stuck there forever.
    maybe i am exaggarating the forever part a bit too much but the scene for indian dev companies looks preety bleak right now.
    Again i say this in the most polite manner possible. maybe the tone of that post is all wrong but the realities of indian dev are just as intense.

  7. Dear Guys

    I dont game, but Anand has got me thinking. I remember coming across Civilisation way back when I still had good teeth. I thought the game was brilliant because a colleague of mine that played it concentrated on sustainable development and that turned out to be a real good strategy. Dont ask me the details

    I have been involved in taking Internet to the villages of India over the past 6 years. A senior executive of ICICI, Nachiket Mor wanted to know how to take Lego Mindstorms into rural internet kiosks as a learning tool. I spoke to people from a company who had been making educational kits for chipsets all their lives and asked them if they could scale down the costs by making PC controlled versions of minor Indian toys.

    Now I realise that gaming could be the actual solution. For a more detailed exposition of what I am thinking this blog will not do.

    yours sincerely

    Joseph Thomas