In 2012, Sue Bohle, Executive Director of the Serious Games Association, said the global market for serious games (loosely defined as games with a purpose beyond just entertainment) was estimated to be between US$2 to US$10 billion, depending on how much of the market for games, simulations and virtual worlds is included in the calculation.
A year or so later, the serious games market was hit by several big-name failures but today, games such as Play To Cure: Genes in Space and multi award-winning releases such as Depression Quest and Papers Please are helping to drive a resurgence.
1-up for serious games
In January 2014, BBC's Newsbeat published a story, "Could playing video games help to beat depression?" covering two serious games. Depression Quest, a semi-autobiographical tale from the point of view of a person struggling with depression, was covered together with SPARX, a fantasy role playing game designed to treat depression.
Depression Quest was unique in the sense that few videogames had ever delved so deeply into such a serious and personal matter. Videogames after all, were considered as avenues of fantastical escape from the realities of modern life. To have a videogame revolve around depression and use the developer's personal experiences to educate others was a bold move. The game won a couple of awards but its crowning achievement is perhaps having a player back out of suicide after playing the game.
The other game, SPARX, had the distinction of being proven successful in treating depression after being tested on hundreds of teenagers and children as part of a medical trial published in the British Medical Journal.
The mass market = useful research aid
In February 2014, Cancer Research UK launched their own serious game to great media fanfare, Play To Cure: Genes in Space. The game crowdsources players around the world to take on data that's beyond what existing computer technology is capable of.
Cancer Research UK's Citizen Science Lead Hannah Keartland said, "There's a massive opportunity to take crowdsourcing and use it to accelerate the analysis of our cancer research data" (industrialised crowdsourcing also features in the Deloitte Tech Trends 2014). Instead of getting jabbed in the name of science, players stick themselves into the game world and contribute towards scientific research. Thanks to social media buzz and attention from the gaming press, it took just a month for players around the world to collectively analyse six months' worth of DNA data.
Paperwork simulator becomes a surprise hit
In March 2014, Papers Please, an indie game with a relatively unexciting premise of focusing on the emotional toll of working as an immigration officer, exploded onto the gaming scene - leading to the BBC dubbing it as possibly the "first ever paperwork simulator". The game went on to win several industry awards and despite a premise that would serve as a great sleeping aid, has sold over 500,000 copies.
Today there's a new wave of serious games like Glasslab Game's Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy, which teaches students reasoned thinking, and Pixelberry Studio's High School Story, which tackles the issue of bullying in schools through the use of themed quests, are coming up.
Both games differ from the ones mentioned earlier in one key area – the developers have had years of commercial video game development experience and know what it takes to make a hit game.
What these recent successes seem to have in common over past failures seems to be a relatively simple concept. Put differently, you could say there have been greater efforts to make serious games more, well, fun.
Taylor, 2014, Could playing video games help to
beat depression? BBC Newsbeat
Weber, 2014, Cancer Research UK launches Play to Cure, Games Industry
Bischoff, 2014, High School story tackles bullying epidemic, saves lives, Game Revolution
Shapiro, 2014, GlassLab and NASA teach reason and argumentation using video games, Forbes
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