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Games for Good are Good Business Too
Kunal Sarkar
Monday, May 3, 2010
Computer games now rival films as the greatest revenue generator in the entertainment industry, but games are being used for many more things than entertainment. ‘Serious games’ are being used for everything from corporate training to cancer recovery. Not only are these games and the companies behind them working to change the world for the better, but they're becoming big business too.

What comes to mind when you think of video games? The high powered consoles like the Nintendo Wii or Sony Playstation, big budget games like Call of Duty, and the relatively young fans that buy them. It's clear that video games are a serious business, and have been so for some time: in the UK alone, £1.73 billion was spent on video games during a 12 month period ending in September 2009 - £500 million more than on movies and purchase of DVDs during the same period. But the video game industry is much, much more than Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft. As the industry has grown, ‘serious games’ or games developed for a purpose beyond pure entertainment have proliferated as well.

Serious games, which have been developed for uses ranging from corporate training to cancer recovery, can take advantage of the same properties that make entertainment games so addictive: strong engagement during interactive play, motivation to improve and win, and the ability to simulate compelling situations. But instead of using these elements to simply drive game sales, serious games use them to teach, persuade, or facilitate personal improvement. For example, Food Force, a game published by the United Nations World Food Program, was developed to educate individuals about the mission and work of the WFP. Even Wii Fit, a hugely successful exercise game, fits squarely in this category: the primary motivation for people purchasing the game is to improve their physical fitness.

Wii Fit also serves as proof that games for personal improvement can be hugely profitable; it's a significant contributor to a serious game market that is estimated to generate more than $1.5 billion in revenues worldwide each year. Games like Wii Fit, Food Force, and Celebrity Calamity, a financial literacy game developed by a professor and dean at Harvard Business School, are also examples of what many in the serious games industry refer to as ‘games for good’. Whether it's improving fitness, cultural understanding, or budgeting skills, these games help people the world over to live healthier, safer, and happier lives.

And governments and institutions around the world are starting to take note. The same leaders who once condemned video games for keeping kids indoors and being too violent are now promoting ? and funding ? games for good as incredibly powerful tools for large-scale social change and personal improvement. In the United States, President Barack Obama announced a major initiative in November 2009 to use gaming technology to improve math and science education for students. More recently, the Educational Secretary of Scotland, citing new research findings supporting learning games in education, encouraged the use of brain training games in Scottish schools. Other research, such as the 2006 ACTIVE study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, show that this sort of healthy games can help a much larger population, including seniors and middle aged individuals, improve their cognitive fitness as well. Games are even helping cancer patients speed their recovery. A study in the journal Pediatrics found that cancer patients who played Re-Mission, a game developed by the California based non-profit HopeLab, maintained higher levels of chemotherapy in their blood and took their antibiotics more consistently.

It's exactly this sort of landmark research, which supports the use of games for good in a wide variety of contexts that has motivated a new generation of entrepreneurs to begin companies in the serious games space. Virtual Heroes, a serious game development company in North Carolina, has teamed up with HopeLab to build the next version of Re-Mission and has created a variety of other healthy and educational games. Other companies, such as Filament Games in Wisconsin and Red Hill Studios in California, are developing educational and healthy games in conjunction with US Supreme Court judgments, PBS, and universities around the world.

Not only are the companies crafting these games helping people in diverse contexts, but they're discovering that building games for good can be lucrative business as well. Our company, lumosity.com, has been fortunate to be at the center of the explosion of demand for games that promote better brain health. SharpBrains, which conducts market research within the brain fitness industry, reports that brain training games generated $265 million in revenues in 2008, and may reach as much as $5 billion by 2015. Just as many healthy game developers, like the creators of Re-Mission, have had personal experiences with their loved ones being affected by the conditions they've created in the games, my founders and myself all have family members affected by the devastating impact of cognitive decline. Like other major players in the healthy games space we've grounded our work in existing research, as well as in our ongoing collaborations with Stanford, UCSF, and the University of Michigan. We feel truly lucky to be able to use this research to help the over 3 million monthly unique visitors to lumosity.com, the largest online destination for healthy games, work towards better cognitive fitness.

Key indicators point to the continued growth of the games for good sector in the immediate future and in the long term as well. In India, venture capital firms have made significant investments in learning game companies such as Hurix Systems. The popularity of exercise games such as Wii Fit and EA Sports Active, which sold over 600,000 units in its first two weeks of availability, mean that continued development in this space is all but assured. In fact, EA announced an expansion to its exercise game almost immediately after its release. As long as new applications for games are explored, we can expect the market for games for good to continue to expand. As it does, smart players in the space will continue to realize revenues that will make up an increasingly significant portion of the game market ? all while helping people around the world live smarter, healthier, happier lives.

The author of the article is Kunal Sarkar, CEO, LumosLabs.

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