SAN JOSE, Calif. Games aren't just child's play anymore. Advances in computer graphics and communications have given rise to a growing market for "serious games" nonentertainment applications developed by public-policy advocates, educators, corporate management, the health care industry and nonprofit foundations.
Applications draw on realistic game-based simulation to deliver educational programs, military training and tools for health maintenance and therapy.
A sampling emerged here at last week's standing-room-only Serious Game Summit. Among the games were Dean for Iowa, a game for supporters of the erstwhile candidate that was intended to advance his real-world bid for the Democratic nomination; DARWARS, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) for virtual military training; and VRphobia, a cognitive-therapy tool using virtual reality for the treatment of such conditions as fear of flying and post-traumatic shock disorder.
Also on view were English Taxi, created by the British Consulate in Beijing to teach language skills to Chinese students, and Carnegie-Mellon University's Hazmat, developed for field-training police and fire departments in the handling of bio- and other hazardous materials.
The National Association of Homebuilders, meanwhile, weighed in with a Build a Home of Your Own game, commissioned to instruct communities about the intricacies of the public-planning aspects of real estate development.
What all of them seem to have in common is a commitment by their designers to produce a realistic and engaging training experience by building on the game industry's well-established development foundation for producing box office hits like Doom and Quake.
The serious-game movement has already seen success in commercial products such as SimCity, Civilization, Hidden Agenda and other titles launched as learning tools in schools and universities around the world.
But the phenomenon appears poised for an explosion, thanks to the growing availability of powerful but inexpensive graphics simulation and visualization engines, and the near-ubiquitous presence of broadband data networking and communications infrastructure.
The field thus represents a major new opportunity for game developers as well as suppliers of interactive tools, computing gear and other technologies. The Serious Game gathering, the first of its kind, was intended to explore "not just the why, but the how of developing games for nonentertainment purposes," said Ben Sawyer, the conference organizer.
The summit, held in association with the Game Developers Conference, was sponsored by the Serious Games Initiative and other advocates for the use of games in learning, training and policy.
Among the most heavily attended events was a panel focused on how military contracting works and how the armed forces view games and gaming technology. In the post-9/11 world of terrorist theaters of war, the answer to "how" has become: with deadly seriousness.
Darpa has long taken a lead in applying virtual-reality and simulation technology to war gaming and training exercises, but game technology is being widely adopted by other military and government agencies.
The Army, for example, has hired There Inc. (Menlo Park, Calif.) to develop a virtual world that can be used for terrorist training.
One developer attending the summit lamented that the civic and academic sectors of society are not at the forefront.
"We [civilians] haven't fully come to grips with what this new technology and this new level of bandwidth mean to us," Doug Whatley, CEO of BreakAway Ltd. (Hunt Valley, Md.), said during a best-practices design session here. "The military understands this. They are a big champion, and we should all be embarrassed that the military is leading this thing."