Games get serious in Washington DC

Conference explores ways games can move beyond the sphere of entertainment; military complex still the primary consumer of game technology, but change is in the air.

Game developers, studio heads, hopeful freelance producers and coders, and military representatives gathered at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC earlier this week to discuss the place of video games in the context of the broader business marketplace. While the event was designed to bring members of nonendemic industries face-to-face with game developers, the vast majority of discussions focused on government use of video games, particularly within the military.

Ben Sawyer, content chair of the Serious Games Summit, says that “if there was anything I heard from attendees, it was how 'multidiscipline' this event showed the game space to be. Sure, the military is recognized as the leader [in using tools from the game industry], …[but] attendee feedback recognized that 'serious games' [are] more than just a glorified name for military games.”

As would be expected, the America’s Army team was present in full force. It was there to demonstrate the past, present, and future of its namesake product, the first-person-shooter-based recruitment tool. The game will soon include vehicles, remotely controlled explosives disposal units, and support for real-world weapon systems outfitted with light-gun-like laser targeting systems--for use in Duck Hunt-style Army training.

The main attractions of the conference were the numerous lectures and roundtables where the application of games in nonentertainment environments was discussed. One such lecture was given by Col. Casey Wardynski of the America’s Army project. Wardynski discussed, without any pretense, the Army’s successful targeting of young men for recruitment with the wildly successful online shooter. He intimated that the game had been designed to appeal to young men and teenagers right from the start, a fact that left some attendees surprised.

Also in attendance were numerous game industry executives and developers who hoped to learn the ropes for dealing with government contracts, high-level business-training needs, and the practices required to bring fun to the often musty genre of office-training applications.

Jim Dunnigan, considered the grandfather of serious war and economic games (Avalon Hill's Panzerblitz and 1914), gave the keynote address. He discussed the potential of games as learning tools and imparted his wisdom (and humor) on the crowd. While his speech ruffled some feathers, most notably those in the education industry (whom Dunnigan caustically referred to as “a bunch of idiots”), the gruff New Yorker made no apologies for his off-the-cuff remarks.

“Only 2 or 3 percent of the population is capable of grasping what goes on inside a game,” said Dunnigan. He encouraged attendees to seek out this small percentage of the population and hire them "on sight." As an example of how to identify such an expert, Dunnigan suggested that anyone who still plays complicated paper-based wargames--such as those released by SPI and Avalon Hill in the middle ’70s--is precisely the sort of person who should be developing serious games for the military, the healthcare industry, and the broader, serious games market. “You can make a game out of anything,” said Dunnigan. “A spreadsheet can be a game.”

While the America’s Army staff outnumbered any other group present, representatives from ATI, Valve Software, Avid (the makers of Alien Brain and Softimage XSI), and Dynamic Animation Systems were also present to show their wares to participants.

"This event focused heavily on providing content and networking that would draw out customers,” said Sawyer. “I think it did that fairly successfully. It shows that not only are people trying to build serious games, but [also] there are people focused on trying to purchase them, too.”

The Serious Games Summit began as an adjunct event tied to the Game Developer Conference. Last year, attendees numbered around 80. This year's event drew more than 600 attendees, a sure sign that video games are rapidly becoming accepted by American business and industry.

[The Serious Games Summit is an event organized by CMP Media, the owner of the GDC and the publisher of Game Developer magazine. Alex Handy is the editor of Game Developer magazine.]

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