It may sound like an oxymoron but the serious games industry is growing. BCS assistant editor Henry Tucker spoke to David Wortley, director of the Serious Games Institute, about what serious games are and how they can benefit companies.

The name 'Serious Games Institute' is fairly self-explanatory but could you explain what it is you do?

Our aspiration is to be an international centre of excellence and be the UK hub for the serious games industry. Our aim is to help develop the marketplace for the benefit of UK companies, local companies and the UK economy as a whole.

Serious games sounds a bit like an oxymoron, what are serious games?

Well the definition that I use is the use of electronic games, technologies and methodologies for serious purposes. So that can also encompass the use of electronic games for entertainment where somebody has repurposed them for education.

A good example of that might be a school teacher using the Myst game to teach English literacy. That is a real-life example, there is a school teacher working with primary school children.

He sets up his games console and they go through the Myst environment, and the example he quoted was if you come across a wooden door in Myst he asks the children to describe what they are feeling about that door.

What does it say to them, what do they think is in the room behind the door? What can they pick up from what they see in their environment? And in this way it helps children to think more creatively and get a better grasp of the English language.

This is all one teacher's interpretation [of the national curriculum] and in fact the UK government has a serious games team and their particular focus is on what are called COTS (commercial off the shelf) games like Myst and how they can be used as part of the curriculum because the problem with taking serious games into schools is to do with budget. The cost of developing custom games that are specific for a particular curriculum are beyond the reach of a lot of schools.

The government tends to focus on these off the shelf games and how they can be used in education.

I have seen some research that says that playing games such as World of Warcraft can benefit people's business skills, what are your thoughts on this?

I haven't seen anything about that, and I'm not quite sure exactly what they mean but I presume it's something to do with the notion of trading and negotiation and building up assets and connections.

In World of Warcraft, apart from the normal skills of being able to navigate your way through the environment and control your character, you do learn some of these other skills by the nature of the way it works, but then World of Warcraft wasn't designed with that in mind. It is being used in that way and social networking is a big potential area of development for serious games and virtual worlds.

You talk about off the shelf games such as Myst and World of Warcraft but you also talked about software that is more expensive - what sort of software do you use?

We don't actually create anything ourselves. We are really facilitators to develop the industry. We're here to build bridges between potential commissioners of games, small companies who are developing serious games and academics and researchers.

So we act as a broker to bring people together to create opportunities so that potential commissioners and clients understand what kind of benefits you can get from serious games and the small companies that are involved with developing these things get put together with people who might have a need for their services.

We act as an intermediary. One example of how that works, one of the tenants in our building, because we do have a floor that is dedicated to small businesses, is a company called Pixel Learning who are one of the world leaders in serious games for business simulations.

They have some commissions from very large companies in the States to develop serious games to train staff in a variety of skills in their enterprise operations and we help to facilitate those kinds of arrangements, we help them to showcase their work.

With the games that you run, what sort of games are they? Are they RPGs? I guess you’re not using something like Halo.

No [we don't use Halo] and that's the reason perhaps as you say that people see serious games as an oxymoron because people have a mental picture of games consoles and in particular shoot-em up games and think: how can they have any relevance to business when actually we cover a very wide spectrum of applications?

If you think about games in general, forget about the electronic side of it, we’ve used games throughout history as a way of learning about ourselves, learning about other people, how to collaborate with other people.

What games do is to provide you with a safe and risk-free environment in which you can experiment and learn by experimenting. So electronic games and their serious uses tend to fit into these categories one way and another.

That could include games which involve disaster simulation, training triage people to deal with an explosion in a city centre and going to look at casualties and deciding whether their condition is hopeless, whether they need immediate treatment or whether they can be stabilised before you move on to the next one.

The medical environment is a very big area for serious games because it allows people to learn about treatments and procedures without putting patients' lives at risk.

So it's along the lines of a flight simulator teaching a pilot how to fly a Jumbo jet.

Yes exactly that. You're able to do it knowing that if it all goes horribly wrong you're not going to kill somebody or yourself. So that's one quite big area of serious games and that can also include business simulation games that Pixel Learning does.

In those games you're set up with as realistic an office environment as you can simulate and you’re presented with the day to day problems that people have developing a marketing strategy for a business and then you see the results of your decisions on the marketing mix on the bottom line - the performance of your company. You can do all that without risking your money or anybody else's.

So there's that kind of game but another big area is shaping behaviour or opinion. There are a lot of serious games that are all about placing the player, these are the role playing games essentially, in a role. By playing that role they realise the consequences of their actions and that can shape the way they perceive things or their behaviour.

The other type of game that is quite important is the use of games to raise awareness of issues. UN Food Force is an example of a game that has been successful in raising awareness of the problems of poverty in the developing world.

How do you normally work, do you charge out your time or do businesses come in?

It's an interesting business model because the Serious Games Institute is the first of its kind in the UK and certainly a new initiative for Coventry University and we're acting as a pilot for a number of other institutes which are due to come down the pipe.

What I do is to run the Institute as a commercial business and make it self-financing. I do that by dividing the building into three floors. The ground floor is a showcasing area where we have hi-tech facilities which we will be renting out to companies which will help to showcase the work of the serious games industry and we will also run workshops and seminars there which will generate income.

The middle floor will be for renting out to small businesses and we rent out at normal market rents - so that will sustain that part of the building. The top floor is where we have our applied researchers. We then look at a variety of funding schemes from Europe, from regional development agencies and put together projects which generate income from research projects. This is either through public funding or commercial clients.

Do you find that people take you seriously? You've got serious in your name but you've also got games in your name.

Yes we do, but there are people who have never heard of serious games, their initial reaction is puzzlement and think it's an oxymoron. But when you explain what the applications we’re involved with, or even better demonstrate them, they suddenly begin to realise. Just by way of illustration, one of our partner companies in the West Midlands is Blitz Games and they have a serious games arm called True Sim.

Blitz Games developed a game for Burger King a few months ago in the USA. What Burger King wanted to do was have a massively multiplayer online game that helped to develop the Burger King brand and develop an online community through a game. They sold these games through the Burger King outlets in the States.

What I've been told, during the first month that these went on sale they sold three million of them and covered all of the development costs, increased the sale of Burgers by 40 per cent, and developed this online gaming community based around the Burger King brand.

So when you talk to people about return on investment I suspect there are very few investments where you can get your capital back within the first month and be making a clear profit afterwards.

So was that along the lines of Second Life?

The Burger King one, no. It was a specific closed environment online game using a platform developed by Blitz Games. Second Life is a different story and we're also heavily involved with Second Life and the other virtual worlds - that was the subject of our recent conference, the commercial applications of virtual worlds. There's quite a bit of overlap between virtual worlds and games per se, but virtual worlds are very much part of our agenda.

What are your personal thoughts about Second Life?

I think it's a question of horses for courses, I would say that Second Life is a first generation virtual world that is a bit like the Wild West. It's a hot bed of unbridled creativity and innovation and enterprise and people are making money from Second Life. Some of the ways in which they are making money you really wouldn’t want to be involved in as they reflect all that is bad about society as well as all that's good.

But for someone like you, or for me - I've conducted very few transactions within Second Life - what is interesting to me is what people are doing with it and what they are achieving with it. Because there are over nine million members of Second Life now, within that community you do have different groups of interest where people form and bond within Second Life and do collaborate to produce some extraordinary results.

Cisco uses Second Life commercially quite a bit and the biggest benefit that it has discovered is the serendipity of people meeting virtually who might never meet physically. Out of those meetings come very creative ideas that the company would not have discovered had it not been for Second Life.

Do you think online is the future for games and for business?

I think you'll see both actually. I think online will be the biggest growth area, and it will be developed in ways which are not maybe immediately obvious. One I can give you as an example, which I can speak of from personal experience, because I'm not by nature a gamer, but I am interested with how people interface with technology.

For our conference I bought the Xbox 360 with Guitar Hero. So I've been teaching myself how to play the guitar using Guitar Hero because your interface to the Xbox is a guitar - instead of strings it has buttons on the top.

You play it by trying to press the right button at the right time as the notes come at you. And I've been using myself as a kind of guinea pig to understand how these kinds of technologies might be used to try and engage older people and give them, for example, better hand eye coordination.

But one of the things about Guitar Hero, and this will apply to a lot of other games in the future, is that it encourage games methodology to make you to want to keep persevering.

And one of the encouragements is that if you get passed the easy stages of Guitar Hero you can then join an online community. And then within that online community you can play against others over the web, or you can play in a band with other people over the web or you can get new songs to play.

In many stand alone games, players start by competing against the machine, developing their skills. They then go online and create a community with other people who are getting so much pleasure out of it they want to engage with other people. That's the way forward for online games of the future, I think.

So how long has the Serious Games Institute been going?

The idea was born about three years ago but the contract for funding was only signed in March 2007. So for the past few months we've been fitting the building out with technology to make it as smart and intelligent a building as possible to demonstrate some other bits of technology. We had our launch event a few weeks ago (September 2007). Having said that everywhere I go around the world people have all heard of it.

Do you think that games and simulation will be the next big thing in terms of honing business skills?

I think you've got to put any hype in perspective. I've worked for IBM and BT and I've seen loads of technologies that have been flavour of the month and they've come and they've gone. People have been very enthusiastic about them for a while and then the downsides have come to the fore.

I really do think that the converging technologies are mature enough and are relevant enough to people's lives for this to be a really sustainable business area. I don't think that serious games for business simulation will by any means replace other means of training.

What I do think is that it will become an important part of the training mix. So they'll be used with face to face training, general business mentoring - it'll just be a tool to fast track people's learning activities.

You mention your Xbox 360, but what sort of hardware do you use in the Institute?

Most of the people who are involved with serious games at the moment aren't using console technology, most of it is based on the Windows platform. That's where most of the development is, but having said that one big development area will be the use of what I call ambient technologies - things like the Nintendo Wii.

This is where the interface itself gives you so many possibilities for the way that people interface with it. In fact I was just talking earlier on about the benefits to older people from exercising. You can see that a Nintendo Wii can encourage an older person to do a bit of exercise in a way that is accessible to them.

Obviously there are things like the Nintendo DS with the brain training too.

There some interesting research done by the BBC on that and they have found some correlation between the use of these brain games and people's ability to recall and remember things - especially older people.

So what's next for the Serious Games Institute?

We're working on what we think are very exciting projects. One of our major thrusts is to explore how you can merge virtual worlds and real worlds together to deliver genuine benefits. One of our focal points will be on smart building technology.

These are buildings that respond differently to the buildings that are in them. These aren't just buildings that are designed to be green or to keep overheads down to a minimum, there are buildings in which the technology is embedded to support what goes on within the building. I'll give you an example of this.

I've got someone coming to see me from one of the largest construction companies in Switzerland. They have a home of the future if you like, for older people. With the technology embedded into these homes the building itself can monitor the health of people within the building by the use of unobtrusive sensors.

The building can track where people are and if their behaviour is unusual and enable them to communicate with their carers and their families in a much easier way. These things are not just in the home but also in the business environment.

One thing we did in our conference, it's a little light-hearted but it's got some great commercial potential, we broadcast our conference into Second Life.

So on the Cisco island, on the IBM island and on Coventry University's own island we had screens where people could log on to Second Life and then sit and watch the conference's presentations.

At the end of the first day we held the opening of the Serious Games Institute and I took the cameras over from the conference and set them up in the reception area and we have a virtual version of the Serious Games Institute in Second Life.

So if you can imagine it, in the real Serious Games Institute reception there's a screen on the wall and what we did was to put up the virtual Serious Games Institute reception area. So if you were stood in the reception you would see the virtual reception on the screen.

Then we had the camera at the back of the room filming people at the cocktail party. So people at the cocktail party were looking at this screen in reception and they were seeing avatars watching them live in Second Life.

Although this was a bit of fun, it got people scratching their heads you can imagine a hi-tech company which wants to set something up in reception that starts people thinking and makes them remember their visit to that building and gives people a favourable impression of what that company is all about.

So although it's a bit of entertainment when we set this up permanently in the Institute anybody who comes in there will have an experience they won't have had anywhere else and that will help reinforce what the Serious Games Institute is all about.