Applied games and gamification

How is ‘applied gaming’ different from‘serious gaming’? And what does ‘gamification’ have to do with both? Gaming software explores radical new roads.

As mentioned in a closer look at the Dutch games industry, over half of all games produced in the Netherlands are applied games. While that seems pretty clear at first glance, what exactly does “applied” mean? What are the criteria for one game to be classified as “entertainment” and the other as “applied”?

A clear question, that deserves a clear answer. The only problem? There isn’t one. Within the Dutch games industry, the discussion on the best umbrella term for “non-entertainment” games has been going on for years, and the jury is still out on that one. Terms like “serious games” and “applied games” are used interchangeably, with one party considering them to be very different terms while another thinks of them as synonyms. In Dutch academia, an even more specific form of “applied games” is used, which translates as “application-oriented”. While that seems clear enough, it’s very much at odds with the terminology used abroad – in English-speaking countries, “applied games” and “serious games” are the prevailing terms.

And what about the related term “gamification”? That’s when insights from game design are used to playfully achieve a shift in company culture. While this type of work is an intrinsic part of game design, most people in the industry don’t see it as being part of “serious gaming”. Digital simulation programs are a similar exception. Fire chiefs in training who work with 3-D simulations of disasters don’t immediately assume they’re dealing with a games company. In their minds, the simulation programs are ‘simply’ provided by IT companies, and in a sense, they’re right. After all, game companies are also IT companies…

It’s helpful to take a step back and examine why these new terms were introduced in the first place. Throughout the past decades, several social processes have become more efficient through automation. The downside is that the human aspect has been all but forgotten: although people think machines and computers are useful, they often also see them as cold, distant and impersonal. The more important automation becomes for daily life, the more important it is to improve human-machine interaction. Key aspect in this is the way humans “experience” communicating with machines; the way a computer program can anticipate human emotions.

This is where gaming comes in. Game designers have always been about creating the optimal experience, about designing games based on user experience and applying psychological insights in their design. These skills are vital when it comes to making the shift from “cold” to “warm” automation, wherever automation is used. This explains the stellar rise of applied games and the amount of terms invented in a relatively short period of time: gaming offers several solutions to the demand for “more human” software, and it comes with several industry-specific terms. This is why applied games are used everywhere from healthcare to the Dutch army and in countless other areas; the demand for “more human software” is the same wherever you go.

A second important reason for the rise of applied games is that playing and achieving results motivates people. That insight was known way before automation came into play – think of play traffic environments, where kids re-create traffic situations using go-carts. Another example: sports, traditionally motivating people to perform at the best of their ability. It should come as no surprise that training simulations hail back hundreds of years: in the army, war games are considered to be the perfect practice material. That also explains the success of digital simulation games within the Dutch army, emergency services and the maritime industry, all of which have a long-standing tradition of training through models and scenarios.

For these types of service industries, using software is a logical progression from existing means, not in the least because it often comes with cost reductions when compared to traditional methods. So-called “situational training” for emergency responders are traditionally major operations in which no expenses are spared in order to re-create something like a traffic accident as realistically as possible. Digital simulations offer the same, for a fraction of the cost. The fact that course attendees can repeat digital simulations also allows them to fix mistakes they made last time.

However, professionals aren’t the only target audience for applied games. While medical applications can very well be targeted to doctors, there’s been a recent increase in games helping patients with their affliction. Think of rehabilitation games or apps helping patients understand and monitor their diabetes at home, or programs increasing awareness of certain medical issues. One particularly clear example is Into d’Mentia by Amsterdam-based studio IJsfontein: a shipping container transformed into the living room of an elderly person suffering from dementia, allowing players/visitors to experience for themselves how disorienting it can be when your memory fails you.

It could be argued that Into d’Mentia isn’t even a traditional game anymore, but a role-playing game set in a space that uses software to interact with visitors. There is no competitive element or scoring system; visitors have nothing to gain but insight. This is typical for many applied games, especially those focused on improving general and work-related processes through gamification. Many applied games focus on education and industry, on customer loyalty and on training personnel. Gamification has definitely made it to the big league: well-known advisory body KPMG even has its own “game desk” to guide companies through change processes. Why? On its website, the company states that “our expectation is that by the end of 2015, half of all companies will be using game techniques for their innovation projects.” KPMG also predicts that “40% of the Global Top 1000 companies will be using gaming for transformation processes, in one form or another.”

Despite these great leaps, applied gaming still isn’t considered to be very successful. Good examples are still few and far between, and nongame companies only incidentally venture into that direction, especially in the for-profit industry. There is definite potential, but applied gaming hasn’t reached its big breakthrough yet. There are several reasons for that. For example, communication with new clients prove difficult: clients and studios don’t always speak the same language, which means applied game projects sometimes don’t even make it through the meeting stage. An often heard complaint is that clients need to go along with game companies’ “agile” design method, which uses brief intervals to move a concept forward. It’s a method that couldn’t be more at odds with the long-term planning culture of large institutions and the bureaucracy that comes with it: while they focus on end products, game companies focus on projects and project courses.

Others have reservations about the size of the industry as a whole and of individual companies. Specialists notice that the demand for applied games currently exceeds supply. The overall production capacity is simply too low. While there is a definite desire to upscale as an industry, that requires time, vision and energy. That smallness of scale sometimes prevents companies from flourishing: failed products – be it by inexperience, lack of time, or budget – lead to dissatisfied customers, and it doesn’t take much to destroy a game’s reputation.

While new initiatives for wider dissemination are underway, especially regarding health games, such things take time to develop fully. One example is the Centre for Applied Games, founded in Amsterdam in 2014. Among its many activities, it acts as applied games publisher and is home to the Applied Gaming Fund. There is also Growing Games, a development program for applied games in which 25 partners from industry, knowledge centers and governments invest to support the above-mentioned upscaling. These are much-needed initiatives, because investment activity is lacking so far. Companies producing applied games should dare ask for more venture capital, while clients should dare sign on for follow-up investments. Since neither of those things are happening at the moment, many games don’t reach their full potential.

Games marketing is also seeing some big leaps, like the promotional cooperation of four larger game studios – Grendel, Little Chicken, Ranj and IJsfontein – who have banded together under the name ‘G4 applied games consortium’. These new initiatives add to the strong reputation Dutch applied game companies already have. And that reputation extends beyond the border: many companies work internationally.

That often begs the question whether the success of Dutch companies is something “typically Dutch”, much like Dutch Design is characterized. Is there a single recipe, a blueprint that makes Dutch parties stand out on the games market more than their foreign counterparts do? If you take the above-mentioned into account, you would probably answer “no”; Dutch companies, products and goals are too different to group under a single umbrella blueprint. Still, when it comes to why Dutch parties stand out, one particular aspect is often mentioned: client and contractor are quick to find a knowledgeable third party. The medical industry especially views subjecting new products to medical research as a given. Does this game work the way it was intended to? Does the project have any negative side effects? Other, nonmedical games also involve specialists: psychologists researching the motivating aspect of games, and industry specialists like independent business experts monitoring game contents. If there is such a thing as a “Dutch school” of applied game design, it’s rooted in the constant exchange of knowledge between clients, game studios and research institutes.