Based in Copenhagen, Serious Games Interactive (SGI) has more than ten years of experience in Serious Games. The walls of their lovely, hip headquarters are proof both of the success of the company as well as of the creative minds behind it; covered in framed awards, diplomas and former customer logos…as well as multiple references to this fish blob.
On Serious Games had the pleasure of sharing a talk with SGI’s CEO, Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen. With his privileged insider and very business-oriented perspective, we discussed his views on Serious Games, from the risks of gamification to the biggest challenges for creating successful –and sustainable- Serious Games.
[On Serious Games] One of the main interests of our blog are educational games. What is the main problem for educational Serious Games in your opinion?
[Simon]: Well, schools are difficult to sell to. At least here in Denmark, technical infrastructure is not a problem anymore, but there are a few problems. For starters, the cost of producing a piece of learning game is quite high compared to the part of the syllabus it covers. We need to make it valuable enough for teachers, who also have no marketplace where they can buy or sell education games. At the same time, it is very costly to approach a teacher in order to make a sale in such small units, and when it is the municipalities that you sell to, they buy in bulk assuming schools will complement it with resources like Serious Games, which rarely, if ever, happens.
[ONSG] Your projects with Mærsk and the Transportation sector are an interesting twist to educational games, but in this case oriented to branding.
[Simon] The project with Mærsk is one of our biggest projects. It is possible to enhance a brand through education. The goal was to attract more people to a specific sector, in this case, the oil industry. Before the oil crisis, Mærsk needed to attract more and better talent to level up to other –bigger- competitors, and therefore were interested in generating more candidates, as well as a bigger and better workforce. The idea is that by playing the game, more people will consider pursuing this kind of specialization.
[ONSG] Will branding through Serious Games be a trend?
[Simon] I don’t know if it’s going to be a major trend but I think it makes a lot of sense to make branding in a different way – putting advertisements, using Adwords or making leaflets, well…everyone does that. But they need to be talking to their audience in a more value-creating way. Interrupting their favorite TV show is not a way – but if you can entertain them it’s a pretty good value proposition but – the timing is VERY difficult and has to be right.
[ONSG] Now, a tricky question: what is the craziest idea that you turn into a game?
[Simon] I’m not the best at cutting away ideas – I usually end up doing all of them. I should get better at that. As I’m sure you know, we got quite a lot of backlash about our slave trade game. I think what basically went wrong, was that you can’t say anything about racism. Just don’t do it. It will explode.
[ONSG] Yes, but actually a harsh game would give you a strong insight.
[Simon] Well it is quite sad that an “extreme political correctness” gets in the way. For example, I actually think that when we did the Israeli-Palestine game, that would be more difficult, because it was so recent, as it’s still going on, while slavery trade happened a couple hundred years ago. But apparently it doesn’t generate as much emotional response as slavery, even three hundred years later. I have a hard time understanding that, but we underestimated the people who still felt like they were slaves. We got many messages asking: “How can you make a game about my situation?”. The result is, you can’t make Serious Games about serious topics.
[ONSG] So, how can Serious Games influence aspects of daily life?
[Simon] Well there’s Gamification, for better or worse (laughing).
[ONSG] What do you mean “for better or worse”?
[Simon] We just prefer not to do with Gamification. It is basically manipulation and propaganda where you really have to be careful how you do things, it’s a bit like you try to “shortwire” a reaction. I have mixed emotions about that.
[ONSG] In one of our last articles, we discussed Jesse Schell’s TED talk on Gamification as a positive reinforcement to daily life.
[Simon] I think it will probably backfire. People will probably get very allergic to these mechanics if they start to be overly used, as we get more media-savvy. With Gamification, people lose their inner locus of control. The point is not that you don’t cross the road because you get a fine or not (reward or punishment) but because it’s dangerous. So, Gamification is this instrumental approach to feedback. If you do it wrong you can get people to cross their boundaries, just a bit like gambling: for example, people keeping running because they want to beat their time…when they should have stopped because they have a knee injury.
[ONSG] What is then your opinion on the future of Serious Games?
[Simon] There are different strands to this. But you really have to think about where you create critical value in a critical business system, meaning we have to be more conscious about where we create value in regards to solving a problem: where do you have a strong niche that you can develop. But increasingly what we find is that you have less game and more tool, so you have to study very carefully how do you plan to tap into big megatrends. For example, one of our current, biggest projects where we are investing a lot is a virtual game-based learning for the automotive industry. This creates a huge amount of value for the car manufacturers. Unfortunately, it is very hard to make a business case out of the more “fun” to play games.
[ONSG] So is that what Serious Games need to succeed, to be able to build a business case?
[Simon] If you look at the Serious Games landscape, it’s really, really hard to find Serious Games who are successful and sustainable in the long run, besides a few examples in the US. This is not because we lack good developers, as it is commonly thought at EU level, but because no one has been able to crack the code of the market. We will get grants and better learning results, but we will keep being on “survival mode”. This is our goal, to try to get to the next level, without losing the gaming component.
Where do you think is Serious Games’ next level? How could Serious Games developers reach it? Share your thoughts in the comments below. You can learn more about Serious Games Interactive visiting their website or taking a look to their promotional video below: