Games are taking over the world. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a staggering 82 per cent of global consumers played videogames and watched videogame content. The number of people playing games swelled to 3.2 billion in 2021. The market for videogames is expected to exceed is expected to exceed $500 billion by 2030.
Videogames have long been a dominant entertainment and leisure activity. But not only are they now reaching more and more people, we are also seeing a broadening of the objectives of gaming. In “serious” games, the primary goal is to master tasks, complete levels, and compete with others, as you would in a sport or a boardgame.
But unlike basketball or Monopoly, the primary purpose is not entertainment. Today, games are increasingly designed specifically to have a lasting positive impact on the player. Games can help us achieve things in the real world, such as learning a language, improving our health, or making better financial decisions.
The pandemic lockdown has been particularly hard on children. Average students’ achievements have dropped significantly, especially in maths. Sustaining student attention outside the classroom is difficult. Prodigy Math engages students by delivering standards-based maths instruction through a role-playing fantasy game. Children create custom characters, complete quests, battle friends and solve maths puzzles along the way. The goal is to earn pets, gear and rewards. But the desired outcome is to make students more knowledgeable in maths.
Health and fitness is another area where games are becoming more prevalent. Peloton, a leading home fitness platform, rose to popularity during the pandemic. Millions of members jumped on their bikes and treadmills to participate in online fitness classes. Recently, Peloton expanded beyond the class format, with a music and workout game called Lanebreak. In Lanebreak, the bike functions as a controller and input for the game. Members adjust their leg speed to stay in rhythm and “switch lanes” to pick up obstacles. The combination of music, gameplay and competition with other fitness enthusiasts motivates subscribers to reach new athletic heights while having fun doing it.
An even better example of the potential of serious games is EndeavorRx, a game designed for children aged 8 to 12 years old with ADHD. Players act as space cadets travelling on missions to save alien creatures from extinction. While this may sound like a conventional videogame, it is based on more than a decade of neurological research, and is specifically designed to stimulate the attention function of the brain. Unlike a typical videogame, EndeavorRx adjusts its speed and difficulty to the player, allowing children with autism and ADHD to succeed and have fun. The goal of the game is to save alien creatures, but its purpose is to stimulate attention, improve working memory, and help kids learn how to solve conflicts. This is backed up by clinical research demonstrating the cognitive benefits of games, even for older adults.
In 2020, EndeavorRx became the first game to be approved by US health regulator the FDA as a “drug”. This means that physicians can prescribe EndeavorRx just like they would a pill.
How can we create more “games for good” such as the examples mentioned above? To answer this question, we need to understand what makes games so powerful. To play is to be human. Children acquire knowledge through play. Games teach children and adults to plan, have empathy and manage difficult emotions (when losing, for example). Games address core parts of human psychology: our desire to reach goals, claim status and connect with others. Games take advantage of our vanity and competitiveness but they also unleash our creativity and social nature.
Games fail if they are boring. Good game design needs to start by asking, “where is the fun?” A “serious” videogame must find a storyline and a mechanic that engages, just like any regular videogame. This is the domain of the game designer, who sharpens game ideas through extensive prototyping and rigorous playtesting with users. This creative expertise can be buttressed and enriched with research-based insights, as in the case of the EndeavorRx game.
Games are powerful. As videogames become more and more popular, it is important that we embrace their potential for positive change. As more and more examples demonstrate, from education to healthcare, games and gaming can be a force for good.
By Carsten Wierwille, CEO, ustwo studios