Ben Sawyer founded Digitalmill in 1997, around the time he was writing a book about video game development. He made the move from writing books to writing code, and has worked with a number of groups, including the Sloan Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, on “serious games” – software products that apply video game technology to practical challenges, such as job training or orientation. Some of Sawyer’s serious games help people learn about matters such as university management and how health systems work by providing digital simulations and environments that help people discover the nuances and consequences, intended or not, of the decisions they make.

Q: How did you get involved in creating serious games? 

A: I wrote a book on game development, which was relatively new at that time. It was mostly hobbyists and “figure it out as you go.” The Sloan Foundation hired me to work on a game about running a virtual college. Then the whole field of serious games sort of exploded, and the whole game development scene exploded. 

Q: What did the book cover? 

A: It focused on this idea that game development was about collecting resources and figuring out how to use toolkits and different markets and genres. It talked about the mentality of production, and explored it as something you could learn on your own and how to formulate it as a business.

That led to serious games. What I spend my time on now is how to use games in ways other than for entertainment. One of the biggest projects we’ve worked on is PlayForward, which helps kids negotiate risky situations. We did it with the Yale School of Medicine, and it’s in clinical trials now. 

Q: How do you define serious games? 

A: It is the notion that games can do more and be applied for other purposes beyond entertainment, including education, health and other uses. That doesn’t mean they eschew entertainment. They can be entertaining, but the reason the game was brought to life was for some purpose other than maximizing the entertainment aspect. We’re trying to reach some other objective, like a business or social goal.

Q: Who hires you to help develop serious games? 

A: The market is made up of mainly of entrepreneurs and grant recipients. You’re just starting to see developers building them out of their own interest. 

Q: Was it hard to explain to people what serious games are and what they could do? 

A: At the time I started, it was novel. We started building models, including one that dealt with running hospitals. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was interested in the idea, but said were just not that interested in (simulating the operation of) hospitals, they were interested in a serious game about) health care. 

Q: What’s the range of applications for serious games? 

A: The serious games space includes things like (the virtual community game) Sim City, which people can understand, to the abstract, like the game “Elude,” where you walk around as a boy dealing with bouts of depression and unhappiness and that has nothing to do with resources and management. It’s about trying to understand how he feels. 

Q: You said a growing part of the field is health. How can serious games help improve people’s health? 

A: What we’ve been working on is a new genre of health games that people play regardless of what their health condition is. A lot of it is overly focused; a game for kids with cancer, or (for people) with adult diabetes, or Parkinson’s. What we’re trying to do is help people learn to eat better, find baseline ways to exercise, and being out and generally active. We’ve been working on how people can better understand what’s being communicated to them. We’re not trying to build (calorie and exercise) calculators, we’re trying to help people understand things like fruit versus pizza. 

Q: What’s the future for serious games? 

A: The bottom line now is to move this field from research-based to deployment-based. What are all those pieces and how do they really work? We’ve been trying to walk and now we have to run. The pace of change is slower than you think sometimes, and ultimately, we have to find what games are best, where do they really help, and how can they change people? 

Q: What was the first video game that you played?

A: The game that I really is spent a lot of time with was Ultima, a role-playing game. I’ve probably played something like two or three thousand video games in my life. Now I’m thinking about all that play and what it’s taught me. The first time I saw a computer game, I remember asking the math teacher, how do you make that? I didn’t want to just play it … Games are what inspired me to think, “Whoa, you can make this stuff. How do we do that?” 

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: emurphy@pressherald.com