Games that go beyond entertainment

Northeastern’s grad­uate campus in Seattle hosted an engaging dis­cus­sion last Wednesday that brought together inno­v­a­tive thinkers in acad­emia and industry to dis­cuss the future of “games for impact” and how to scale its busi­ness model.

Tayloe Wash­burn, dean and CEO of Northeastern’s grad­uate campus in Seattle, said the city is the per­fect set­ting to tackle this chal­lenge. The videogame industry in the city is booming, he said, increasing from 150 small– to medium-​​sized com­pa­nies six or seven years ago to 350 com­pa­nies in 2011, the lot of which gen­er­ated $9.7 bil­lion in revenue.

While the lion share of games in the mar­ket­place focus on recre­ational, casual use, Wash­burn said there is enor­mous poten­tial for video games that go beyond enter­tain­ment pur­poses to create soci­etal impacts in areas like health and edu­ca­tion. Now, the ques­tion is how to get there.

“If the games are good and fun, there are unlim­ited appli­ca­tions of games for impact,” Wash­burn said. “The key is fig­uring out if there are tweaks we can make in this space so that investors and com­pa­nies will devote more atten­tion to these kinds of games. We can develop a new rep­u­ta­tion for the Puget Sound region to make it leader in that area.”

Leading that dis­cus­sion was Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, Northeastern’s director of game edu­ca­tional pro­grams and research and an asso­ciate pro­fessor with dual appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence . Seif El-Nasr’s award-​​winning research focuses on enhancing game designs by devel­oping tools and methods for eval­u­ating and adapting game experiences.

In her talk, Seif El-​​Nasr dis­cussed strate­gies for how the medium can expand and pro­vided exam­ples of suc­cessful games for impact. She then con­vened a panel of inter­ac­tive game industry inno­va­tors and experts from the Seattle area: John Williamson, an inde­pen­dent pro­ducer and author with 20 years’ expe­ri­ence in the industry who has shipped a wide range of titles on nearly every plat­form, from iOS to PlaySta­tion to Xbox 360; Jeff Pobst, who was a group leader at Microsoft for the Xbox and Xbox 360 plat­forms before founding Hidden Path Enter­tain­ment and becoming its CEO; and Jason Robar, game industry edu­ca­tion and star­tups advisor for the Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment Council of Seattle and King County. Robar has con­sulted for gov­ern­ment agen­cies on “serious games” and cre­ated Microsoft’s first games rela­tion­ships with Elec­tronic Arts, Sony, and Sega.

Seif El-​​Nasr posed a series of ques­tions to the pan­elists on topics including exam­ples of video game busi­ness models that explore uses beyond enter­tain­ment; the strate­gies for sus­taining long-​​term invest­ments in this space; and the emerging mar­kets where games for impact will make a splash.

During the con­ver­sa­tion, Robar said, “It’s no acci­dent that games are becoming more family friendly these days. Those cre­ating the games aren’t in their 20s any­more. We’re older, and some of us even have kids of our own. So we’re now cre­ating games that match our lifestyles.”

Northeastern’s grad­uate campus, which launched ear­lier this year, offers dynamic grad­uate degree pro­grams in high-​​demand fields such as cyber­se­cu­rity, health infor­matics, com­puter sci­ence, bioin­for­matics, and engineering.

Wednesday’s dis­cus­sion is the latest event high­lighting the grad­uate campus’ momentum. The campus hosted an open house in Jan­uary and con­vened three dozen of Washington’s leaders in research, health­care, higher edu­ca­tion, and gov­ern­ment for an event in Feb­ruary focused on cre­ating sus­tain­able part­ner­ships in the region.