Making computer games change the world

COMPUTER games fans who wage war on zombies and other dark forces could soon be helping to make the real world a better place.

Charles Cecil, CEO of Revolution. Picture by Gerard Binks

It might seem hard to believe, but the data created by computer games buffs could be used to improve our health and wealth.

Yesterday, an event at the University of York brought together members of the games industry and leading academics to discuss how digital games can be put to social and scientific uses.

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The Game Intelligence event marked the launch of a new research project, New Economic Models and Opportunities for digital Games, or NEMOG for short.

NEMOG aims to yield social benefits from the UK games industry, which is the third largest in the world. The event featured two influential keynote speakers from the games industry: California-based Jeffrey Lin, lead designer of social systems at Riot Games, and York-based Charles Cecil, the founder and managing director at Revolution Software.

Revolution Software specialises in adventure games, such as Broken Sword and Lure of the Temptress. Mr Cecil discussed business models for games, and, in particular, Revolution’s success with crowdfunding.

Recently, his York-based company turned to US website Kickstarter, the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects, to help pay for the fifth instalment of the Broken Sword franchise.

The digital “democratisation” has allowed independent developers like Revolution Software to produce games profitably for the first time and Mr Cecil hopes other companies in other sectors will be able to benefit in the same way from new distribution channels.

Professor Peter Cowling, from the University of York’s Department of Computer Science and the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis (YCCSA), leads the NEMOG project.

He said: “The digital games market is an enormous and fast-growing industry with extraordinary impact, contributing more than £3bn a year to the British economy. We are looking at how we can harness the widespread enthusiasm for digital games to contribute to advances in society and science.

“For example, games can be used to test economic theories by analysing the artificial economies in online games, or as a means of collecting data for scientific investigations. We only need to persuade a small fraction of the games industry to consider the potential for social and scientific benefit to achieve a massive benefit for society.”

The NEMOG project is a partnership between the Universities of York, Durham and Northumbria; Cass Business School, City University London; and games companies and industry network associations. Every action in an online game generates a piece of data. NEMOG will develop new algorithms to “mine” that data so researchers can find out what makes the players’ tick. Prof Cowling said yesterday: “Instead of treating games as a passive activity, we can harness the behaviour of huge numbers of game players to help us to understand human behaviour.

“We can analyse individuals, and determine special cases where behaviour is outside the norm. You can analyse the movements of players using a Wii controller, for example, to see how movement is evolving in stroke victim rehabilitation. We can bring together people in the games industry with scientists, and healthcare workers, who can come up with novel uses for the games, and create games that yield other values beyond fun and profit. They could potentially be used as a tool in science, therapy and rehabilitation. It leads to an understanding of people at an individual and group level.

“The project started in October and has three years’ duration. The other parts of the project involve the analysis of the business of games, and looking at the possible future of the sector. We’re interested in the business model of how we create games content that has scientific and social outcomes.”

Mr Lin said that a lot of young people were learning about teamwork from games. One of the key things is looking at how players choose their online identity, and the language they use, he said.

Professor Feng Li, of Cass Business School, said: “We are looking at games that go beyond the realm of digital entertainment to address social and scientific objectives.”