"Serious games," or games that are meant for purposes outside of pure entertainment, can cover areas from military simulators to education about climate change. These games are often found on the PC, as the platform is both ubiquitous and open.
But at the Gamasutra-attended Games Beyond Entertainment Week in Boston on Tuesday, Digitalmill president and Games for Health founder Ben Sawyer said mobile platforms, with their wide adoption and increasingly powerful technology, also offer a viable opportunity for serious game developers.
"There are going to be a lot of iPads, a lot of Android phones, and a lot of interesting apps," Sawyer said, citing an estimated 82 million tablet PCs to be sold by 2015, the 500 million people using mobile health apps, and the 2.5 billion smartphones sold since 2010 (all data attributed to the Datamonitor Group).
"Building on mobile versus building for mobile is a distinguishing characteristic that we need to make as developers," Sawyer said.
"Building on mobile is building an app that runs on mobile devices or platforms, and it's accessible," for example Pac-Man or Tetris for mobile phones. "Building for mobile is the art of creating an application that takes advantage of the mobility of a platform, or perhaps some special things that are seen embedded into these platforms."
Sawyer is bullish on this latter point. "One thing to think about mobile phones is they really are mobile sensor platforms," he said, listing off the various sensor capabilities of mobile devices. Accelerometers and gyroscopes are already seeing wide adoption in game design, but Sawyer wants serious mobile game developers to recognize the potential of global positioning systems, cadence, galvanic skin response, blood pressure, and compasses as design tools.
Lit2Quit is a mobile app in development that aims to help smokers quit their habit through utilizing breath therapy. The mobile device's microphone is used as a sensor to detect breathing patterns, and direct the player to speed up or slow down their breathing in order to achieve either the relaxing or invigorating effects of cigarette smoking.
"Light sensors are used mostly for the utility of turning the phone off when you press it against your ear, or turning the iPad off when you close the cover on it, but as those sensors get better and more capable, we can actually have games that sense how much light is around...and ask you to seek more light-filled environments." Lunar Knights for the Nintendo DS has already utilized this mechanic. "Temperature sensors are the same way," Sawyer added.
Some of the advantages to mobile development aren't specific to serious games, but are important nonetheless. "Lit2Quit doesn't work when it's on your desktop at home and you're at work," Sawyer said.
He also argued that educational games may work better on mobile devices than stationary hardware, citing research on the larger amount of practice effect a mobile device facilitates. Education that seamlessly integrates with students' existing familiarity with mobile devices can be very effective, he said. "This isn't a heightened, amazing new form of pedagogy that's been invented," Sawyer said, "but it really is a form of behavior change applied to learning. These kids are scoring higher on math tests and chemistry tests because they're doing the actual work more frequently [on mobile devices]."
The potential for mobile devices to support serious games for very young children specifically clearly excited Sawyer. "How many people have kids under the age of seven who excel at using iPads and iPhones?" Sawyer asked. More hands among the audience went up than not. "Partly it's the touchscreen environment, but it's also the size of the device, and the fact that they can actually hold it.
"Yes, we all call it 'the digital pacifier,' but I have a whole rant that shows that really good games for very young kids really didn't exist at all, in any meaningful form, until these devices came along. Most of it was Dora and Thomas the Tank Engine crap."
The nutrition field stands to take advantage of bar and QR code scanners for serious games played while food shopping. "A lot of really bad health decisions about eating are made at the point of purchase," Sawyer said. "It's already too late when they get home."
Sawyer isn't absolutely skeptical about Augmented Reality as a serious games design tool, but he has more questions than answers. "It's clearly something unique, but it's not quite clear to me how this all comes together yet," he said. "We'll see a lot more entertainment stuff first, but then you'll start to see some interesting serious games stuff."
There are also specific liabilities to consider when developing for mobile platforms. Gold Walker is a mobile title, which Sawyer helped develop, that uses the 1840's American Gold Rush as a story device to inspire players to get up and walk around.
"When we were doing Gold Walker, one of the things that we were purposefully avoiding was any use of the GPS or the accelerometer to induce [the player] to walk around an actual, real place in the world. We were worried about whether or not, if we induced somebody to go someplace they really shouldn't, that there might be a legal liability there. [Mobile devices provide] new opportunities, but also new things that we have to think about and be careful about, as well."