Interview Sue Bohle: Serious Games Association

A leading light in the games industry for more than 25 years, helping to build the Game Development Conference from a small gathering of programmers into a prominent industry gathering, Sue Bohle launched the Serious Games Association in 2010. SGI talks to her about the organisation’s mission to advance the growth of the sector

Tell us about the SGA, when was it created and what was the original mission statement?

The Serious Games Association was formed in 2010, just after the first Serious Play Conference. At our closing session, where we asked for comments, several attendees said they wished the industry had an association that would serve the needs of developers and game designers as well as professionals seeking to purchase games for use in education and training – be a source of information and networking.  Noting existed – or has emerged — serving that need.  Our programs are an attempt to fill that need.

And how did you come to run with SGA, what was your background beforehand?

 My family background and first career was in education, but I grew impatient at the slow pace of change in the application of new ideas to the learning environment.  I returned to school to pick up a master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and then commenced a career in public relations.  After 10 years with major international agencies, I started my own, and we focused first on serving Silicon Valley, then in its infancy, promoting Microsoft’s MS-DOS and eventually launching Epson America, Packard Bell and other major brands.

About this time, I was introduced to video games, another exciting “new” industry. We (The Bohle Company) helped build GDC, PAX, EA and Activision as well as a lot of startups like Crystal Dynamics. Along the way, it became obvious to me that the elements of game play could be applied to education and training, and I started following that development, eventually becoming an evangelist for serious games. So I jumped into a third career promoting the use of games to revolutionize education, healthcare professional and patient training; improve corporation training and staff development, and be used for many, many more applications — just now being explored.

How many members does it currently have? Do you have an international reach?

The Association is international.  We have more than 3,000 members, even without much marketing effort.  We have Australian, Asian and European members as well as American. Until recently I was still working two jobs.  Now I have more time to start promoting the Association.  We will begin to offer more services.

How would you describe the state of the serious gaming market worldwide? 

While I think we have passed the point where we have to explain to everyone in education or training what a serous games is, we have much more to do to prove our efficacy.  It is only in the last two years that serious research has been completed, comparing learning by alternate methods. We have known for a long time that students and employees preferred and enjoy learning when it is playful and fun; we can now prove that it is more effective, that retention is better.  We have also reached a point where we can successfully capture play experience and use that data to judge participant performance and to improve the training for which the game was used.

Research is costly.  However, if we do not continue to add a research component to games being developed, we will fail. Games not tested and evaluated (by a third party group) will give the industry a bad name.  Use of serious games is growing.  We expect to reach $15 billion in sales by 2020.  But we need the games being put out there to be good games, games that do improve education, training.

What sectors are making most use of serious gaming in the US? (education, healthcare etc..;)

 The fastest growing sector is mobile games for preschool children. K-8 is also hot; playful learning with games is almost ubiquitous in this segment; they are being used in almost every teaching area. Social emotional learning is the newest growth area.  The other areas in education that are showing growth are in the use of games in higher education and vocational education.

In the healthcare area, games for patient education has been very hot for the last five years. Now we are seeing growth in games for professional training, recertification, etc.

Corporate use of games in the U.S. has been slower to catch on.  Europe was their first and some of the biggest companies operating in the U.S. in the corporate sector are based outside the U.S.  Now that U.S. companies have been in the market awhile, that sector has the largest per seat revenue products

 Worldwide, India and China have been investing heavily in serious games, but primarily in the education sector, led by telecom companies developing and selling in games on their own devices.

Could you estimate the growth of serious gaming? Is it growing at the rate you expected?

Marketing research firms are projecting a growth of 18 – 20% a year worldwide for the foreseeable future.

How many dedicated developers are active in the market? 

That is a hard number to come by.  I would guess we have 15,000 developers in the U.S., at a minimum.  Most are dedicated purely to serious games, although some of that number converted over from entertainment game studios.  No developer dominates.  It would be hard to find more than 25 educational game companies with more than 50 employees, for instance.

Until recently, not much funding was available for serious games. We don’t have strong economic development funds like Europe in the U.S. or the financing of government entities like in Asia.  Nor has the telecom industry decided to focus on the education market here.  It was not until the development of the first games to stimulate brain development, that VCs and other serious traditional investors became interested.  Most early financing came from private foundations.

The Obama Administration has done quite a bit to change that.  We now have small business financing for educational games and now the National Institute of Health has a grant program as well.

Can you tell us more about the SGA conference in Raleigh/Durham this July? Who is it aimed at? How many people are expected to attend?  Will there be speakers?

 The Serious Play Conference, now in our 6th year, is a leadership conference for professionals who create serious games or implement education or training programs using playful learning techniques.  We will have more than 50 speakers sharing knowledge about the development and use of games and user data across all of the sectors of the industry – corporate, healthcare, education (K-20) and higher ed  as well as vocational education), government and military, museums and visitor centers.  We cover all sectors because attendees tell us the cross pollination of sectors is very educational.  Attendees are educators (teachers and university faculty and deans); chief learning officers of corporations, training leads at every kind of organization you can think of.  So SPC is a great conference for networking and deals do get done.

Making games, by the way, is occurring at the high school these days, so we also have speakers discussing how to implement programming into both middle school and high school.

Serious Play is a very interactive conference.  We will have a game jam, opportunities to participate in training games, a workshop on how teachers or professors can create an alternate reality learning experience game for a low budget, and a master’s class with the head of serious games at IBM – one of the first companies to recognize the potential of games throughout any organization.  For more information, visit our website: www.seriousgamesconf.com

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