Getting Serious: The next billion-dollar market in games

Guest post by Sagi Shorrer*

We’re seeing a revolution in the use of games for purposes beyond mere entertainment. Serious games, as they are known, are on the rise. The idea is simple: the best way to get people to do something is to make it fun. ‘Edutainment’, a seventies buzzword for educational entertainment, is nothing new. But games as a medium offer something no book or television could: interactivity. Books can give you information. Games can give you information, test your recall, help you practice a skill, give you feedback on how well you’re progressing, and much more besides.

But the new serious gaming is about more than just educational interactivity. For one thing, the purpose of a game can be to help the player’s health, give them a perspective to empathise with, or even let them participate in solving a major scientific problem. What’s more, we’re seeing the intersection of serious gaming with two other important trends. One is the rise of mobile gaming. The other is self-monitoring and self improvement, what is also often mentioned as “The Quantified Self”. We’ll get to those two threads in a moment. First, let’s look at some examples.

A team of surgeons created Touch Surgery – a simulator that uses touch gaming to aid the teaching of surgery. SimCityEdu: Pollution Challenge!, produced by Glasslab, uses realistic pollution models to offer a challenge of balancing environmental impact with development in true SimCity style. Some games have even been unintentionally educational: Plague Inc.’s realistic modeling of the factors involved in spreading disease was praised by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are numerous flight simulators used for education – from Microsoft Flight Simulator and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Full Mission Simulator to the driving simulators of Teknotrove.

Beyond education, some developers have used the unique immersive quality of games to help players empathize with perspectives outside of their own: Papers, Please by Lucas Pope gives players the chance to run a bureaucracy as an immigration inspector, where they must decide whether or not to allow applicants the chance to enter the state of Arstotzka. That Dragon, Cancer and Actual Sunlight tackle cancer and clinical depression respectively.

Games can even be used to help benefit health: The Walk, created by Six to Start in partnership with the NHS, encourages players to get walking by giving them context of a thriller game. As the characters moves through the game by walking, so must the player, with their motions being tracked by their phone’s GPS. Zombies, Run, also made by Six to Start, uses a similar concept for the more active.

Foldit crowdsources the difficult scientific problem of protein folding – there are many billions of ways a protein can fold, making it very difficult to predict its folded structure. Players have to try folding a protein as well as possible, then researchers look at the highest scoring solutions to see if they can be made for the real protein and if they have any scientific benefit.

America’s Army pushed the first person shooter genre into the service of recruitment and public relations. The recently released app Knafayim does the same thing for the Israeli Air Force.

Trends in Gaming:

As I said at the start, there are two further trends coming together to form the new serious gaming.

The rise of mobile gaming. 64% of app users play games, more than for any other category. And over half of those players spend more than an hour a day playing. In 2013, mobile gaming generated $13.2 billion in revenue worldwide. That figure is expected to rise to $17.1 billion for 2014. (Source: Gartner, Oct 2013). This growth is not surprising. Mobile gaming offers many benefits: mobile devices are the most personal pieces of technology, and they can go almost anywhere. People can play mobile games during idle time, which would otherwise go to waste – while commuting, waiting for an appointment, and so forth.

The second trend is the use of apps for monitoring and self-improvement. The trend started several years ago with fitness apps such as RunKeeper and Strava. In April 2014 Facebook acquired the maker of Moves app, which is also part of this trend, called by many the ‘Quantified Self’. Apple is expected to announce soon its own wearable version, which may boost the growth of this trend to record our performance and take action for improvement. This trend never stopped with physical training. Young professionals, executives and seniors understand the importance of mindfulness, regular assessment and training or other forms of cognitive improvement. They are ready to invest time and effort in the area, and mobile games are deeply connected with this trend. This is a great trend and in addition, it helps widen the audience for the games industry with many non gamers joining in.

Cognitive Games:

Mental Rotation Exercise

Cognitive games are based on the concept of brain fitness: performing regular mental exercise to strengthen the brain

Cognitive games, also known as brain training games, are one of the most popular examples of serious gaming. They are based upon the idea of brain fitness: the claim that just as physical exercise can improve the body, mental exercise can improve the mind.

Brain fitness has its roots in medicine and cognitive psychology. Almost 100 years ago, psychologists and doctors realized that mental stimulation could help a patient recover from traumatic brain injury and compensate for the deficits caused by it. As a commercial service, however, it first came into play in the 1980s. The early cognitive training methods needed trained professionals to administer them, so the first wave of cognitive gaming was restricted to specially equipped research facilities. Because of its origin, early cognitive gaming was used to combat health problems – compensating for neurological deficits and reducing the risk of age-induced dementia by keeping the mind active, and so forth. Initially there was some skepticism about how effective cognitive training was, but nowadays, as more studies are published, it is gaining acceptance from the scientific community.

The rise of the information industry changed all that. Using the toolset of video games, anyone with access to a computer could play cognitive games without having to use other expensive equipment or trained professionals. The Internet made it easy to distribute cognitive games, and mobile devices meant they could be played anywhere. Cognitive gaming became a viable business. Neuroscience Solutions Corporation (founded in 2002 and rebranded to BrainHQ), Lumosity (founded in 2005) and Fitbrains (2007, now a Rosetta Stone company) are the most well known examples of second wave cognitive gaming. While they may use mobile extensions, most second wave cognitive games are designed to be played on the web.

According to recent market reports by SharpBrains, cognitive gaming actually has a larger potential outside the health market than within. In fact, individual consumers who purchase games for their own personal development are responsible for most of the growth in the market. The revenue for brain health (including both games and biometrics) in 2020 is projected to be $6 billion. Of that, half is expected to come from consumers rather than health providers or employers.

From this, we can see the third wave of cognitive games designed to take advantage of this market. Third wave games are designed predominantly as apps for mobile devices, making them more accessible and allowing them to fit more easily into the lives of busy professionals. They simultaneously entertain and allow consumers to work on self-improvement in their idle time, achieving the same level of efficacy as in the second wave. Examples of the third wave include Peak by Brainbow*, an app designed to help users reach their peak performance at work and elsewhere in life, and Happify, which aims to increase happiness through brain training games. Both companies are backed by venture capital funds.


We’re seeing a growing trend. The new serious games, with their background in multiple areas and growing accessibility, will have wide reaching implications in education, in health, and in the corporate world. As long as great game designers and scientists continue to work on these important problems and categories, the consumers will get the most engaging format ever created along with clear understanding of the benefits it brings.

*Sagi Shorrer is the co-founder of Brainbow, the creator of Peak app.

Eze Vidra
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Eze Vidra

Startup investor and advisor at Techbikers
Eze is startup investor and advisor. Until recently he was a General Partner at Google Ventures Europe. Before joining GV, Eze started Campus London, Google's first physical hub for startups, and led Google for Entrepreneurs in Europe. He's an experienced product manager and startup mentor. In 2012 Eze founded Techbikers, a non-for profit supporting children education in developing countries.
Eze Vidra
Follow me

Eze Vidra

Eze is startup investor and advisor. Until recently he was a General Partner at Google Ventures Europe. Before joining GV, Eze started Campus London, Google's first physical hub for startups, and led Google for Entrepreneurs in Europe. He's an experienced product manager and startup mentor. In 2012 Eze founded Techbikers, a non-for profit supporting children education in developing countries.

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