'Search for problems, turn them into games’

The games people play are no longer just for fun and entertainment. Serious gaming is now regarded as an important new problem-solving tool for businesses, institutions and researchers.

TU Delft’s associate professor Igor Mayer, a recent winner of the Entrepreneurial Scientist Award for his work in serious gaming, is one of the university’s leading experts in this exciting, and commercially viable, new field of science and technology.

What is the Entrepreneurial Scientist Award?“The prize is jointly awarded by TU Delft’s Valorisation Centre and by Yes!Delft. I was chosen as the winner for the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TPM), where I work in the Policy, Organization, Law & Gaming department.  Together with the entrepreneurial award came 5,000 euro in prize money as well, which I can use within the faculty for innovation.”

Why do you think you’re regarded as the TPM faculty’s most entrepreneurial scientist?“I’m not quite sure, but I presume because some people within the faculty think I’m entrepreneurial innovative, but this also raises some questions: what does it mean to be an entrepreneurial scientist? Does it mean having lots of patents? Or does it mean having your own company? Here, it means that if you look at my activities, you see some examples, you see that I assisted some students in gaming, and they liked it very much, and then they started their own companies via Yes!Delft. I really like those experiences that approach research in an innovative, interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial way.”

What exactly is a serious game? “The simplest definition is that you use game technology and game concept for non-entertainment purposes. So it’s a game with a meaning, a game that has been designed deliberately to have a purpose outside the game! Serious game means using a game language or game technology to transfer meaning from in the game to outside the game. We use the game to understand changes.”

How can researchers benefit from gaming? “Gaming is an excellent research method, and many PhD students use serious games as research instruments. This means that if there are no interviews, case studies or econometrics modeling available, you can still conduct research by serious gaming.”

How long has serious gaming been around?“Gaming in itself is a method with a long tradition. It is however perhaps still difficult for people who have a strict definition of science to understand, the people who ask: Can I do this? Can I repeat this? Is it viable enough? But as soon as they accept that not everything in science can be repeated, serious gaming can be understood. If I do a scientific interview, I cannot repeat it. But in a game, I can do it many times; it’s a very creative, innovative research method in environmental science and urban planning, for instance. Its applications are not only for learning and education.”

What is the relationship between serious gaming and entrepreneurship?“Entertainment gaming and serious gaming are two of the fastest growing industries in the world. The number of people playing games is growing incredibly fast – it’s a bull market. And we have no idea what’s coming next; there are completely new games mixing reality with the virtual world, and using virtual things in the real world. So there’s lots of innovations growing up. Serious gaming is a magic driver for ICT innovation. Moreover, so many young people are in this business; it’s usually young people who start game companies, not the ‘bigs’! Big companies find it difficult to handle this industry, because they’re bureaucratic.”

If the big companies don’t start gaming companies themselves, presumably they do invest in serious gaming? “Yes, they very much like to invest in serious gaming; for example, Google Earth is a base for many game platforms, because these are mixed reality games. A major IBM program runs the serious games. These are the major players. These big companies have the resources to buy serious gaming companies, and they’re now searching for the smart companies to buy.” 

Is it difficult to enter into this business? “Actually, for the big companies, it is. But small companies who start in gaming can eventually become a Google or Microsoft, like how those companies started. Because it’s possible to start a gaming company with just a few people, Google and other giants are interested, and this is happening now.”

Do you design games upon request from businesses, or do you first design a game and then try to sell it?“We design games upon the requests of businesses, but sometimes the game is designed first and then sold, as is the case with some students at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering who had an idea, which they developed as their Master’s thesis, for a small application that communicates with global positioning systems, gives indications and positioning, and has been used by children playing at school. It’s a sort of mixed reality, has a new kind of interface, and children can make all kinds of relationships in a group, for example, playing hide and seek. These TU Delft students designed the game and founded a business based on it, although they have no idea what the market for it will be. It’s not a serious game yet, but they believe they can ultimately turn it into a serious game.” 

What process is involved in selling a serious game?“Any company experiencing a problem can go to a gaming company and request a serious game. But it’s important to remember that it’s not possible to design a game for a company that doesn’t have a problem. First, there should be a problem, and then there can be a game. You need to have a problem or an opportunity, and you need to want to change something. It’s serious gaming. And you can use gaming in this way as a research tool; for example, a company perhaps wants to know what its future will be like in five years if things go a certain way. Search for the problems, and turn them into serious games.”

Is serious gaming happening only in universities, or is it a business? “It’s a business in itself. If you’re good enough, you can establish your business on it. But if you’ve failed to understand your client’s specific problems, or you don’t have enough experience in building games, you won’t get in the market. We at the university teach students something about why universities and businesses play serious games and their applications in management, but it’s up to you, as an entrepreneur, to get in the market.” 

Weer verlaat een directeur marketing en communicatie (M&C) binnen korte tijd de TU, dit keer Martine Muller. Dat doet bij velen de vraag rijzen wat er aan de hand is bij M&C. Paul Rullmann van het college van bestuur (cvb) zegt dat er geen sprake is van één oorzaak. Hij had Muller graag gehouden, maar zij kan de drukke baan niet combineren met haar privéleven. Hij hoopt dat Mullers opvolger het ingezette beleid van professionalisering voortzet. Over Mullers voorgangers zegt Rullmann dat er wel eens verschillen van inzicht zijn geweest, maar dat de omloopsnelheid in het veld van marketing en communicatie misschien ook wel hoger is dan in andere vakgebieden. Hans Krul, secretaris van het cvb, voegt daaraan toe dat de directeur M&C van de TU Delft een moeilijke baan heeft. “Al was het maar omdat heel veel mensen denken dat ze het beter weten. Daar heeft een afdeling als juridische zaken bijvoorbeeld nauwelijks last van.”