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Games that go beyond entertainment

Northeastern’s graduate campus in Seattle hosted an engaging discussion last Wednesday that brought together innovative thinkers in academia and industry to discuss the future of “games for impact” and how to scale its business model.

Tayloe Washburn, dean and CEO of Northeastern’s graduate campus in Seattle, said the city is the perfect setting to tackle this challenge. The videogame industry in the city is booming, he said, increasing from 150 small- to medium-sized companies six or seven years ago to 350 companies in 2011, the lot of which generated $9.7 billion in revenue.

While the lion share of games in the marketplace focus on recreational, casual use, Washburn said there is enormous potential for video games that go beyond entertainment purposes to create societal impacts in areas like health and education. Now, the question is how to get there.

“If the games are good and fun, there are unlimited applications of games for impact,” Washburn said. “The key is figuring out if there are tweaks we can make in this space so that investors and companies will devote more attention to these kinds of games. We can develop a new reputation for the Puget Sound region to make it leader in that area.”

Leading that discussion was Magy Seif El-Nasr, Northeastern’s director of game educational programs and research and an associate professor with dual appointments in the College of Arts, Media and Design and the College of Computer and Information Science. Seif El-Nasr’s award-winning research focuses on enhancing game designs by developing tools and methods for evaluating and adapting game experiences.

In her talk, Seif El-Nasr discussed strategies for how the medium can expand and provided examples of successful games for impact. She then convened a panel of interactive game industry innovators and experts from the Seattle area: John Williamson, an independent producer and author with 20 years’ experience in the industry who has shipped a wide range of titles on nearly every platform, from iOS to PlayStation to Xbox 360; Jeff Pobst, who was a group leader at Microsoft for the Xbox and Xbox 360 platforms before founding Hidden Path Entertainment and becoming its CEO; and Jason Robar, game industry education and startups advisor for the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County. Robar has consulted for government agencies on “serious games” and created Microsoft’s first games relationships with Electronic Arts, Sony, and Sega.

Seif El-Nasr posed a series of questions to the panelists on topics including examples of video game business models that explore uses beyond entertainment; the strategies for sustaining long-term investments in this space; and the emerging markets where games for impact will make a splash.

During the conversation, Robar said, “It’s no accident that games are becoming more family friendly these days. Those creating the games aren’t in their 20s anymore. We’re older, and some of us even have kids of our own. So we’re now creating games that match our lifestyles.”

Northeastern’s graduate campus, which launched earlier this year, offers dynamic graduate degree programs in high-demand fields such as cybersecurity, health informatics, computer science, bioinformatics, and engineering.

Wednesday’s discussion is the latest event highlighting the graduate campus’ momentum. The campus hosted an open house in January and convened three dozen of Washington’s leaders in research, healthcare, higher education, and government for an event in February focused on creating sustainable partnerships in the region.