SOUTH FREEPORT, Maine — Ben Sawyer helped train the next generation of university leaders, worked to school Cisco employees in binary math and is hoping to help at-risk youths avoid the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.
For him, it’s all a game — a serious game.
Sawyer is the co-founder of Digitalmill Inc., a game design consulting firm that is focused on the “serious games” space. Serious gaming isn’t when you pull a Call of Duty all-nighter with your buddies. Rather, it’s using games and game models to serve a purpose other than entertainment to try to solve some problem or effect a change.
“What we’re trying to do with the games is give ourselves tools to change behavior or do things we couldn’t do before,” Sawyer said. “It’s disruptive; it’s trying to find new ways to solve intractable problems.”
The concept, also now being referred to as “gamification,” is different from using computer simulations in that there’s an entertainment component; they are, at their core, games. Part of what makes serious games work is that game aspect: people will spend more time on things that are actually fun, entertaining or compelling.
Digitalmill serves as an architect for these games.
Generally, explained Sawyer, Digitalmill is hired by an organization that wants to explore computer gaming as a way to change a population group’s behavior, train a work force or impart some skills. Sawyer will work on that concept, figure out what the desired results are and what sort of game model might achieve them. Then he works with a stable of game designers and programmers nationwide who have experience in those different models.
Some of the games he’s worked on, as a designer, architect or consultant include a binary game for Cisco, the telecommunications giant, to help employees become proficient in that type of math; a congressional redistricting game; a game for Hilton to train employees on various aspects of their jobs; and a game that lets you try your hand at balancing the federal budget.
Digitalmill hosts several serious games-related conferences annually, including the Games for Health conference in Boston planned for June 12-14, with speakers including Constance Steinkuehler Squire, senior policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Dr. Bill Crounse, senior director of worldwide health for Microsoft.
Sawyer also co-founded with David Rejecsk the Serious Games Initiative, which is a branded, grassroots effort by folks to talk about the concept, push the idea forward and explore new ways to use games to have an impact society.
Those who work with Sawyer say he’s at the vanguard of the serious gaming movement and has been for the past decade.
“Part of what I really like and respect about Ben is he’s doing this out of a sense of true belief in the value of what he’s doing,” said Noah Falstein, a freelance game designer based out of Marin, Calif. “He’s got a really widespread, eclectic taste in things. He does everything from military to banks to medical to exercise — all sorts of things that serious games are very good for.
“He may be the single best-connected person in this field in terms of his connections to other people doing serious games.”
Falstein worked in the traditional entertainment games field, having earned titles such as “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis” and the shooter “Alan Wake.” In 1999, he started learning more about serious games, and about eight years ago worked on a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project with Sawyer and others developing a gaming interface for next-generation drones. They’ve worked together on other projects, including one currently with Dr. Lynn Fiellin, an internist and researcher at Yale University School of Medicine.
Fiellin had responded to a National Institutes of Health request for applications with a project proposal that would seek to attack the HIV-AIDS problem by affecting behaviors at a young age, with subjects in the 12- to 14-year-old range.
She proposed using a computer game to reach that audience, and in 2009 was awarded $4 million for the project. In researching the top experts who might participate, Sawyer’s name kept coming up.
Sawyer, as architect, acts as sort of an interpreter between the social science and research part of the team and the game developer side, said Fiellin.
The game, titled “Play Forward: Elm City Stories,” is designed for the iPad and is set to launch Nov. 8. It is essentially a game of the player’s life, said Fiellin, starting at seventh grade and going through high school and beyond. Each player picks an “aspirational avatar,” a character that portrays their dreams and hopes. Then, through a series of skills tests and decisions, the characters work forward toward that goal. The end is sort of mix between the movies “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Groundhog Day,” said Fiellin, where the players can see how different choices helped them or hindered them on their way toward their goals.
The goal is for a compelling game that the kids want to play, while at the same time influencing them to make better decisions — hopefully in real life, as well.
“It would almost be sort of transparent to them. They’re handed this dose of intervention and they don’t even see it,” said Fiellen.
There is something special between games and the player, said Sawyer, that makes applying them to health interesting and with big potential results.
“It’s clear there’s some sort of emotional and physiological relationship that goes on around games,” he said. “It’s not perfectly unlocked.”
He points to games like one aimed at keeping cancer patients in remission, that has players blasting cancer cells, keeping tabs on their medicine intake and managing side effects, too. It’s an effective way of visualizing cancer management, and the efficacy is under study, said Sawyer.
“I think what it’s telling us is there’s a hidden layer of consciousness that exists between games and game players,” he suggested.
He sees vast potential for serious gaming to influence public health on a broad scale. For instance, many doctors train on surgical simulators. But what if a game for mass consumption taught first aid? Every player who picked up some skills could potentially have an impact on the health of a number of people in their environment, should the need arise.
For Sawyer, this work is a continuation of a lifelong love of video games. He was born in Maine and raised in New York City. He was fascinated early on by games and how they and the industry worked. He worked at early video game stores, went to school for business and worked on Wall Street and in politics, including time on former President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign staff.
He came back to Maine with the Democratic House Caucus, he said, working on reapportionment issues.
Along the way, he kept writing white papers on trends in the computer world. In the mid-1990s, a publishing house contacted him to write a book on one of the topics he had written about, and he used the advance to stay in Maine and write. He wrote more books, Sawyer said, with topics ranging from digital photography to MP3 technology to Web-based commerce.
He also wrote about early Web-game developments, and was contacted in 1999 by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to help with a project that was under way — a game program to train university administrators that, Sawyer said, was sort of “Sim City meets universities.”
As the Internet began to really come together in the early 2000s, he worked more and more on those sorts of projects, really diving into the serious games world.
Today, he said, the game world has exploded. Casual gamers are everywhere; not just using the latest PlayStation, Xbox or Wii, but tapping into mobile games on their Androids, iPhones or iPads.
“We’re in a golden age,” he said.