Smartphone games nowadays can be more than just about play, with a wide variety of apps developed to help people learn new subjects and even improve their health. Although this category of mobile apps has a rather dour-sounding name – they are referred to as “serious games” – many of them strive to gamify real-life challenges.
Philadelphia-based management consulting firm Hay Group, for example, developed a gaming app called Journey to help young workers acclimate to their job environments.
Each stage of the game, the “journey,” includes a series of on-the-job tasks such as making an elevator pitch or cleaning up social media profiles to help players learn emotional and social skills that they can adapt in real life. The game’s social networking function allows multiple users to cooperate on given tasks.
There are even smartphone games for the elderly. Korean game developer OzLab created Do the G, whose title takes its pronunciation from the Korean word for mole. The app is indeed modeled after the popular arcade game Whac-A-Mole and is meant to help older people fight Alzheimer’s disease by having players memorize a code of numbers then tap on moles with the corresponding numbers. “We made the game as simple as we could but enough to entertain users and engage them,” a company spokesperson said.
The app was awarded the top prize at a serious game idea competition held in 2015 by the Korea Creative Content Agency, a government agency that promotes Korea’s creative industries, such as gaming, animation, character licensing, music and fashion, abroad.
But even as these games are recognized for their quality, they have not yet been very successful revenue makers. There are also concerns that if developers start to focus too much on gameplay and entertainment, the beneficial learning features will suffer. “These so-called serious games don’t bring in much money,” an app developer said. “Small companies sometimes come up with such games to win contests and get a shot at prize money.”
According to the content agency, the total revenue earned through serious game content was 31.3 billion won ($28 million) in 2014, the latest data available. That is a 9.4 billion won increase from 21.9 billion won reported in 2013, but the growth and absolute size of the market are still very small.
What is considered a “serious game” is also vague. The agency, for example, released two different market sizes for serious games, one including screen golf and one without. That’s because some customers could consider screen golf as a health-training activity while others might see it as entertainment.
“There needs to be a game-changing event or star company that can bring focus to the nation’s serious games industry, but until then, there will still be the stereotype of games being addictive,” said an agency source who requested anonymity. “But the expansion of device options for games is helping the market grow, and when virtual reality becomes a common educational tool, we can look forward to a new boost.”
Some of the Korea’s biggest gaming companies such as Nexon and NCSoft are working their way into the serious games market with efforts to balance gaming and learning while also enhancing profitability. The most notable case so far is a game called “Catch it! English” developed by NXC, the holding company of Nexon. Its gaming platform adopts the well-recognized English learning method of memorizing sentences in chunks. Since its release in November 2013, 750,000 people have downloaded the app. Google Korea selected it as its app of the year in the free education apps category in 2015.
Nexon rival NCSoft also released a game for PCs called “Hodoo English” through a partnership with Kidaptive and Chungdahm Learning, a private education company that specializes in teaching English. The companies injected 20 billion won into development. NCSoft designed the gameplay elements while Kidaptive designed systems to effectively transfer educational aspects and Chungdahm Learning provided English content.