The digital games market is an enormous and fast-growing industry with extraordinary impact, particularly on young people and increasingly on other segments of the population. The importance of the UK games industry (3rd largest in the world) was underlined in the Chancellor's Autumn statement (5th December 2012), which confirmed substantial tax reliefs for the digital games industry, saying that "the Government will ensure that the reliefs are among the most generous in the world". This year, in Forbes magazine it was suggested that, by the age of 21, the typical child has played 10,000 hours of digital games.
How can we harness widespread enthusiasm for digital games to contribute to advances in society and science in addition to economic impacts? For example, we can test economic theories by analysing the artificial economies in online games, or we can improve the motor skills of recovering stroke patients by using games based on motion detection devices such as the Wii controller, Kinect or simply the mobile phone.
In this project we will bring the UK digital games industry closer to scientists and healthcare workers to unlock the potential for scientific and social benefits in digital games. The numbers of games sold and the numbers of game hours played mean that we only need to persuade a small fraction of the games industry to consider the potential for social and scientific benefit to achieve a massive benefit for society, and potentially to start a movement that will lead to mainstream distribution of games aimed at scientific and social benefits.
In order to do this we need to understand the current state of the digital games industry, by engaging directly with games companies and with industry network associations like the Creative Industries Knowledge Transfer Network. We have a group of 12 games companies and 9 network organisations, all of whom have pledged their support, to get us started. Then we need to build simulation models that will allow us to investigate what might happen in the future (e.g. if government policy were to encourage the development of games with scientific and social benefits).
We need to conduct research into sustainable business models for digital games, and particularly for games with scientific and social goals. These will show us how businesses can start up and grow to develop a new generation of games with the potential to improve society.
Every action in an online game, from an in-game purchase to a simple button push, generates a piece of network data. This is a truly immense source of information about player behaviours and preferences. We will explore what online data is available now and might become available in the future, investigate the issues around gathering such data, and develop new algorithms to "mine" that data to better understand game players as an avenue for making better games, societal impact and scientific research.
It is an ambitious programme, but the potential benefits if we are even partially successful could have a huge impact on our children, science and wider society.