Giving the game away

Entertainment software is quietly having a major influence on more serious aspects of our lives, providing applications such as training videos for the Army and healthcare programs for patients.

Several notable technologies that were originally developed for the entertainment software industry are now being used by completely different sectors. Although these technological ‘spillovers’ are not captured in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) numbers, they represent a significant contribution to the overall economy because increases in productivity caused by advances in entertainment software translate into a higher standard of living in the future.

Technology transfers from entertainment software have allowed advertisers to present a closer representation of the advertised product, leading to more internet-based transactions. For example, estate agencies have embraced video game 3D technology to give buyers virtual tours of houses.

Entertainment software is also a proven training tool for the military. In 2004 the US Army established its own video game studio to develop software to use in training. This software is sometimes released later for consumers as widely distributed entertainment. For example, Full Spectrum Warrior, a realistic game developed for the US Army to simulate combat, has a modified version available to the public.

The Talon Robot System, deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, relied on video-game software at all stages of development. This is a tank-treaded titanium robot used to search for enemies and to photograph caves and terrain remotely. Software from the Army’s video game studio was used to test the robot before it was built, then to train soldiers stationed abroad. Ironically, the training software was incorporated back into general entertainment software, its original source of inspiration.

The CELL processor (a CPU specially developed for gaming by Sony, IBM and Toshiba) has been adopted to meet the needs of many branches of the US Armed Forces. The processor’s increased ability to process real-time data streams for imaging can handle workloads better and faster than traditional processors for sonar and radar. Mercury Computer’s blade servers featuring the CELL processor can be brought on to submarines to handle the sonar computation requirements and on to planes to handle the radar.

Video games also have immense possibility to advance healthcare, through both patient care and professional training. In September 2004 the first annual Games for Health conference was held in Madison, Wisconsin. This focused on meeting a variety of healthcare goals through ‘the more cost-effective methods of video games’. The discussion included programs using either ‘off- the-shelf or specially made video games’ for a variety of medical purposes. Some involved biofeedback to decrease the biological signs of stress. Others used video games interactively linked to exercise equipment to increase fitness participation. Proposed areas for research included video games for pregnant women.

The CELL-based Mercury computer blade server is a direct transfer of technology from entertainment software to the field of medicine. Medical imaging requires the same high-speed processing that entertainment software uses to create 3D images in real time. Advanced scanning techniques have led to large increases in available data; a single scan can result in 2,000-3,000 images, or slices. With these radiologists have to view the individual scan slices without seeing the whole thing. Using traditional processors, reconstructing an image takes two seconds per slice, or over five minutes for a full image, whereas CELL can process the same image in seconds.

Entertainment software can also be used to help environmental problems. One example is NitroGenius, commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of the Environment to address its concern as one of the largest producers of nitrogen emissions. The object of the game is to find the lowest-cost emission policy to help control the deterioration of the atmosphere. The game was developed by the private studio Play2Learn with assistance from the Energy Research Centre and Alterra, with a free one-player version, NitroGenius, available online.

Future contributions from video games are sure to be ever more significant, but they will occur in unpredictable ways. For example, the PlayStation 3 could model the human genome better than a $100,000 (£53,000) super-computer. Video games force chip makers to expand processing capabilities in areas such as real-time responses and 3D imagining.

Future innovations will occur in graphics and in high-speed memory, which will allow information to travel back and forth between the graphics processor and the central processor at even faster speeds. Not far into the future, processors originally designed for gaming applications could be used to capture faces in a crowd with six million pixels, and even zoom in to distinguish between the fold of a parka or a concealed bomb.

The current and expected benefits created by gaming are often overlooked when evaluating the societal impact of the gaming industry. Because of its leadership in propelling innovation, and because that innovation generates such significant benefits for the economy, policy makers should seek appropriate opportunities to ensure that the industry can continue to thrive and grow.

Edited extracts of the white paper Video Games: Serious Business for America‘s Economy, by Robert W Crandall and J Gregory Sidak