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COVID-19: Time to take ‘serious’ games seriously

A local social entrepreneur and a gov consultant argue for the potential for educational video games to help governments that are embracing technology and innovation.

A still from the game Lab Hero, made during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Screenshot via
This is a guest post by Aradhya Malhotra, the cofounder of Philly-based Skyless Game Studios, and Chetan Choudhury, an advisor with the Prime Minister’s Office of the UAE in Dubai.

As COVID-19 has raged, people across the world tackled, grappled and battled with social disconnection in different ways. While the international COVID police and media added the term “social distancing” to our daily vocabulary with the intention of promoting safety, they inadvertently overlooked one of the most fundamental needs of human behavior — our desire to come together and socialize with our families, peers and communities.

While millions of us decided to cope with the isolation by passively sifting through endless Netflix catalogues, fatigue and resilience together have been rapidly giving rise to a more active way of overcoming the challenges of social distancing — “social improv.”

Initially as this movement of social improv emerged with the increased use of social media platforms and Zoom calls, but there was still an unexplained distance that these platforms could not cover. The need to fulfill this gap is what has led us all to an obvious choice for staying connected: video games, a medium that has, for decades, engaged and immersed people across ages, demographics, ethnicities and borders.

The impact of gaming during COVID is not just anecdotal. The industry has grown by almost 20% in 2020 to a staggering $179 billion and is projected to hit nearly $218 billion by 2023.

The more interesting fact however, isn’t just the growth in the fun and entertainment segments of the video game industry, but also a rapid growth in the “serious” or educational segment, which now stands at about $4 billion and is projected to reach $11 billion by 2030.

For many years now, serious games have had growing impact in the healthcare, education and training space. There have been many successful games such as SPARX and SuperBetter focused on mental health and behavioral therapy; ABC Mouse, Number Run, Oregon Trail and Math Blaster focused on K-12 learning; and most recently, games such as Stay Safe from Dubai, IITM Covid Game from India, PandeManager and Lab Hero which directly tackle COVID-19 awareness. These titles, amongst many others, highlight our desire to go beyond entertainment and virtual interaction to bridge the significant gaps in school education, formal  training as well as experiential learning, that were laid bare by the pandemic.

With the advent and proliferation of AR/VR, even more useful applications of game based social improv are being explored and experimented with in recent times. However, while many of these applications hold tremendous promise, a lot of this potential remains untapped due to a dearth of mainstream appeal and adoption from some industries and especially, governments. While many large corporations and startups have started to come together, there is a massive opportunity for governments and multilateral agencies worldwide to adopt serious games proactively, improvise on the potential applications creatively and amplify the impact exponentially.

Hence, to really push the boundaries here, there is a clear call to action for smart and dynamic governments to embrace gamification within their own functions and lead the way to scale the mainstream visibility of serious games through proactive policy, regulatory actions and funding interventions.

Global citizens are already leveraging video games to adapt to the new normal. Now, can governments step up their game in social improv, or will they be left behind?

Series: Coronavirus

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