Editor’s note: IBM opened its Research Triangle Park campus gates on Tuesday to hundreds of guests who came to see what experts believe the future will deliver in cognitive computing as well as what is called serious games. And when the talk turned to what a next “Ender’s Game” would be – one that entertains as well as helps solves real-world problems – the future talk grew quite exciting. Jason Parker delivers the exclusive story for WRALTechWire Insiders. The event was part of “Global Entrepreneurship Day.” CED, TiE Carolinas and RTP Foundation co-sponsored the discussion on entrepreneurs ecosystem development with IBM.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – “Research Triangle Park is the second largest hub of game designers in the country,”declared Porter Stowell, head of Serious Games in IBM’s Social Business Center of Competency. And he found himself addressing an audience of enthusiastic professionals in the rec room at IBM’s company recreation center on Tuesday night.

He was leading a panel discussion titled “The Next Ender’s Game: using games to solve problems.” And the talk provided event attendees the opportunity to hear how Triangle-based entrepreneurs are using game theory and “Serious Games” to process data, drive business decision-making, while increasing customer and employee engagement.

The panel takes its title from the military science fiction classic, “Ender’s Game,” by Orson Scott Card. The 1985 novel is set in a future world where mankind has emerged victorious from two conflicts with an alien species, and the movie starring Harrison Ford is soon headed to release on Blu-ray.

To prepare for future encounters, the International Fleet created “Battle School,” a program that trains Earth’s most-tactically gifted children. Entry to Battle School is granted only after significant monitoring of early childhood, and while in Battle School, trainees are frequently monitored using wearable technology and completing psychological games on interactive tablet-like devices. Children also compete in real battle scenarios as well as spend recreational time within an expansive game room.

I share this much detail about the book because the panelists on stage are speaking about the blurred lines of gaming, game theory, and Serious Games. It’s not completely inconceivable to imagine a future – a near future – where Ender’s Game-esque technology exists within a segment of the world’s population – or all of it.

Take big data, for example.

Panelist Hunter Moore, CEO of Athena’s Compass, said successful games will deliver incredible analytic power to companies that are ready to harness it – and well-designed games will yield a wealth of data about human cognition, problem-solving, and scenario development.

“Games are, by nature, interactive. This data is valuable, and gaming is an excellent way to gather data.”

Several RTP area companies are major players in serious game technology, including Virtual Heroes and Epic Games. Epic’s game development technology called Unreal is used across a wide variety of virtual reality environments, not just games.

Dispelling Misconceptions

Each panelist is quick to note that there are often misconceptions about the gaming world. A street-level survey might reveal that the average person believes all gamers are 13-35 and male.

This just isn’t the case, said Phaedra Boinodiris, Serious Gaming/Gamification Global Leader at IBM.

“The average age is 34,” said Boinodiris, “and 33 percent of all games are played by women.”

What’s more, he added, there are more gamers above the age of 50 than below the age of 13.

Gaming is already a huge industry (games outsell movies in dollars generated), noted Chris Hazard, founder and CEO of Hazardous Software. He stressed the extensions of game theory will continue to expand in the coming years.

“The gaming market used to have companies producing games for all sizes of budget,” said Hazard. Games could be produced for $100,000 or $50 million, and every price point in between.

“But this has changed,” said Hazard, since the mid-2000s, “now there is no middle.” Game companies compete in the market by producing $50 million games – and in order to compete in those markets, companies are forced to hire as many as 300 new artists, hundreds of developers, and take years to develop. Or, alternatively, there are small shops producing games for $200,000 that may or may not ever make a profit, said Hazard.

While the middle has fallen out of the traditional gaming market, he added, there’s been a significant increase and interest in how game theory and game design applies in the business world.

The “Serious Games”

Which brings us to Serious Games.

“Serious Games,” said Boinodiris, “are when you use games and game theory to do more than entertain.” It’s an extension of an industry beyond its traditional silo. Sure, games like Grand Theft Auto 5, Candy Crush, or World of might be the first thoughts that come to mind, said Boinodiris, but the industry is so much broader than that now.

Gamification occurs when companies “use game design techniques to apply to business processes,” said Boinodiris. When companies can use game theory to train core competencies like problem solving and cooperation and leadership training, they’ll become more competitive.

“The Serious Gaming approach isn’t about people in lab coats studying a business problem and coming back with a solution,” said Hazard, “it’s about getting more data out of your engagement.” It’s about “hooking into that data,” said Hazard, and understanding the production interface.

“Serious Games help visualize complexities and vet existing processes,” he added. And companies are deploying games within their business to create decision models and to increase employee or customer engagement.

It’s cognitive science and behavioral economics rolled together in an interactive and challenging package. And the future is as bright as it may be concerning.

The Pentagon Plays

Top U.S. agencies already use Serious Games to train for situational leadership. Boinodiris recalled a conversation with a four-star general in a leadership position at the U.S. Department of Defense. His staff was developing a serious game environment in which military personnel could gain transferrable skills and learn how to respond to an ecological crisis or natural disaster like a typhoon in Burma or a terrorist attack in Cairo.

Soon, said Boinodiris, there will be “a platform where you can come in and play against nature, to play against Al Qaeda, and the game would automatically develop more powerful storylines” based on human interaction and input.

It’s an open-source model that is already working. Fold.it, a company that gives users the ability to solve puzzles to benefit science, received significant backing from DARPA (yes, the same DARPA that created the Internet). The open source game environment has already yielded two potential leads on genetic data that can be utilized in order to treat disease.

And it’s not just scientists that play the game – according to Boinodiris, the player who was most adept at “winning” the game was a 15-year old high schooler, playing on his phone in between classes at school.

In an open-source gaming future, non-experts can assist just as much as experts. “The approach really works,” said Boinodiris.

“People still have the bias, the stigma, that games are just for kids,” said Boinodiris, “but the future holds the integration of games into work environments in a seamless way.” A key development will be integrating collaborative challenges into Serious Games played within work environments, said Boinodiris.

“People love this kind of stuff,” said Hazard, “the desire for collaboration has never been greater.”

Companies already have the capacity to build in artificial intelligence, and to have employees or customers compete in a game environment against them. So, your senior manager could change the “plug-in point” and the scenario, entering the game from the perspective of a salesperson or a logistical operations coordinator. Artificial intelligences would be able to learn from the human inputs and adjust scenarios – and even storylines – accordingly.

Talking “Watson” and Cognitive Computing

It was fitting that this panel discussion occurred at IBM, the home of the supercomputer Watson. During the preceding panel discussion, Chris Spencer, manager, future technology strategist, and manager of Blue Mix at IBM moderated a conversation around Watson’s cognitive technology and ecosystem.

Watson, which contains massive statistical algorithms running in parallel, combines natural language processing, machine learning, and hypothesis generation yielding predictive and confidence-based responses to a given input.

The supercomputer is not perfect, said David Sink, director of client solutions and delivery for IBM Watson Solutions. “People need to understand the many variables that have an impact,” said Sink, “we will perfect it over the years, but if you’re developing for Watson, you’ll need patience.”

The idea is to open up APIs and allow developers to build an app ecosystem that relies on Watson’s cognitive supercomputing. The implications could be huge – in healthcare, in technology, in many other industries – but the project is still in its infancy.

Game designers see Watson’s cognitive computing power as revolutionary. It could change the entire industry, suggested Hazard, giving gaming companies the ability to create a “Watson-sandwich” where artificial intelligences within gaming environments could query the Watson database to yield a predictive analysis of a human input and adjust the gaming scenario accordingly while simultaneously enabling a human player to respond to new scenarios.

“It will make for incredible narrative generation,” said Hazard, yielding games that are able to learn from human inputs and create challenging – and personalized – scenarios.

In Ender’s Game, the protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, along with other Battle School trainees, is given a workstation. Think a large tablet device with an incredible amount of computing power. On each tablet, there is a fantasy game powered by an artificial intelligence that adjusts the gameplay scenarios based on the human input from the individual user.

At one point, Ender is stuck in a certain level of the game. When faced with a dilemma of choosing the correct drink from a Giant. No matter which drink Ender chooses, his avatar always seems to die. He can’t choose correctly.

Ender does find a solution, and the game adapts. New levels open up to Ender, and he is able to gain further experience within the game.

Given the promises from the IBM Watson Solutions team, it isn’t a stretch to believe that games like this could exist – and will exist soon on a tablet near you.