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The Art of the Serious Game: How IBM's CityOne Can Help Cities Solve Problems

phaedraprofileGame fanatics have been enjoying simulation games ever since SimCity was first introduced in 1989, and electronic games are used for military and corporate training, but IBMer Phaedra Boinodiris designs so-called serious games to help people solve complex business and social problems.

Today, IBM is releasing her latest creation, CityOne, an on-line game that can help city leaders, businesses, and students figure out how to make cities work better by simulating transportation, environmental, business and logistical problems. The free game challenges players to complete missions involving energy, water, banking, and retailing. "It's like an onion," she says. "You can jump in and play it for 20 minutes, or you can stay and go deep and learn how cities are actually using different technologies."

If Boinodiris doesn't seem like a prototypical IBMer, it's because she's not.  She was previously an entrepreneur and founder of two companies–one an Internet game portal and the other a game consulting company. Both her parents are IBM retirees, though.

Fittingly, it was a game of sorts that brought Boinodiris and IBM together. Three years ago, when she was studying for an MBA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she participated in a business case competition versus another university. The task, posed by IBM, was coming up with an innovative way to get business people interested in business-process management software. Her idea was to draw them in by designing an electronic game that would simulate how BPM software works in an imaginary business.  One of her teammates was so sure that IBM would never accept a game as a solution that he up and quit the team on the spot. He was wrong.  Sandy Carter, an IBM vice president in the software group who was one of the judges of the competition, liked the idea so much that she hired Boinodiris as an intern–with the task of designing the game she had proposed.


That was INNOV8, which was released last year. It's used as a learning tool at more than 1000 universities worldwide and has become the No. 1 sales lead-generator for IBM's BPM business. CityOne came out of Boinodiris' conviction that a simulation game could be an effective way to help people understand the complex interrelationships between the many systems that are at work in a city.

Boinodiris operates a bit like a commercial game producer. She comes up with ideas, writes a business case,  pitches her ideas to raise money, and hires the talent to design the games.  She had her share of concerns about joining IBM. "I really like entrepreneurship," she says. "I imagined that at IBM it would be difficult to innovate and feel ownership, but I have to say I'm using all of my experience and skills as an entrepreneur here."

She cautions people to see CityOne for what it is. Sophisticated commercial simulation games can take four to five years and hundreds of software coders to make. She put hers together in a few months with the help of a couple of coders. It's a browser-based game made with Adobe's Flash technology.

But Boinodiris believes her game can have an impact–helping solve city problems. Eventually, she hopes the game will be connected to actual city data so people will be able to run more realistic simulations. In fact, she sees  serious games doing some of the work that PowerPoint presentations are used for–but aren't really right for. "The systems of the world are so complex now," she says. " There is no PowerPoint or white paper or sales person who can explain one of these complex situations like this medium can."

The potential uses for serious games seem to be endless. Are there any that you think would be really great–and that IBM should get going on?