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Serious games sector growing, but commercial demand remains untested

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The ever-expanding game industry is increasingly making room for games on serious real-life topics like social and economic issues, although those titles' commercial viability remains unclear, reports the New York Times.

Atypical games like last year's contemplative desert adventure Journey, from thatgamecompany, occasionally attain mainstream success, but they're the exception to the norm — both in terms of the nature of the games themselves and their potential for widespread popularity. While Journey was published by Sony Computer Entertainment, most major publishers remain unwilling to take risks on these kinds of games because of a perception that there's a limited audience for them.

Serious games, for now, tend to be the domain of indie developers. The Times spoke with Borut Pfeifer, who quit his job at EA Los Angeles in 2009 after EA canceled the project he was working on — Steven Spielberg's LMNO — in order to make a game inspired by the protests in Iran over the country's 2009 election. Pfeifer's game, The Unconcerned, is still in development.

"What I'm interested in is making entertainment meaningful and that allows people to realize things about the world in a deeper way than watching the news," said Pfeifer. "I think there is an untapped demand for games like mine. It's a function of the increasing age of gamers, and that modern games don't speak to us."

"modern games don't speak to us"

Major publishers also shy away from serious games because they sometimes cover controversial subject material. Apple refused to allow Auroch Digital to release Endgame: Syria on the iTunes App Store three times this year because the game addresses the ongoing strife in the Middle Eastern nation. And in 2009, Konami dropped Atomic Games' Six Days in Fallujah (screenshot above), a shooter set around real events in the Iraq War.

"It is an extremely limited view of the future to suggest that interactive media cannot be used to explore the subjects that have been explored through film for decades," said Atomic Games president Peter Tamte to the Times.

Richard Lemarchand, the former Uncharted designer who left Naughty Dog last year to become a professor, said he's hopeful for future change in this area. "It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as the big game publishers revise their ideas about their market," he told the Times.