When the Serious Games Summit first began in 2004, the event was heavily focused on the military and business applications of tailor-made videogames. Pentagon officials tested out rifle games against wall projectors, while Alcoa discussed its forklift simulation game designed to teach employees about warehouse safety.

But this year, the summit, which ends today in San Francisco, expanded its focus to include the ramifications of commercial gaming.

Benjamin Sawyer, director of the Serious Games Summit at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, said that “gamification”—the act of making a task into a game—is the big new buzzword for this space. But he also said that this year’s event marks the first time that speakers have focused on the ramifications of widespread gameplay upon society.

“The first three speakers were not about demos, they were about meaningful pieces of work people were doing that represents one of the serious outputs of games,” said Sawyer. “Nina Fefferman [a professor at Rutgers University] spoke on making real decisions based on ‘World of Warcraft.’ Her output isn’t a game; it’s a new epidemiological tool derived from real gameplay.” (Fefferman’s research concerned an in-game plague that could spread among players.)

In a different session, Jayne Gackenbach of Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, described a study that compared the frequency and severity of nightmares in military personnel who played games frequently against those who played games infrequently. Her research showed that traumatic dreams were more common in soldiers who played games less frequently. Most of the high-level gamers she interviewed still had nightmares, but were able to control them and had fewer instances of feeling helpless or powerless in those dreams.

“With Jayne’s work, she’s trying to show that maybe games could have some ability to help people who suffer from nightmares,” said Sawyer. “You can see where she’s going with it: trying to answer this larger question. Those two talks show that not everything in serious games is about the manifestation of a game. It’s the manifestation of the contributions games can make in serious ways beyond entertaining us.”

Sawyer also said that the buzzword “gamification” is being put to the test this year, thanks to the popularity of social games like FarmVille.

“Serious games always follow closely behind commercial games, and so social games are popular this year. I think that’s what’s driving gamification. People are looking to see what’s the extreme side of the curve, and how do we use that?” he said.

“The other theme is serious games have a big interest in scalability. If you want to affect people, you want to affect a lot of them. If you look at 500 million Facebook users, you think about how you can get to them.

“Early serious games dealt with really serious topics. You’d get these big games for big topics. I think now, people are saying the problems are big, but the games don’t need to be. But they do need to be big in one way, which is scale. The industry’s notion of what scale was five years ago was a triple-A hit title, which is different now.”