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Problems You Can Shake a Joystick At

War Room to Sickroom, Video Games Are Red-Hot

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2004; Page A01

Glucoboy, a glucose meter that can be connected to a Nintendo GameBoy, will be available for kids with diabetes this spring. SuperCharged!, released last year, helps physics students understand electromagnetism; Virtual U, released in 2001, lets players take on the role of a university president.

By the end of next year, the Federal Budget Game -- how do you solve the deficit? -- will be available to play online.

The U.S. military has been developing games like Full Spectrum Warrior, which Army technology officer Michael Macedonia describes as "first-person thinker games," not first-person shooter games. (University Of Southern California)

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The U.S. military early on recognized the use of "serious games" -- the term used to describe video games for non-entertainment purposes. The Pentagon spends more than $4 billion a year on simulation equipment and war games, and this week will tell what it has learned to other NATO members at a conference in The Hague titled "Exploiting Commercial Games for Military Use."

But there's more to "serious games" than the U.S. Army's Full Spectrum Warrior and America's Army. Health care providers, college professors and other professionals in public and private sectors are also developing non-entertainment games whose "fun factor" ranks below their "serious factor" -- as with Glucoboy. In fact, this kind of outside-the-Xbox thinking represents the next frontier for the lucrative interactive gaming industry, which had $7 billion in software sales last year, thanks to the popularity of games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and NBA Live 2004.

Today, a Serious Games Summit convenes in Washington, bringing together more than 500 game developers and people interested in their use. The summit will feature sessions that include "How Can Games Shape Future Behavior?," "The Potential of Games in Healthcare," "Inside Infinite Teams: Game-Based Team Training," "Real, Reel, Surreal: How Games Impact Perception" and "What Happens When Games Go Into Any Classroom Situation."

Befitting its pioneer status, the military will be a considerable presence at the event, with sessions such as "Non-Combat Military Game Efforts" and "Using Games: The War College Perspective." Jim Dunnigan, a veteran and author of "The Complete Wargames Handbook," is tonight's keynote speaker.

His book is considered a classic in the field of strategy and war-gaming, a companion to true-and-tried, old-fashioned, muddy-boots training. Now a Pentagon consultant, he's a link between that old world and the new one.

"Serious games have been around for a while," says Dunnigan, 61. "The military gave it a start in World War II, and it helped tremendously in training. What this emerging serious-games movement is trying to do is bring the concept of hands-on simulation training to as many activities as possible."

He is also a consultant on Wall Street, where someone out of college training to be a currency trader, for example, spends a "lot of hours" playing on a simulated system. The yen is going one way, the euro is going another. What do you do?

This is, indeed, the Xbox and PlayStation generation, a world of hyperactivity, at least when it comes to fun. Powered by the high-resolution video graphics that have evolved since the late 1980s, video games are now everywhere -- in computers and consoles, in cell phones and BlackBerrys.

It almost makes the term "serious games" seem oxymoronic.

"You want to be entertained? There are all kind of games that will entertain you for ages and ages. No argument there," says Ben Sawyer, organizer of this week's summit, who grew up playing video and computer games and who now runs Digitalmill, a Portland, Maine-based consulting company that produces market research on the gaming industry. "But this summit is about creating games that can solve other types of problems. How to train soldiers to go into a new culture. How to get people to work in teams together. How to teach principles of science to children."

"Why not have a million people try to figure out how to reduce CO 2 emissions online?" says David Rejeski, project director for the Serious Games Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank here. "Let a million people play it as a game. Globally. Then see what happens."

The serious game movement started off quietly, carefully, under the radar, guided by Sawyer and Rejeski. In March 2003, Sawyer held two-hour roundtables. A year later, it turned into a two-day event, though that was still piggybacked to a larger event, the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif. This week's sold-out summit is considered a breakthrough.

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