Correction to This Article
Geoffrey Rockwell's name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. The story below has been corrected.

Game Industry Finds Serious Outlet for Creative Energies

Incident Commander image
Many "serious games" are designed to train players in how to respond to high-pressure situations that are too expensive to simulate in the real world. (Breakaway Ltd.)
By Bob Greiner Staff Writer
Monday, October 31, 2005; 6:00 AM

The public sector: A world where tight budgets demand a less expensive way to do things while still doing them at least as well, if not better, than before.

The game industry: A world overflowing with creative talent drawn in by the allure of a "dream job" working on the other side of the video screen.

At the intersection of these two worlds lies an emerging marketplace labeled "serious games." The Serious Games Initiative, a project of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, defines the term as "using cutting-edge entertainment technologies to solve problems in areas as diverse as education, health-care, national defense, homeland security, analytics [and] corporate management."

"'Serious games' is a funny thing to say because games are not serious. Isn't that the point?" wrote David Thomas, a video game reviewer, blogger and lecturer at the University of Colorado, in a text-message interview. "You don't really kill people in Halo. You don't really steal cars in [Grand Theft Auto]. That's why they are fun."

But the name has stuck, and perhaps no other term sums up both the selling point of the concept and the hopes of those who would like to see it actually bring about what the Serious Games Initiative calls "gaming our way to a better world."

Crystal City will play host Monday and Tuesday to the second annual gathering of professionals in this growing sector, a two-day event that illustrates the growing convergence between official Washington's stolid, request-for-proposal style of operation and the videogame industry's penchant for open-ended brainstorming.

Breakaway Ltd., -- located in the Baltimore exurb of Hunt Valley, an East Coast hub of game development -- may epitomize this marketplace. The company creates both commercial off-the-shelf titles like "Austerlitz: Napoleon's Greatest Victory," but also creates playable simulations for clients ranging from the Pentagon to nonviolence activists.

The company is developing "netStrike" -- a real-time simulation of command-post intelligence aggregation and battlefield management -- for the Pentagon at the same time that it nears completion on "A Force More Powerful," which aims to convey the Gandhian principles of nonviolent resistance to people suffering under oppressive regimes. The client in this case is the nonprofit International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Deborah Tillett, president of Breakaway, sees no paradox in producing games that enable both warmakers and peaceful resisters. "The ... basic tenets of the ICNC are that using a strict doctrine of military strategy and applying it to your nonviolent resistance movement only gives you power."

Teaching and Learning

Breakaway also has developed simulations designed to prepare emergency officials for disasters, and has begun work on software that will help train federal bank examiners in detecting fraud. The key to the serious-games development process, according to several people in the business, is squeezing a lifetime of subject-matter learning -- from police and fire officials, hospital administrators, generals etc. -- into the programming that underlies the game's processes.

"Incident Commander," a Breakaway product that confronts its players with emergencies like an imminent bomb explosion at a school or a chemical-train accident, isn't really about flashy graphics. The game's main screen is a top-down view of an urban area, and you don't see 3-D civilians running around screaming.

Instead, the screen shows you the little triangles representing men, women and children simply disappearing, while a text window dispassionately informs you that the people you're supposed to be protecting are falling victim to the disaster and that your score is being docked.

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