Not the Usual Game Application

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, June 22, 2008

One of these days, the thinking goes, some positive lesson learned in a game's virtual world might just inspire young people to go out and change the real world for the better.

That's the hope behind a new wave of serious-minded games in development, which aim to educate audiences about issues like the environment and the death penalty. Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor is overseeing one in-the-works game that puts players into the shoes of a judge charged with sorting out the First Amendment issues raised when a school tries to discipline students for wearing T-shirts with provocative messages.

Sure, people tend to think of video games as a way to relax. But maybe the format has more to offer, argues Suzanne Seggerman, co-founder and president of a New York organization called Games for Change, which has established itself as a uniting force in a small movement that is still mostly the domain of universities and nonprofit groups.

Plenty of best-selling books and popular films take on subjects like globalization, poverty and the environment -- and there's no reason that games can't tackle those same issues, she argues.

"I don't think games have to be fun," she said. "I think games have to be engaging."

I've already seen one example of how the format of games can be at least as educational as a textbook. Last year, I wrote about an online game developed by a team at the University of Southern California to demonstrate how congressional district maps can sway election results. I can't say that the ReDistricting Game is "fun," but I did learn a bit about the topic.

The corporate world has already taken notice of the educational possibilities of games. KRC Research and the Entertainment Software Association polled 150 large U.S. companies and found that three-quarters of them use games as training tools. Canon, for instance, uses specially designed games to teach new technicians how to install parts on a virtual copy machine before they do the real thing.

"We don't have to explain to [potential clients] what a serious game is anymore," said Doug Whatley, founder of BreakAway, a game maker in Hunt Valley. Whatley's firm creates simulations that are used, for example, to train police and firefighters how to coordinate during crises. "We're at the phase where we have to convince people that we're the best."

Microsoft and Advanced Micro Devices have sponsored a year-long student game-design competition, called the Imagine Cup, that is wrapping up in Paris next month. The challenge, presented to student programmers and game designers around the world, is to develop a game that demonstrates the challenges and benefits of working toward a greener, more sustainable world.

The environment is one of those topics with an array of variables that play to the strengths of gaming software, which can be designed to show the consequences of a variety of actions. How do you balance the needs of a growing population against the need to preserve forests and wildlife? To what extent is it worth investing in more environmentally friendly, but more expensive, technology?

The Imagine Cup competition is down to six finalists. In one of the finalists' games, players are charged with cleaning up a region of France hit with pollution. In another, players take control of a virtual globe to try to figure out where best to put farms, cities and power plants so they provide the most benefit and produce the least harm to the planet's air and water. Microsoft plans to distribute some of the environmentally themed games as downloads on the Xbox Live service.

Chris Satchell, a manager in Microsoft's game division who is overseeing the project, said it had not been determined whether the titles would be available free or whether there would be a charge for the games. But "it would be very cool to use the profits [from game sales] to help the issues," he said.

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