Parents who worry that video games are teaching kids to settle conflicts with blasters and bloodshed can take heart: A new generation of video games wants to save the world through peace and democracy.
A team at Carnegie Mellon University is working on an educational computer game that explores the Mideast conflict -- you win by negotiating peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This spring, the United Nations' World Food Programme released an online game in which players must figure out how to feed thousands of people on a fictitious island.
This weekend, the University of Southern California is kicking off a competition to develop a game that promotes international goodwill toward the United States, a kind of Voice of America for the gamer set.
And lest anyone think only professors and policy wonks are involved, a unit of MTV this week announced a contest to come up with a video game that fights genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
Internet-based computer games, in which players create characters in a virtual world and interact to solve problems or win battles, are branching out from fantasy into serious social issues. Academics recognize their power as a new form of mass entertainment, and activists hope to tap into their enormous worldwide popularity to reach a new generation used to interacting through computers.
"It's been kind of a surprise for us. It just took off," said Jennifer Parmelee, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'s food program.
So popular was the U.N.'s game, titled Food Force, Yahoo had to step in as a Web host for the game when swarms of Internet users converged on www.food-force.com and accidentally knocked it off-line. The game, which Parmelee said was initially regarded with skepticism within the U.N., has been downloaded 2 million times since its launch.
Stephen Friedman, general manager of an MTV channel shown on college campuses, said he thinks his network's contest could help spread awareness of Darfur to young people who are interested in games but who don't follow world events.
"Activism needs to be rethought and reinvented with each generation," he said. "This is a generation that lives online -- what better way to have an effect?" The network is promising a $50,000 prize to the student or team of students that comes up with the best idea.
Carnegie Mellon's project, called PeaceMaker, is led by an Israeli citizen named Asi Burak, who has sought input from both sides of the conflict for the game his team is building. In it, players take a role as an Israeli or Palestinian leader charged with bringing peace to the region. Use too much military force and the region falls into violence -- but give too many concessions quickly and a leader risks assassination.
"We want to prove that video games can be serious and deal with meaningful issues," said Burak, who will be lecturing about it at the Serious Games conference in Washington next month, a get-together dedicated to introducing game makers to potential clients interested in educational games.
Edward Castronova, a professor at the University of Indiana who has written a book about the dynamics of virtual worlds, said he wishes the State Department would invest in an immersive online game that would appeal to teenagers across the globe -- a game in which players could participate in an online world governed by democratic principles.
"It would just have one feature," he said, "live democracy. See what it's like when issues get resolved through peaceful voting and transition of power.
"Games give you the opportunity to live a culture and I think that is dramatically more powerful and persuasive than a million leaflets or 60,000 Peace Corps volunteers."
A State Department official said the agency doesn't have plans to make such an investment.
"We are not generally a source of funding for experimental technology," said Jeremy Curtin, senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. "But we are very interested in what the private sector is doing in terms of creative use of technologies."
USC professors Joshua Fouts and Douglas Thomas, the organizers of that school's contest, have discussed the project with State Department officials and hope to get a policymaker on their judging panel. The contest winner will be announced on the eve of a video game industry conference in Los Angeles next year.
The two said their contest was inspired by playing and exploring the virtual world of an online game called Star Wars Galaxies, which lets players around the world log on and participate in the universe of the "Star Wars" movies. They found that many players from other countries had a negative view of Americans, an impression that sometimes became more positive as they played cooperatively with players based in the United States.
"It's a virtual exchange program," said Fouts, who worked at Voice of America for six years before becoming the director of USC's Center on Public Diplomacy.
The biggest challenge for programmers entering the contest might be one that policymakers and activists have never had to think about: The game will have to be fun. After all, the loftiest and most educational game in the world won't have much positive result if nobody plays it.
David Tucker, a computer science major at the University of Maryland who hopes to land a job in game design, said he didn't know whether he'd want to play such a game or not. "I guess it would depend on the quality of the game," he said. "I know I have played games that don't have violence but are enjoyable." After a short pause, he added, "I can't think of any at the moment."
"If you write a boring book and people stop on page two, it has no impact," said Jesse H. Ausubel, a director at the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which provided $125,000 in funds to sponsor USC's contest.
Is democracy "fun"? Castronova thinks aspiring game designers should have more than enough to work with for such a project. "You could look at the U.S. Constitution as a big game," he said. "We've been playing it for 200 years. And we love it."