Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Moving beyond 'Shoot 'Em Up'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Moving beyond 'Shoot 'Em Up'

Article excerpt

The situation is critical, and many lives are at stake. Success rides on the decisions you make. But in these video games, blasting your way out of trouble, guns blazing, isn't an option.

Instead, you must organize a peaceful protest against a dictator, shepherd supplies to hungry refugees, or lead "first responders" during a local catastrophe.

As the video-game market matures, these "serious games" are beginning to win advocates, who see them as great teaching tools, and grab the attention of large numbers of players.

"Food Force" is a free online game from the United Nations World Food Program that sends children ages 8 to 13 on six realistic aid missions. It's already been downloaded more than 2.5 million times. And the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. has founded the Serious Games Initiative to explore how key challenges facing governments and nonprofit groups can be addressed using game play.

"A lot of people are looking at [video] games because of their pervasiveness and because of their really unique capabilities for learning," says Suzanne Seggerman, co-founder of Games for Change, a two-year-old nonprofit that promotes games with a social conscience.

"It's a totally different style of teaching ... it's 'learn by doing,' " says Steve York, the senior producer at York-Zimmerman Inc., a documentary film company in Washington, D.C. Together with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) and Breakaway Games Ltd., a video gamemaker, his company is producing "A Force More Powerful," in which players use peaceful means to unseat a dictator in 10 fictitious scenarios. The game will be released in February.

Backed by the ICNC, Mr. York's company already has produced two award-winning documentary films about nonviolent political change, including "Bringing Down a Dictator" (2002), which described the overthrow of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

"We discovered ... that a lot of people around the world were using our films for training purposes" in countries with oppressive governments, York says. By playing the video game, protesters learn what works and what doesn't, such as "if you try this tactic, you're going to get eight of your activists assassinated or thrown into prison by the regime," he says.

Serious games represent "a huge market" that shows no limits for growth, says Deb Tillett, president of Breakaway Games Ltd. in Hunt Valley, Md. "A Force More Powerful" and others like it represent about 50 percent of the projects now under development at her company, she says.

The United States military has led the way in the development of "serious games" or training simulations, Ms. Tillett says. While "World of Warcraft," the most popular online fantasy fighting game can boast 5 million players, "America's Army," made as a recruiting tool for the US Army, has more than 6.3 million online players and will shortly become available on home game systems.

"America's Army" allows players to "train," conduct missions, and be rewarded with promotions. While it was costly to develop, the military has been more than paid back by "the dollars it's saving in fewer washouts" because recruits know what they're getting into, Tillett says.

Another Breakaway project is "Free Dive," a scuba-diving simulator that's so involving that it has lessened the pain of gravely ill children who play it while undergoing medical treatment. …

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