Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 24/01/2010

How computer games discovered virtuous reality

The Independent has a good piece on the development of “serious games” and “games for change” within the computer and video game industry. I’ve posted a few choice quotes below–you’ll find the full article here.

How computer games discovered virtuous reality

Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, Halo III… You may think the video games industry is all about big bucks, but you’d be wrong. These days, it’s trying to make the world a better place, too. Tom Chatfield reports

The Independent, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Nobody could argue that the £30bn video gaming isn’t by definition a serious business. But can games themselves ever be put to “serious” use? Could the same medium that offers us so much fun and entertainment also be a tool for raising political and social awareness?

Discussing Darfur is Dying, Chatfield highlights the need to make educational and advocacy games engaging as well as informative (a point that Gary and I have made a number of times in our simulation reviews on PaxSims):

Still, there is more to the game than water-gathering. Or, to be more precise, there is more to this particular “narrative-based simulation” than water-gathering – the designers of Darfur is Dying were evidently sufficiently uneasy with the idea of referring to it as a “game” that the word appears nowhere on their website that I can see. As well as gathering water, I can visit the camp itself, where I’m given an isometric overview of huts, fields and tents and tasked with assisting the residents in growing crops and maintaining the buildings. It’s an attractively drawn setting, with plenty of mouse-over information about the details of life in such a camp; what it isn’t, however, is either easy to fathom or to interact with.

After eventually managing to make a successful water run, I manage to keep things going for only one day before it’s game over. At which point a message asks me to enter my name, reminds me of the 2.5 million refugees currently living in camps, and invites me to spread awareness of the game virally to my friends. It also invites me to take further action by donating to charities working in Darfur, or contacting my elected representative.

Ethically, Darfur is Dying is hard to fault. As a game, however, its limitations are painfully obvious. It’s a little confusing, and “fun” has been rather too scrupulously avoided; or, a little more generously, its idea of “engagement” is somewhat dour and limited.

Interviewing Suzanne Seggerman of Games for Change, the piece addresses the balance between trivializing and issue and educating about it:

But there also remains the question of how far “serious gaming” is a contradiction in terms. The idea that I might have been really entertained by Darfur is Dying is a somewhat uncomfortable one. Wouldn’t the fact that I really enjoyed running a virtual refugee camp be, in some ways, inherently trivialising the issues involved? Seggerman rejects this idea, pointing to rapidly expanding array of titles that her organisation is already linked to from their website, titles that model everything from Third World farming to spotting signs of addiction in others to developing sustainable energy resources for cities.

“Games have to be taken on their own terms,” she argues. “They’re not trying to replace the reality of Darfur or Rwanda. But people cannot just go and experience these places, and the simulated experiences games offer are amazing. I don’t look on games as competing with the real world and human interactions. I see them as a medium and as a path towards actions in the real world.”

But a basic tension between the idea of seriousness and the idea of entertainment rears its head. Is the triumph of America’s Army as propaganda a tacit admission that the entire point of video games is the lack of certain kinds of real-world seriousness within them? You can certainly make the military seem a thrilling and thoroughly contemporary occupation by packaging it up in a hot new medium. Exactly how ethical an activity this is, however, remains open to debate. Indeed, as is often the way with modern video games, dissident voices have begun to be heard within the game itself, with a number of members of the public choosing to make “virtual protests” against the actions of the US military by, among other things, registering accounts under the names of soldiers killed while on active duty in Iraq.

Military games are in some respects not so dissimilar to many “games for change”. What a game can do, as Suzanne Seggerman noted, is turn just about any complex and potentially overwhelming system of variables into a manageable simulation that can be played, refined and analysed as many times as you want. It’s a process that, compared to the cost and hazards of “real” training exercises, offers fantastic value for money. And most intriguingly of all, it overlaps directly with one of the most potent and rapidly developing fields not just of modern warfare, but of all kinds of human exploration, excavation and interaction with the most hazardous and challenging of environments – robotics.

The piece highlights new training applications:

One vital area of training is emergency triage: equipping healthcare professionals to assess the order in which casualties should be seen in a crisis situation. The principles apply equally to events like train crashes, treating sick people in remote areas, or even military operations; the underlying idea is that it’s vital, when time and resources are limited and needs are devastatingly urgent, to differentiate between those patients who might be saved by intervention and those who won’t be.

A prototype triage game is currently under development by the TruSim division of Blitz Games Studios, whose areas of research include serious gaming. In the triage game, everything takes place in an interactive three-dimensional world: you explore the site of, for example, an explosion in a city, and find the bodies of those who need treatment as you investigate the wreckage. With highly realistic graphics and an interface that allows users to monitor vital signs, the data presented mirrors almost everything a medic would be able to discover about these patients in a real-life situation and, crucially, forces them to take triage decisions in real time without any break in the immersion.

The game is much less mediated than the “real” scenario; and, of course, the cost of running dozens or even hundreds of such game situations is negligible. “It’s interesting,” one doctor who had watched the TruSim demonstration told me, “because how can you simulate a complex, open fracture of the leg in real life?

And it also makes an important point about how the shift to a video-game generation may make some of this unavoidable:

erhaps the most important single demonstration of the potential of games for serious applications comes from the purest of all training environments: the education system. There will inevitably come a time when no one alive remembers a time before video games existed.

Within a modern school, that time has already arrived: every single pupil was born into a world where video games were simply a fact of life, and it’s in this environment and among these pupils that the serious potential of video games suddenly starts to seem less a novel possibility than a creeping inevitability.

All-in-all, an article well worth a read,

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