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Sun, Jul 23, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Serious video games want to change world

Researchers and NGOs are among those using video games in an attempt to solve serious issues such as global conflicts

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Last week, in an effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, I withdrew settlements in the Gaza Strip. But then a suicide bomber struck in Jerusalem, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader called my actions "condescending," and the Israeli Knesset demanded a stern response. Desperate to retain control, I launched a missile strike against Hamas militants.

I was playing Peacemaker, a video game in which players assume the role of either the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president. Will you pull down the containment wall? Will you beg the US to pressure your enemy? You make the calls and live with the results the computer generates. Just as in real life, actions that please one side tend to anger the other, making a resolution fiendishly tricky. You can play it over again and again until you get it right, or until the entire region explodes in violence.

"When they hear about Peacemaker, people sometimes go, `What? A computer game about the Middle East?'" admits Asi Burak, the Israeli-born graduate student who developed it with a team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "But people get very engaged. They really try very hard to get a solution. Even after one hour or two hours, they'd come to me and say, you know, I know more about the conflict than when I've read newspapers for 10 years."

Video games have long entertained users by immersing them in fantasy worlds full of dragons or spaceships. But Peacemaker is part of a new generation: games that immerse people in the real world, full of real-time political crises. And the games' designers aren't just selling a voyeuristic thrill. Games, they argue, can be more than just mindless fun, they can be a medium for change.

The proposition may strike some as dubious, but the "serious games" movement has some serious brain power behind it. It is a partnership between advocates and nonprofit groups that are searching for new ways to reach young people, and tech-savvy academics keen to explore video games' educational potential.

Together they have found some seriously high-powered backers. Last year the MacArthur Foundation began issuing grants to develop persuasive games, including a US$1.5 million joint gift to James Paul Gee, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, and GameLab, a New York firm that designs games.

Supplying a War zone

Meanwhile the UN has released Food Force, a game that helps people understand the difficulties of dispensing aid to war zones. Ivan Marovic, co-founder of Otpor (Resistance) -- the Serbian youth movement widely credited with helping to oust Slobodan Milosevic -- helped produce A Force More Powerful, a game that teaches the principles of nonviolent strategy. And the third annual Games for Change conference in New York, held earlier this month, attracted academics and nonprofit executives, including several from the World Bank and the UN.

"What everyone's realizing is that games are really good at illustrating complex situations," said Suzanne Seggerman, one of the organizers of the conference. "And we have so many world conflicts that are at a standstill. Why not try something new? Especially where it concerns young people, you have to reach them on their own turf. You think you'll get their attention reading a newspaper or watching a newscast? No way."

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