War, Peace and Video Games - pt. 3

It should come as no surprise that war made quick inroads into gaming. It translates well: war is a vastly simplified solution to complex problems. War is good versus evil, it has an enormous historical body of work to draw upon, and it appeals to men who make up 62% of gamers. But in 2005, “shooter” and “fighting” games only made up only 13% of total games sales. In fact, when you look at the $1 billion computer game market, strategy games outsell shooter games by 2 to 1.

As games have become more sophisticated, they have also become less black and white in interpretation of the world. The gray areas are starting to be addressed by a genre of gaming dubbed “serious gaming.” Serious games include any training and simulation games - including the games developed for the military mentioned in pt. 2 of this series - and they are an emerging resource for policymakers as well as war mongers.

The DC-based think tank Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars founded the Serious Games Initiative to “help usher in a new series of policy education, exploration, and management tools utilizing state of the art computer game designs, technologies, and development skills.” A growing subset of serious gaming is known as activist games. Activist games are designed to raise social awareness of issues near and dear to many non-profits - issues such as poverty, war, environmental protection, even genocide. Nonetheless, the oxymoronic genre of “serious games” has met some resistance in the world of social activism, despite good intentions:

“It’s like what Adorno said, the idea that it’s barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. But you saw this around film too, when it first started: ‘The medium isn’t serious enough to allow for serious discourse.’ I find it somewhat contradictory because people criticize games for saying there’s nothing good in them, nothing serious. But when games try to talk about a serious issue, they say, ‘You can’t talk about that in a game.’ ”

-Professor Ian Bogost, an assistant professor at the George Institute of Technology, whose book on serious games will be published next spring by M.I.T. Press - New York Times, July 23, 2006

So what do activist games look like? While some of the games have share war games’ complex interactivity in massively multi-player online games (MMOG), most are much simpler. These stripped-down games often reflect the limited non-profit budgets which support the development costs of activist games. And with few exceptions, activist games are significantly lower quality than commercial games, which may further limit their reach.

Activist gaming still faces an uphill battle with more mature media: video games are hard to create on the cheap. Activist leaflets are cheap, web sites and blogs for social change are almost free. But even comparing the motion picture media reveals that blockbuster independent documentaries such as Supersize Me, which was produced for a budget of $65,000, can be made for less than blockbuster games.

The game A Force More Powerful is a role-playing game that puts you in the position of planner for a nonviolent movement seeking social change, pitting you against a regimepowered by artificial intelligence. The game required $3 million in funding and sells for about $20. Whether it will break even is doubtful.

But do games that inspire social change need to be as complex and expensive as Sim City? The online game Darfur is Dying was produced with a $50,000 grant and has attracted almost a million users. And one of the most simple and effective meassages highlighted below is conveyed in the editorial game September 12. The harder you try to exterminate the terrorists with violence, the more you terrorists you create. Perhaps President Bush should have played this before he invaded Iraq.

If our president is unconvinced that his current tactics create more terrorists than they destroy, at least he can take solace in the fact that there is a virtual suicide bus simulation in development for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Games have come full circle to reflect the complexity of the world around us. They train U.S. war fighters, inspire terrorists, rally the local activists, teach diplomacy to the next generation, and treat the victims of our wars that exist not only in virtual reality.

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A Survey and Screenshots of Activist Games

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International Aid & Development Games

Food Force

About: World Food Programme’s “Food Force” simulates a country threatened by a hunger crisis. Acting as a humanitarian aid worker, the player completes a series of missions to plan and complete a successful emergency response. Players have to complete a series of missions ranging from dropping food parcels from the air to using food aid to rebuild a country’s economy.

Developer: United Nations World Food Program

Reach: Downloaded 4 million times in its first year online, audience target is children ages 8-13

Price: Free

Download at: www.food-force.com

Food Force

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3rd World Farmer

About: Players manage an African farm, and are confronted with the difficult choices caused by poverty - drought, war, and starvation.

Developers: The first prototype of the game was developed as a students’ project at the IT-University in Copenhagen, Spring 2005.
Price: Free

Play online here: http://www.heavygames.com/3rdworldfarmer/showgame.asp
3rd World Farmer

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Water Alert!

About: UNICEF’s unfortunately pedantic and un-engaging game, Water Alert takes you through the minutae of collecting water sample. This is more educational than most of the games mentioned here.

Price: Free

Play online here: http://www.unicef.org/voy/explore/wes/explore_1818.html

Water Alert!

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Activist Games

Darfur is Dying

About: Users play the role of a Darfur refugee. In the simualation, your character runs to fetch water risking rape or abduction by Janjaweed militae before returning to the refugee camp.

Developed by: University of Southern California, Reebok Human Rights Foundation and The International Crisis Group

Funding: Reebok Human Rights Foundation

Reach: 700,000 in the first seven weeks of its release

Developer: Susana Ruiz, Ashley York, Mike Stein, Noah Keating, and Kellee Santiago - all graduate student at the University of Southern California

Cost: $50,000 grant from Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group in partnership with by MTVu, MTV’s online network geared toward fostering actvism amongst university students

Price: Free

Play online: www.darfurisdying.com

Darfur is Dying

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A Force More Powerful (AFMP)

About: AFFMP is a strategy game that is intended to teach budding activists how to use non-violent methods to influence government policies. Non-violent resistance tactics include training, fund-raising and organizing, protests, strikes, mass action, civil disobedience, noncooperation, and even such mundane actions as leafletting.

The game was developed by Ivan Marovic, co-founder of Otpor (Resistance) the Serbian youth movement, the non-violent movement that helped topple Milosovic in Serbia. Another apparent collaborator is the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), which claims to have helped oust tyrants in Serbia, Georgia and most recently Ukraine.

Developer: International Center on Nonviolent Conflict allied with commercial game developer Breakaway LTD.

Funding: $3 million from International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

Price: $19.95 Order here

Web site: http://www.afmpgame.com/index.shtml

A Force More Powerful

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September 12

About: Newgaming.com has created a new sub-genre of editorialized serious games that they call newsgames. September 12 is a simple, browser-based game where your apparent goal is to bomb terrorists who are wandering amongst civilians through an Arab market. When you bomb them, collateral damage kills innocent bystanders. Grief-stricken relatives are drawn to terrorism themselves and you see that bombing only produces more terrorists.

Developer: Newsgaming.com and Gonzalo Frasca, a game designer and professor at the University of Copenhagen

Price: Free

Play online: http://www.newsgaming.com/games/index12.htm

September 12

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Peace & Peacekeeping Games

Madrid

About: Produced by the creators of September 12, Madrid was designed within two days of the Madrid train bombings as a memorial to the 192 victims.

Developer: NewsGaming.com – “This new site showcases video games that editorialize on current international news. Its team gathers a group of professional game developers and artists who believe that videogames can not only entertain but also encourage critical thinking. Periodically, Newsgaming.com will launch online video games related to major international news events.”

Play online: http://www.newsgaming.com/newsgames.htm

Madrid

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Foreign Ground

About: A first-person perspective training game used by the Swedish military to that simulates peacekeeping operations. Instead of focusing on combat it deals mostly with solving problems using non-violent means without relying on duels and combat. The user play the role of a UN Peacekeeper and solves various tasks while on foot or vehicle patrol.

Developer: Swedish National Defence College

Web site: http://www.defencegaming.org/foreign_ground.htm

Foreign Ground .

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Diplomacy Games

Peacemaker

About: Simulates the violence and political turbulence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Players choose between the role of an Israeli prime minister or a Palestinian Authority president, making policy decisions and communicating with the international community while dealing with unexpected violent events. The games teaches high school and college students about the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by focusing on the goal of cohabitation rather than on occupation and destruction.

“It’s meant to teach people about the different perspectives. It’s just a turn-based strategy game, but we’ve inverted the war model so it’s about conflict resolution. The end goal is to create a peaceful resolution to the conflicts.” -Eric Brown of Impact Games

Developer: Impact Games

Reach: Developers are currently testing the game in limited pilots and have not yet announced a release date.

Web site: http://www.peacemakergame.com

Peacemaker

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Global Kids Island

About: “Second Life is a 3D virtual world in which the residents are provided with the tools required to lliterally shape the world around them. Teen Second Life is a space restricted to 13-17 year olds. Beginning in February, 2006, Global Kids has been exploring how to bring a youth development model around global issues into an island within this teen grid.”

Price: First Basic Account is free. Premium: ranges from $6.00 to $9.95 per month

Second Life blog: http://www.holymeatballs.org/second_life/

Global kids Island

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Treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with Virtual Reality

Suicide Bus Bomber Virtual Reality PTSD Prototype

About: Researchers Tamar Weiss (Haifa, Israel), Azu Garcia-Palacios (Spain) and Hunter Hoffman (U.W. Seattle) are developing an immersive virtual reality simulation to help survivors or witnesses of terrorism who have developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The simulation of a terrorist bus bombing is designed to give the therapist control over the progression and intensity of the experience, including the addition of realistic visual and audio affects.

Developer: Imprint Interactive

Developer web site: http://www.imprintit.com/index.html

More info: http://seriousgamessource.com/features/feature_053006_ptsd.php

Suicide Bus Bomber Virtual reality PTSD Prototype

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9/11 Virtual Reality PTSD Prototype

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9/11 Virtual Reality PTSD Prototype

About: A Weill Cornell Medical College therapist and a virtual reality researcher from the University of Washington HITLab are using virtual reality to treat victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, and their regimen appears to be effective in helping patients cope with the severe psychological trauma of the event.

Web site: http://www.hitl.washington.edu/projects/ptsd/

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Serious and Activist Gaming News

New York Times: Saving the World, One Video Game at a Time - reprinted in full here

Business Week: Getting Activist Video Games to Market

Overview of Games for Change Conference

Newsweek: Gaming the Poor

PBS Newshour: Can “Serious Games” Improve Your Mind?

NPR: Video-Game Designers Target World Peace

Interview with Professor James Paul Gee, professor of educational psychology, UW-Madison who recently received $1.5 million from the MacArthur Foundation to support his research on learning and video games

Use of virtual reality for treating post-traumatic stress disorder

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Blogs about Serious Gaming
Blog from Games for Change Conference

Blog from Susana Ruiz, a graduate student in the School of Cinema-Television’s Interactive Media Division at the University of Southern California, part of the team behind Darfur is Dying

Good essay about the Syrian company Afkar Media that produced Under Siege

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Serious Games Web Sites
Games for Change

Serious Games Source

Social Impact Games