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

War, Peace and Video Games - pt. 2

Video and computer games are no longer a nascent entertainment technology just for kids. It’s a $7 billion industry aimed at an average player who is 33 years old. In fact 69% of players are older than 18. So it should come as no surprise that an industry born to entertain is now reaching maturity. Violent video games have existed since the beginning. But innovation in gaming is allowing a wider range of viewpoints to use video games to reflect their own reality, recruit people to their causes, and even to mix foreign policy with virtual reality.

Early video games such as fighter jet flight simulators were developed in the private sector. Some simulators such as F-16 Fighting Falcon were so realistic, that the Air Force classified aspects of the game and started using them for training their own pilots.

The U.S. Department of Defense has used several video games over the years to train and recruit new soldiers. The line between government and commercial games is increasingly blurred. The Army game, America’s Army was first developed with U.S. government dollars. Now it’s available for Xbox. More recently, the government has flipped the investment equation, using venture capital money to fund video games, hoping that commercial sales will subsidize the classified versions of their strategy and war games.

But such public-private partnerships are a thin line to walk. Pandemic Studios, the creator of Mercenaries 2, has previously developed training aids for the US Army. Their most recent commercial release of the video game Mercenaries 2 features a presumably fictitious storyline about a group of ragtag mercenaries on their way to Venezuela to oust Hugo Chavez. Apparently this hit a little too close to home and there are accusations from the Venezuelan government that the game is propaganda from the U.S. Intelligence Community. Dreamy rockstar/activist, Bono, an investor in a parent company was even swept up in the controversy.

Resistance and terrorist organizations have also developed video games that tell their side of the story. Special Force is Hezbollah’s response to American video games that portray all Arabs as terrorists. In another video game, Under Siege, players violently fight the Israeli army in game apparently based on a true story of Palestinian repression and resistance.

And finally, domestic extremists have utilized video game technology to extol their own twisted values. The game Border Patrol has a deceptively innocent, cartoon-like interface. The object of the game is anything but innocent: gun down families crossing border between Mexico and the U.S. An even more technologically complex and disturbingly sinister game is blatantly named Ethnic Cleansing. The neo-Nazi goal is to wipe out all non-whites.

For the baby boom generation it is easy to ignore video games as child’s play. They are not. As you can see from the screenshots below, video games are effective tools of resistance, terror, war and death. But as much as gaming reflects the dark side of humanity, they are also showing signs of redemption, peace, and diplomacy. Stay tuned.
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Commercial War Games

Real War: Rogue States

About: A commercial release where a player can choose between two player profiles: the United States and the Independence Liberation Army, an amalgam of terrorist groups with access to heavy weaponry. Based on the game Real War, an official Joint Chiefs training game, all jets, ships, and ground vehicles are taken directly from today’s military - with a few special items right off the Pentagon’s drawing boards.

Developer: Rival Interactive

Price: $9.95

Download
Mercenaries 2

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Mercenaries 2: World in Flames

About: Players drop into Venezuela to help settle an oil dispute, take on “a power hungry tyrant,” and blow up lots and lots of stuff. Though Mercenaries 2 is based on a fictional scenario, the plot is “realistic enough to believe that it could actually happen,” a Pandemic rep told the AP.

Supporters of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, an outspoken critic of American policy, are not amused. “[Mercenaries 2] sends a message to Americans: You have a danger next door, here in Latin America, and action must be taken,” said lawmaker Gabriela Ramirez. “It’s a justification for an imperialist aggression.” Ramirez also said that Mercenaries 2 could be banned from the country by laws intended to protect children from violent games….

“I think the US government knows how to prepare campaigns of psychological terror so they can make things happen later,” said Venezuelan congressman Ismael Garcia. - Source: gamespot.com
Developer: Pandemic Studios

Price: TBA

Web Site: http://www.pandemicstudios.com/proj_mercs2.php

Mercenaries 2

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Government War Games

F2C2 (Future Force Company Commander)

About: The Army’s war game and recruiting tool for Future Combat Systems (FCS).

From army.mil: “F2C2 is a real-time tactical strategy game that allows you to learn about the Army’s FCS program by giving you command of a Mounted Company Team in the year 2015. Through gameplay, F2C2 shows how FCS is designed to give the 21st Century Soldier unprecedented situational awareness and the ability to see first, understand first, act first, and finish decisively.”

Developer: SAIC

Price: Free

F2C2

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First to Fight

About: First to Fight is a tactical first-person shooter in which you lead a four-man fire team in close-quarters urban combat in the streets and buildings of Beirut. It was created with the help of more than 40 active-duty U.S. Marines fresh from firefights in the Middle East and will be used by the United States Marine Corps for training.

Developer: Destineer & U.S. Marines. In-Q-Tel has invested in Destineer to develop additional training and simulation games for the intelligence community.

Funding: Private

Price: $29.99

Web site: http://www.firsttofight.com/html/

First to Fight

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America’s Army

About: America’s Army is a tactical multiplayer first-person shooter owned by the U.S. government and released as a global public relations initiative to present an image of the current U.S. Army and help with U.S. Army recruitment. A different version of the game for Xbox and PlayStation 2, America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier, is being developed by Ubisoft in collaboration with the U.S. Army. The Xbox version was released in November, 2005.

Developer: MOVES Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School was contracted by the U.S. Army to create the game
Funding: U.S. Department of Defense

Commercial Developer: Ubisoft

Funding: U.S. Government - three years and $7.5 million

Reach: 5 million registered users as of May, 2006

Price: Army version is free; XBox version America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier is $19.99

Web site: http://www.americasarmy.com/
America's Army

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Resistance War Games

Hezbollah’s Special Force

About: Special Force is a first-person shooter military video game, published by the militant Islamic organisation Hezbollah. Special Force allows the player to take the part of an armed member of the Islamic Resistance to the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and to attack Israeli positions and Israeli politicians.

It carries a deliberate and specific political message, that is pro-Islamic and anti-Israel. On the cover of the game’s box, a message to users says “the designers of Special Force are very proud to provide you with this special product, which embodies objectively the defeat of the Israeli enemy and the heroic actions taken by heroes of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon.” It adds: “Be a partner in the victory. Fight, resist and destroy your enemy in the game of force and victory.” - Source: Wikipedia

Reach: game sold out of first run of 100,000 copies

Web site: Official website in English (Inactive as at 20 July 2006)

Video of game being played: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvmj7wj1UOw
Hezbollah's Special Force

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Under Siege

About: Under Siege is a sequel to the video game Under Ash. It is a first-person shooter, with the option of playing the game as a third-person shooter. The game focuses on the lives of a Palestinian family between 1999 and 2002 during the second Intifada. The player shoots at Israeli Defense Force soldiers throughout most of the game. However, shooting at civilians or otherwise hurting them ends the game. The game has been described as a docugame, since all the game levels are based on on the lives of 5 Palestinian family members during the second Intifada 1999-2002. - Source: Wikipedia

Developer: Afkar Media in Damascus, Syria

Cost: About $100,000

Price: $10

Web Site: http://www.underash.net/en_download.htm

Under Siege

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Hate Video Games

Border Patrol

About: Credited to the bigoted neo-Nazi Tom Metzger, puts you in the role of a hunter/murderer who patrols the southern border with Mexico. Your objective: “Keep them out…at any cost!” “Them,” by the game’s definition, are the “wetbacks” trying to cross the border from Mexico.

Developer: Tom Metzger

Funding: Private

Cost: Free

Border Patrol

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Ethnic Cleansing

About: Created by the fringe neo-Nazi organization National Alliance, this elaborate and incredibly offensive video game seeks to extend the reach one of the most extreme viewpoints in American culture.

A description from the Anti-Defamation League: “The player roams the streets and subways murdering ‘predatory sub-humans’ and their Jewish ‘masters’ thereby ‘saving’ the white world…. The game has a high level of background detail and various National Alliance signs and posters appear throughout while racist rock blares on the soundtrack.”

From the resistance.com: “The most politically incorrect video game ever made. Run through the ghetto blasting away various blacks and spics in an attempt to gain entrance to the subway system, where the jews have hidden to avoid the carnage. Then, if YOU’RE lucky…. you can blow away jews as they scream “Oy Vey!”, on your way to their command center.”

Developer: National Alliance

Funding: Private

Cost: $14.88

Ethnic Cleansing

War, Peace and Video Games - pt. 1

How do we know when a media technology is maturing? Look at how well it reflects society. Communications technologies often start with a limited set of users, and often a limited appeal. And there are often contradictory forces at work in media innovation, for example when Monk scribes gave way to Gutenberg’s printing press. Religious elite lost some cache, but the rewards were expanded literacy and increased creativity in literature.

Photography is an early example of a media that could both document life and afford artists a new medium to reflect life. But today there is a major difference: ubiquity. In 1997, it was estimated that there were more than 150 billion photographs existed in the U.S., and that was well before digital cameras. Today almost everyone has access to a still and video camera. Yesterday’s photojournalism is today’s snapshots. And the advent of photo sharing is also blurring the lines between amateur and commercial photography.

Music has been around about as long as Homo sapiens, and perhaps since the Homo neanderthalensis. But the transformative nature of music, its ability to fuel the social activism of the 1960s, for example, could only occur with innovations recording (starting with the phonograph) and distribution (beginning with radio). With the advent of Internet music sharing, there is a new wave of do-it-yourself creativity in music, whether through self-published albums, mashups, or local iPod DJ nights.The Economist: Violence and Video Games

Documentary and experimental film is as old as the medium itself. But documentaries of the early 20th century were from the viewpoint of a few documentarians. One side of innovation in film distribution has increased the public’s access to our homes, cars, even stadium seating. The other side is more the surge in production. Just look at the Viewer Created Content on Current TV to understand how everyone from high school students to priests and drug dealers are sharing their point of view. And motion pictures are increasingly activist: The box office now has hits with political editorials, documentaries about global warming or docudramas about genocide.

So what about video games? Where do they fit in? It depends who you ask. Those under 40, probably grew up playing them and understand the appeal. The baby boomers have likely avoided video games, save for the ones that best imitate the card games they grew up with. First person shooter games have often been blamed for increased violence. The Economist magazine would beg to differ (see chart at right). Perhaps violent video games don’t reflect crime patterns perfectly, but they do reflect what’s CBS weeknight programming pretty well.

But do video games reflect more than violence in society? More on that shortly.

2005 Game Sales vs. Other Media in the United States

Sources & Notes:

DVDs include all DVD video software shipments in North America. Data provided by Digital Entertainment Group
Book sales data: Seattle Times
Movie Tickets: Motion Picture Association of America
CDs sales include only CD albums. No CD singles, LPs or downloaded music was included. Data provided by Record Industry Association of America
Games include computer and videogames. Data provided by the Entertainment Software Association