Can a Video Game Save the World?
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People involved in the Games for Change movement seem to have an answer for the classic art question: Did Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica prevent a single unnecessary death?
Yes, most definitely.
Or at least it would have a better chance if it were turned into a video game.
As a player with "agency," who can affect the drama's as-yet-underdetermined outcome, you have a heightened responsibility, they argue. That makes games inherently engaging and part of what makes them "fun." It's also the reason players spend hours replaying games -- and in some cases develop globe-spanning communities of players who share the passion.
But all that fervor focused just on zapping digital aliens? Some game developers are attempting to wrest creative and market space from the larger commercial universe of games with more purely entertainment aims, and titles such as Halo, World of Warcraft, Mario Kart 64, Grand Theft Auto, NCAA March Madness and Guitar Hero.
These are "games for change," a genre that is itself a subset of the larger "serious games" field that includes the broader effort to develop educational games.
Take the World Food Programme's Food Force game (2005). Here, you quickly find yourself in a helicopter surveying the drought and civil war ravaged landscape of the imaginary Indian Ocean island country of Sheylan.
As part of the WFP crisis team that has been flown in, you have a hurried briefing before you are quickly airborne on your first task -- taking pictures of the scattered destitute who need your help. You don't want to miss or undercount any groups.
For an even simpler but surprisingly affecting exercise in empathy try playing a refugee in Darfur is Dying (2006). In this role-playing game, you choose an avatar (who becomes your character) from among a large family living in a refugee camp complete with realistic background noises of baying cows and playing children.
You can wander the camp doing chores and learning about other survivors. Soon it'll be your turn to forage for water from a well in the surrounding desert, where you suddenly find your life depends on dodging marauding Janjaweed militia members.
They materialize like a menacing mirage from a distance, and there are precious few places to hide. It's hard not to feel a frisson of terror as you try to hide your avatar. Even when hidden, the jeep-borne militias inspire fear as they noisily barrel right past you.
A considerably more sophisticated experience is Peacemaker, another student project germinated at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center and then developed by a for-profit firm, Impact Games, for $750,000.
In this game, a player assumes the position of the Palestinian president or Israeli prime minister and tries to thread a treacherous course from chaos to a peaceful two-state solution. As in real life, this comes amid extremists from both sides and the cacophonous intervention of the public, parliamentarians, neighboring states, the United Nations and the U.S. government.
As the Israeli leader, you might decide, for instance, to remove settlements from land claimed by Palestinians, but this could be answered with a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, triggering demands for retaliation from an enraged Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Real-life video footage of such violence pops up during the game, making the drama palpable.
From Math to Diplomacy
Currently, foundations and the government fund a lot of research to demonstrate games' potential use for teaching, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects in which American student performance has slipped compared to other nations.