Moving beyond 'shoot 'em up'

The situation is critical, and many lives are at stake. Success rides on the decisions you make. But in these video games, blasting your way out of trouble, guns blazing, isn't an option.

Instead, you must organize a peaceful protest against a dictator, shepherd supplies to hungry refugees, or lead "first responders" during a local catastrophe.

As the video-game market matures, these "serious games" are beginning to win advocates, who see them as great teaching tools, and grab the attention of large numbers of players.

"Food Force" is a free online game from the United Nations World Food Program that sends children ages 8 to 13 on six realistic aid missions. It's already been downloaded more than 2.5 million times. And the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. has founded the Serious Games Initiative to explore how key challenges facing governments and nonprofit groups can be addressed using game play.

"A lot of people are looking at [video] games because of their pervasiveness and because of their really unique capabilities for learning," says Suzanne Seggerman, co-founder of Games for Change, a two-year-old nonprofit that promotes games with a social conscience.

"It's a totally different style of teaching ... it's 'learn by doing,' " says Steve York, the senior producer at York-Zimmerman Inc., a documentary film company in Washington, D.C. Together with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) and Breakaway Games Ltd., a video gamemaker, his company is producing "A Force More Powerful," in which players use peaceful means to unseat a dictator in 10 fictitious scenarios. The game will be released in February.

Backed by the ICNC, Mr. York's company already has produced two award-winning documentary films about nonviolent political change, including "Bringing Down a Dictator" (2002), which described the overthrow of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

"We discovered ... that a lot of people around the world were using our films for training purposes" in countries with oppressive governments, York says. By playing the video game, protesters learn what works and what doesn't, such as "if you try this tactic, you're going to get eight of your activists assassinated or thrown into prison by the regime," he says.

Serious games represent "a huge market" that shows no limits for growth, says Deb Tillett, president of Breakaway Games Ltd. in Hunt Valley, Md. "A Force More Powerful" and others like it represent about 50 percent of the projects now under development at her company, she says.

The United States military has led the way in the development of "serious games" or training simulations, Ms. Tillett says. While "World of Warcraft," the most popular online fantasy fighting game can boast 5 million players, "America's Army," made as a recruiting tool for the US Army, has more than 6.3 million online players and will shortly become available on home game systems.

"America's Army" allows players to "train," conduct missions, and be rewarded with promotions. While it was costly to develop, the military has been more than paid back by "the dollars it's saving in fewer washouts" because recruits know what they're getting into, Tillett says.

Another Breakaway project is "Free Dive," a scuba-diving simulator that's so involving that it has lessened the pain of gravely ill children who play it while undergoing medical treatment.

"Incident Commander," developed by Breakaway after 9/11 for the Department of Justice, trains first responders to local emergencies such as a school shooting, hostage crisis, or chemical spill.

"Small towns and small municipalities can't afford big training programs and big tools," Tillett says. "Incident Commander" will be sent free of charge to 30,000 small towns and cities for use by city officials, police, firemen, and school principals. "The game play is really heart-pounding," she says.

Creating a video game can be expensive - popular games can cost $3 million to $20 million to develop, Tillett says. Serious games - which have proved popular and effective - can be made for a fraction of that cost, but the business model for how to pay for games that promote good causes is unclear, says David Rejeski. He studies the potential of games at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and coined the term "serious games" years ago.

Mr. Rejeski advocates the establishment of a "Corporation for Public Gaming" that would stimulate the development of serious games the way the Corporation for Public Broadcasting developed noncommercial TV. The Wilson Center sponsors an annual conference on serious games. The latest one, in October, drew more than 500 attendees.

Though the technical requirements of "A Force More Powerful" have been kept simple, so that it will play on older, inexpensive computers anywhere in the world, the "social modeling" involved in it is highly sophisticated, Tillett and York say. For example, players decide what their resistance movement's policies will be on 26 issues like women's rights, voting rights, free movement across borders, and taxes. Tailoring those positions may affect who joins your cause.

Another aspect of the game will be a website where players can discuss the game, trade ideas and strategies, and even post their own modifications for downloading, York says. Some US colleges and universities have expressed interest in the game, which can offer a quite different experience from just reading a textbook on nonviolent movements, he says.

Parents who'd like to see alternatives to the violence in commercial video games may be interested, too. "As I've watched three sons grow through some questionable digital gaming experiences ... I've been waiting for something like ["A Force More Powerful"] to come along," says Gordon Imrie, a father of three high school- and college-age sons in Hinsdale, Ill. He's followed the work of the ICNC for several years.

Just wait, Ms. Seggerman says. Serious games are only in their infancy, comparable to the silent movies of the early 20th century or the early television of the 1940s and '50s, she says.

Eventually, "serious games will take over the world" of gaming, predicts Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association in San Francisco. People will use video games for learning so easily and so often that they won't think twice about it, he says. People using video games will no more be labeled "gamers" than people today who listen to music are labeled "listeners," he says.

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