Video Game World Gives Peace a Chance
Sunday, October 16, 2005; F01
A team at
anyone think only professors and policy wonks are involved, a unit of
week announced a contest to come up with a video game that fights
Internet-based computer games, in which players create characters in a virtual world and interact to solve problems or win battles, are branching out from fantasy into serious social issues. Academics recognize their power as a new form of mass entertainment, and activists hope to tap into their enormous worldwide popularity to reach a new generation used to interacting through computers.
"It's been kind of a surprise for us. It just took off," said Jennifer Parmelee, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'s food program.
So popular was the U.N.'s game, titled Food Force, Yahoo had to step in as a Web host for the game when swarms of Internet users converged on http://www.food-force.com/ and accidentally knocked it off-line. The game, which Parmelee said was initially regarded with skepticism within the U.N., has been downloaded 2 million times since its launch.
Friedman, general manager of an MTV channel shown on college campuses,
thinks his network's contest could help spread awareness of
"Activism needs to be rethought and reinvented with each generation," he said. "This is a generation that lives online -- what better way to have an effect?" The network is promising a $50,000 prize to the student or team of students that comes up with the best idea.
Carnegie Mellon's project, called PeaceMaker, is led by an Israeli citizen named Asi Burak, who has sought input from both sides of the conflict for the game his team is building. In it, players take a role as an Israeli or Palestinian leader charged with bringing peace to the region. Use too much military force and the region falls into violence -- but give too many concessions quickly and a leader risks assassination.
want to prove that video games can be serious and deal with meaningful
issues," said Burak, who will be lecturing about it at the Serious
Castronova, a professor at the
"It would just have one feature," he said, " live democracy. See what it's like when issues get resolved through peaceful voting and transition of power.
"Games give you the opportunity to live a culture and I think that is dramatically more powerful and persuasive than a million leaflets or 60,000 Peace Corps volunteers."
A State Department official said the agency doesn't have plans to make such an investment.
"We are not generally a source of funding for experimental technology," said Jeremy Curtin, senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. "But we are very interested in what the private sector is doing in terms of creative use of technologies."
professors Joshua Fouts and Douglas Thomas, the organizers of that
contest, have discussed the project with State Department officials and
get a policymaker on their judging panel. The contest winner will be
on the eve of a video game industry conference in
said their contest was inspired by playing and exploring the virtual
an online game called Star Wars Galaxies, which lets players around the
log on and participate in the universe of the "Star Wars"
They found that many players from other countries had a negative view of
Americans, an impression that sometimes became more positive as they
cooperatively with players based in the
"It's a virtual exchange program," said Fouts, who worked at Voice of America for six years before becoming the director of USC's Center on Public Diplomacy.
The biggest challenge for programmers entering the contest might be one that policymakers and activists have never had to think about: The game will have to be fun. After all, the loftiest and most educational game in the world won't have much positive result if nobody plays it.
David Tucker, a computer science major at the University of Maryland who hopes to land a job in game design, said he didn't know whether he'd want to play such a game or not. "I guess it would depend on the quality of the game," he said. "I know I have played games that don't have violence but are enjoyable." After a short pause, he added, "I can't think of any at the moment."
"If you write a boring book and people stop on page two, it has no impact," said Jesse H. Ausubel, a director at the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which provided $125,000 in funds to sponsor USC's contest.
Is democracy "fun"? Castronova thinks aspiring game designers should have more than enough to work with for such a project. "You could look at the U.S. Constitution as a big game," he said. "We've been playing it for 200 years. And we love it."
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