Saturday, July 3, 2010

Game Theory

(Scene from Riverbed, a new game about water scarcity)

Water shortages? There's a game for that now, too. Ditto world famine, the global oil market, and the struggle for Middle East peace. In fact, over the last couple of years, there has been an increase in the number of video game developers who would rather design for social problem-solving than entertainment (Think Grand Theft Auto meets the electric car).

That's good news for the rest of us: video games have finally begun to shed their one-size-fits-all reputation for blood and bombast; behavioral experts now agree that so-called "games for good" can teach empathy to those who play them -- a prerequisite for collaborative problem-solving.

But the really good news here? Demand for such "social issues" games is rising, too -- thanks in part to the federal government, which is starting to view them as a new and effective catalyst for education and civic engagement. Kumar Garg, of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, says there are hundreds of games now being commissioned across multiple agencies, with more demand certain to continue, at least for the next couple of years. "Society is becoming more social given the social networking technologies before us," Garg told a recent Games for Change Festival in Manhattan. "How can we channel today's rising levels of collaborative social interaction into social problem-solving? Games can be that bridge to more civic engagement."

Garg said the most aggressive new demand for interactive games is coming from the Army, the Department of Education and public health agencies seeking to catalyze public action around complex social problems and skills training.

Here are three of the newest games out this summer:

The Riverbed. There's a new social issues game about water scarcity called Riverbed that says "water IS the new oil. According to the United Nations, a shortage of clean water is a root cause of poverty, social instability and even war." So what's so fun about that? Developer Mary Wharmby wraps a murder mystery around it to make the sleuthing an interactive -- and educational - experience. Wharmby told Cause Global that she got the idea for the game 15 years ago while writing an academic paper about the Aral Sea in central Asia, which has lost 75 percent of its mass since 1960. Said Wharmby:

"This game is a mystery that asks players, who killed the environmentalist? As you solve this, you realize there's a deeper mystery, which is, who killed the river? All suspects are based on character archetypes who have a stake in real-life water scarcity situations -- fishermen, politicians, farmers, engineers. By the end of this game, you've solved the murder and brought this person to justice. But you also have restored the river. For each suspect you eliminate, you get a chance to undo his or her environmental damage."

Fate of the World. Due out in September, Fate of the World is the latest offering from the British husband-and-wife team of Gobion and Hannah Rowlands. Their social enterprise, Red Redemption, co-developed an earlier game called Climate Change with the BBC; that game was used in 2007 and 2008 by the World Economic Forum in Davos to help train CEOs in the effects of climate change under various scenarios. The couple's latest offering takes scenario play to a different level. "Players have a choice," Hannah told Cause Global. "They can either save the world or burn it down, depending on their use of various scenarios covering the next 200 years." The game's synopsis says it all: "After another decade of inaction, the governments of the world wake up to a planet in chaos. The first impacts of climate change, population growth, resource over-exploitation and species loss have struck and a global organization has been created to respond. You are that response. Will you help the whole planet or will you be an agent of destruction?"

That both games are about environmental "crimes" is no accident. Hannah is a climate modeling expert with an Oxford degree; Gobion had been working as a forensic psychologist in the UK by day and tinkering with game development at night. Climate Change was the couple's first project together, made partly in the couple's kitchen. "I have been making games in various forms since I was 10," Gobion says, "but the satisfaction you get when you make a game that matters is huge, and these next 200 years are really critical to humanity. I felt disconnected at first from the issue of the environment. Games are a way to connect people personally to any number of social problems."

Participatory Chinatown. Players assume the role of one of 15 virtual residents of Boston's Chinatown district, all working around language difficulties and differing income levels to secure jobs, find affordable housing and discover new places to socialize. "This project is really an intervention into the community," says Eric Gordon, a new media professor at Emerson College in Boston who received a MacArthur Digital Media and Learning grant to develop the game, which debuted May 3. "Participatory Chinatown is a new way of engaging the democratic process," he told Cause Global. "I think what we've done is innovate the town hall meeting by bringing in gaming, by bringing in social networking. I think we can change the way that decisions are made -- as well as the way groups get together, collaborate, form political alliances and do the dirty work of democracy." Gordon says that game is targeted to teens as well as to seniors. "We are trying to foster inter-generational collaboration," Gordon says. "The game is not designed for gamers but for those with no gaming experience and those with some."

What do you think? Games-for-change attempt to foster "empathetic learning" -- putting players into the "shoes" of others so as to teach them new perspectives and solutions to global and local civic problems and societal challenges. How effective do you think games might be in bringing about behavioral change in the streets or in the boardroom?

Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

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