Thursday, August 03, 2006

Serious Games

The New York Times ran a pretty good article last week about so-called "serious games" - Peacemaker (try to solve the Middle East crisis), Darfur is Dying (plight of villagers in Sudan), and others. I think they make two important points:

  1. Games are systems, and systems reflect ideologies; and
  2. Even serious games must remain intellectually engaging, and in that broadest sense, fun.
I haven't played Peacemaker and didn't much care for Darfur is Dying as a game, but there is a great future ahead for games like this. One of my own recent favorites, which may not have been "serious" enough for the NYT reporter but which I think shows a lot of the medium's potential, is Disaffected, in which the player (or two, in a two-player game) attempts to function as a FedEx-Kinko's employee, navigating through a customer relations experience in which those you deal with are perpetually impatient because you are doomed to do a bad job. If the low morale doesn't get you (employees, even ones you control, can "forget" what they're doing or fall into an "I-don't-feel-like-working" stupor), the fact that the other employee in the game space is disorganizing everyone's orders as you work probably will.

The game's creators, Persuasive Games, have also developed a game that explores the inconveniences of airport security, a game to help Cold Stone Creamery trainees learn to control their portion sizes (commissioned by the company) and an arcade-style game to help middle-grade students learn the periodic table.

It's even more exciting to hear about teachers using complex but not explicitly "educational" games in an instructional context, especially open-ended games. Educators have already descended on the virtual world Second Life, which now contains libraries and education centers and even sells private, off-the-map land which can be used for "sheltered" experiences within the game. High-school teacher Dave McDivitt has used Civilization in history classes before, and has been floating ideas this summer about using The Sims for his sociology class; he now has an implementation plan, and I couldn't be more excited about this use of gaming technology: it prompts collaboration, helps students apply direct instruction as well as helping to introduce topics important to students, orients students towards shared goals, and provides an "experimental" and technological dimension that can help bring a highly relevant topic to life. I'm looking forward to hearing about his experiences as the semester progresses.

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