Are You Game?

 
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Computer games have been at the heart of my life since I was a boy.

My first kiss was while sitting on a beanbag in front of my TV with my Atari 2600 joystick in one hand and my girlfriend in the other. I still remember what I said after that fateful kiss: “I can do better than that. Let’s try again.” Press reset and play that level over!

I remember getting a new PC game, Kings Quest IV, for Christmas and not emerging from my room until I completed it some three days later. My mum brought me food and drink because she was afraid I would starve to death! I still have the first three levels of Ms Pac-man memorised (if I close my eyes I can see the dots, the walls and the ghosts). I remember unwrapping my Commodore 64—a programmable computer!

At 10 years of age, in the height of my programming expertise, I approached the Commodore 64 display at my local Kmart and covertly typed:

10 PRINT
KMART StinkS!”;
20 GOTO 10
RUN

Oh, those were the days! Computers have come a long way in the past 25 years. Microsoft’s newly released Xbox 360 can do more calculations than a supercomputer in the 1970s could. Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates, was gushing with praise for the Xbox 360, claiming that it can process six completely separate calculation threads (that’s like six PCs working together), until Sony revealed that their Playstation 3, slated to come out at the end of 2006, has eight parallel processors. Sony Computer Entertainment’s CEO, Ken Kutaragi, calls the PS3 a “supercomputer for computer entertainment.”1

n The rapid development and drastic changes in computer technology has gained much of its momentum and direction from the demands of the gaming industry to be able to render better graphics and produce better sound. Even more interesting than the improvements in technology are the changes in the way games are being used. When I was a kid, most games were simple, repetitive and mind numbing. In the last decade, computer games have taken a turn down an unexpected track, a new genre of games—edutainment—combining fun with complex challenges that teach valuable real-world skills and information.

Early edutainment games focused on city planning (SimCity), then on military strategy (Dark Reign series and WarCraft series), and the most successful educational games in this genre have focused on history and empire building (Age of Empires series, Civilization series). Teachers have been using many of these edutainment games as teaching aides in the classroom with great success.

A game you play by jumping on pads with your feet, Dance Dance Revolution, is even being used by physical education teachers to get kids moving—one teenage boy shed 65 kilograms by playing this dance simulation game.2

It is not only parents and teachers that are jumping onto the successful platform of computer games to reach their audience. The US Army realised they were loosing the attention of young Americans. They studied the communication tools for reaching teens and then created an army simulation game as a recruitment tool. America’s Army, a free online army tactical game, is very popular and is raising recruits. The US Army uses numerous other games for training purposes including Microsoft Flight Simulator, Doom, and a game they created called Tactical Iraqi that teaches soldiers how to interact with the Iraqi people. In the words of one soldier: “I learned more in one day with this than I learned in my whole tour in Iraq.”3

A Force More Powerful

Just this March, the computer-game evolutionary process had undergone a metamorphosis that has left governments befuddled and citizens the world round excited and anxious to have a game. The game is called A Force More Powerful (AFMP) and it is like nothing before it. It combines the planning, strategy and military motifs but with one ingenious twist—no violence. In fact, nonviolence is the entire purpose of the game. In a nutshell, AFMP is a tool to teach revolutionaries how to overthrow a government peacefully. While the game does not demonstrate real historical scenarios, it is based on statistics from real situations of numerous rebellions that succeeded and failed. From their website:
A Force More Powerful is the first and only game to teach the waging of conflict using nonviolent methods. Destined for use by activists and leaders of nonviolent resistance and opposition movements, the game will also educate the media and general public on the potential of nonviolent action and serve as a simulation tool for academic studies of nonviolent resistance.”4
The authors explain that AFMP is a learning tool, not merely entertainment. The game involves in-depth layers of decisions, making it quite interesting and enjoyable. There are many tactical combinations: use of “high-level” strategy involves demographics, economics, and your choice of leader with varying levels of charisma and empathy. Each scenario is designed to take three to six hours.

One of the most interesting and potentially far-reaching aspects of AFMP is its inbuilt scenario creator. Although the game comes with 12 scenarios examining fictional countries, the scenario builder allows players to program in the exact circumstances of their own country or region. The game designers’ ultimate hope is that nonviolent protesters living in the midst of a conflict will create their own scenario and make it available on an open-source network for sharing.

It seems like just yesterday that we were being bombarded with the message that computer games were warping our minds and separating us from reality. Who would have guessed that in 2006 soldiers would be playing computer games that teach them how to be nice to the enemy? How counterintuitive is it to you that a Playstation 2 could set your child free from obesity? Dance Dance Revolution has done just that for scores of teens.

Most of us are accustomed to watching our gaming youngsters develop the technologies, infrastructure and armies necessary to progress to the next level of a strategy game. But, just imagine … a real-world foreign dictator overthrown peacefully by the unified people of an oppressed nation and the charismatic leader of the revolution rejoices, “I must have played that scenario a thousand times before we went for it!

It is impossible that the world of technology around us could have evolved without computer games. The need for more advanced systems drove the computer industry to invent and reinvent itself. It is also impossible that the world of computing would be where it is today if it were not for the ferocious race by the global superpowers to war and space.

I believe it is impossible for the human spirit to be locked down into bits and bytes—off and on—we are creative and free by design. And where there is a game to be played there is a lesson to be learned.

Who we know, how we live, where we travel, even what we think is shaped either directly or indirectly by the computers around us. And those computers that check our emails, play our DVDs, run our cars and create our favourite magazines (Signs of course!) have become as advanced as they are thanks in large part to games.

So, next time you see a young person with a game controller in their hands, saving the world or winning the race, why not put your hand on their shoulder and thank them for making the world what it is today. And then pick up the other controller and have a game.

1. http://www.gamespot.com/tech/
2. http://www.getupmove.com/
3. http://www.tacticallanguage.com/tacticaliraqi/
4. http://www.afmpgame.com