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Gaming gets its consciousness on

Times Staff Writer

A growing movement of “activist” videogame designers is showing that not only can you make good games about problems like global warming, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the childhood obesity epidemic but that gaming itself can be a powerful medium for spreading awareness and getting people involved. These game makers are not offering the escapist trances so many of today’s mega-budget games provide. On the contrary, they want to wake you up.

As Stephen Friedman, the head of mtvU, MTV’s college television network, which sponsored a game last year about the atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan, put it, “The first step of activism is to begin to walk in the shoes of the person that’s in need.” Friedman cautions that at best, a game such as Darfur Is Dying provides only a cursory glimpse into the lives of its subjects but one that nonetheless offers “a much more intimate connection than what you would get from watching it on TV.”

In Darfur Is Dying, the player controls a refugee who must accomplish tasks such as finding water and caring for the needs of the camp, all while avoiding capture by prowling janjaweed militiamen. (There’s no violence when you’re caught, but the character’s fate is chillingly implied.) You can play the game for free directly off of mtvU’s website and since April, more than a million people have. That success has encouraged Friedman and his team to sponsor two more games: one intended to increase HIV/AIDS awareness among young people, and a second that will allow players a view into the plight of migrant farmworkers.

If you’re having trouble seeing how games about global warming, AIDS or genocide are supposed to be “fun,” you are not alone. Suffering is pretty much the opposite of fun, after all, and we cringe to think of children engaging with the world’s most pressing issues in the same way they engage with Grand Theft Auto, or EverQuest, or Pac-Man.

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But game auteurs are quick to remind you that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Before the rise of high-speed Internet access, the gaming industry could produce only what would fit on the shelves at Best Buy. So, like the movie studios, it stuck to high-yield, low-risk formulas: guns, magic and football. It’s only recently that online distribution broke the chokehold on smaller, independent companies.

Game makers love comparing themselves to the much richer and more mature film industry. “When you go to a video store, there are all these different sections,” said co-founder Gerard LaFond of Atlanta-based Persuasive Games. “There’s drama, there’s documentary, there’s history, there’s comedy. We don’t have that. And until we start pushing the possibilities of videogames and the kind of subjects we can cover, we’re not going to appeal to new markets.”

Because consumers won’t pay for these kinds of games yet, indie gaming outfits often give games away for free, which means many rely on bigger companies to pay development costs. This symbiotic model has proved inviting to public-minded institutions looking for new-school ways to reach their audience.

In Britain, the BBC recently hired a five-person development firm called Red Redemption to make the first-ever computer game about global warming. In Climate Challenge, you are the president of Europe and must choose policies that will zero out CO2 emissions by 2100 -- without ruining the economy or turning the world against you. The game is now featured on the BBC’s hugely popular website, and its makers say nearly half a million people have played it since its release in January. Determined to do the topic justice, Red Redemption brought in climate scientists from Oxford University and Germany’s renowned Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The game uses real data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.'s anointed global warming team.

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Serious subject or no, Climate Challenge producer Gobion Rowlands insists that “if a game’s not fun, it’s not a game.” A designer’s worst nightmare is seeing a player get bored fast.

Reporter in the field

UPPING the seriousness ante, Denmark-based Serious Games Interactive has built a game around one of the world’s most divisive issues. In Global Conflicts: Palestine, you control a freelance journalist who roams the streets of Jerusalem armed with nothing but a pencil and a steno pad. Your editor asks you to cover Israeli Defense Forces security raids, border checkpoints, and even martyrdom; you’re asked to interview families of the victims and of the bomber alike. As you speak to Arabs and Israelis around town, you carefully pluck their best quotes, the object being to write a balanced, thorough newspaper article at the day’s end.

With funding from the government of Denmark and the European Union as well as private sources, Global Conflicts’ $800,000 budget has enabled designers to build a dynamic and visually attractive 3-D environment. The game’s open, go-wherever feel is reminiscent of much bigger commercial games, which is amusing considering that all you really ever do in this game is talk to people.

Other game makers don’t bother pretending to be impartial. “The name of our company says it all,” said LaFond of Persuasive Games. In Disaffected!, you play a grumbling Kinko’s employee who is inept and easily confused -- as you quickly learn, remembering which customer ordered what is next to impossible. Bacteria Salad is hard too: As a food distributor, you’re trying to prevent tainted spinach and tomatoes from reaching the consumer. Good luck!

LaFond’s company is at work on FatWorld, a project sponsored by ITVS, an independent content provider for PBS. The game (“Fit or fat? Live or die. You decide.”) will aim at the politics of food and nutrition, especially with children. “We want to trick [kids] into understanding something that has a serious message,” said LaFond.

Ian Bogost, co-founder of Persuasive Games and author of an upcoming book by the same name, wants to push the envelope even further by tackling perhaps the most incendiary issue of all. “There’s this horrible vision people get when you tell them you’re making a game about abortion -- they think you mean a first-person aborter or something -- that’s not at all what we have in mind.

“What we want to do with this game is not to drive home a particular side of the debate but to show how the debate works and if someone is pro-choice or pro-life, why are they that way.”

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What the game isn’t, then, is perhaps more vivid than what it is. Though it’s been in development for over a year, Bogost still refers to it as “hypothetical” and points to technical and philosophical hurdles to making a game that gives the gravity of the issue its due.

“We’re in the Wild West of this endeavor,” Bogost said, on serious gaming as a whole. “All we can do is make as many mistakes as possible, so the next generation of developers can do better.”


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