Serious games aim at raising the big issues

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      It’s still unknown whether games about things like homelessness can change attitudes, but creators believe that fun leads to knowledge

      After you infect the first farmer, who passes you on to the rest of the farm’s inhabitants, you spread quickly. Everyone—students, medical staff, labourers, office workers—is a target. A truck driver transports you to a warehouse in another town. Tourists take you back to their cities.

      At first, it appears as though you’ll rampage on, unstoppable. But over the next 30 days or so, you make people sick and they recover, now immune to you. The worst over, you fizzle out, no longer the danger you once were. As hard as you tried to infect an entire population, you couldn’t. You couldn’t even kill anyone.

      Such is the role of a pandemic influenza virus, which you assume when playing Killer Flu. Killer Flu is a browser-based serious game—a video game “where the purpose behind its existence is to create some impact other than entertainment as a priority”. That definition comes from Ben Sawyer, cofounder and codirector of the Washington, D.C.–based Serious Games Initiative and its Games for Health project.

      That’s not to say serious games can’t be entertaining. “What good entertainment arises from in video games often is well-designed interfaces, well-designed rules of play,” Sawyer told the Georgia Straight by phone from his office in Portland, Maine. While it’s gotten relatively little attention, the video-game medium has been used in learning, politics, business, and health.

      Developed by Persuasive Games for the U.K. Clinical Virology Network, Killer Flu was designed to depict the way that seasonal and pandemic flus mutate and spread. Ian Bogost, a founding parter of Persuasive, is also an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. In a phone interview with the Straight, he said the objective was, in part, “to inject a greater amount of accuracy into the depiction of the spread of a mutated virus”.

      Babak Pourbohloul is reluctant to equate Killer Flu’s portrayal of the flu virus with the real thing, but he does see potential in using a video game as a public health tool. “I would like to remain cautious about the direct comparison between computer games and real-life experiences,” he told the Straight by phone from his office in Vancouver.

      Pourbohloul is the director of mathematical modelling for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the chair of the Canadian Consortium for Pandemic Preparedness Modeling. His job is to use math and computer simulations to come up with recommendations for health authorities on how to deal with things like H1N1.

      While Pourbohloul wasn’t aware of Killer Flu, he said that “if these games could be based on realistic scenarios, that would be a fantastic educational tool.”

      Pourbohloul’s work isn’t dramatically different from Persuasive’s game. Killer Flu uses data that epidemiologists employ in their modelling. One element that makes Killer Flu effective is that it has people play what would intuitively be the antagonist: the virus itself. The homily about walking a mile in another person’s shoes is relevant. “One of the things that games do is they allow us to explore different roles than we’re used to being in,” Bogost said, “and that gives us perspective.”

      Some people get offended by the idea of treating a serious subject in the context of a video game. Serious-games consultant Terry Lavender got a few angry responses from the public after creating Homeless: It’s No Game. The browser-based game, developed in 2006 while he was a master’s student at Simon Fraser University, puts players in the role of a homeless woman struggling to survive in Vancouver. “It was like homelessness is too serious to be treated in a game,” Lavender told the Straight at a West End coffee shop.

      It’s partly an issue of semantics. The words game and play have come to refer to frivolous pastimes. But Lavender said that just as a kitten learns to hunt by pouncing on balls of yarn, and puppies learn how to find their place in the social order by roughhousing with other puppies, humans do much of their learning with games.

      To many, the term “serious games” might sound oxymoronic. Bogost considers games that are created to further the goals of an institution or organization—as opposed to a company trying to drive profits—part of this category. He believes the term was meant to be rhetorical and used when speaking to people who don’t understand video games.

      That’s why Bogost prefers the term “persuasive games” to “serious games”. “For me, it’s more useful to think about the ways that games are persuading, or the ways that they are making arguments, rather than the context of their creation,” he said. Ghettoizing entertaining games and keeping the “good, healthy, educational games in the realm of seriousness” is impractical, according to Bogost, because that’s not the way things are in the real world. The fact is that serious games can be fun, and fun games can have serious themes.

      “The most popular examples of progenitors for serious games,” Bogost said, “are in fact the kind of games that break down that distinction or cross that line.” The 1989 game SimCity, in which players manage the development of a growing metropolis, and 1991’s Civilization, which sees gamers build a historical empire, were wildly successful and spawned several sequels and spinoffs. While people played them to have fun, the games offered more than just entertainment. “They clearly make arguments,” Bogost said. “Those arguments are complex—some of them are intentional, some of them are ideological. And all of the stuff that’s happening in those games is not reducible to one notion of entertainment or seriousness.”

      For Bogost, the meaning of a game isn’t in the message that’s been slapped on it; it’s in the mechanics of the game itself. “The model that a game builds is where it’s most uniquely capable of making an argument,” Bogost said. He thinks intent, the purpose of a game, should be designed into the game at a fundamental level.

      Homeless: It’s No Game offers its players new perspectives on a social problem by having them collect bottles, ward off hunger, and find safe places to sleep,

      In Homeless: It’s No Game, players collect bottles, try to stave off hunger, and find places to rest and urinate, all in an attempt to survive for 24 hours in an environment where enemies include police, drug dealers, and vigilantes. Lavender created it in order to explore the effectiveness of video games at persuading people to change their attitudes and beliefs. His research results suggested that, after playing the game, people tended to feel more sympathetic toward the homeless woman who had been their character in the game, but not necessarily toward homeless people in general.

      Another serious game, Titanium Chef, was developed by the Vancouver-based interactive design studio Mod7 Communications for the B.C. Dairy Foundation. The game aims to teach students in grades 6 to 8 how to make healthy meals using the four food groups outlined in Canada’s Food Guide. A browser-based adventure game set in 3015, Titanium Chef sees players take on the role of a ChefBot that explores planets, collects information about foods, and creates meals for creatures, in an effort to win the title of the galaxy’s greatest chef. While Titanium Chef imparts knowledge about healthy eating, it isn’t known if playing the game will actually lead youth to make better decisions about what they eat.

      “Don’t produce a game thinking that you’re going to change people’s attitudes,” Lavender advised. “Produce a game so that people can have a bit of fun and you can get some publicity out of it.”

      Video games developed by Diane Gromala and her students have proven to be effective. A Canada Research Chair and associate professor, she runs the Transforming Pain project at SFU’s school of interactive arts and technology. An early experimenter with virtual reality, Gromala’s current research involves using games to help people with chronic pain manage their condition.

      “We’ve scientifically proven that immersive virtual reality is very effective as a nonpharmacological analgesic,” Gromala told the Straight by phone.

      One groundbreaking experiment took place at the University of Washington in Seattle, where Gromala’s former students developed SnowWorld, a game in which players ski through an ice cave and down a snowy slope populated by snowmen. Their research found that, for burn patients, “it was more effective than opiates during changing of the bandages,” said Gromala, who later got similar results with 10-year-olds who played the game Ringo’s Underwater Adventure while undergoing chemotherapy.

      Equipped with stereoscopic glasses, spatialized sound, and touch interfaces, Gromala’s latest subjects are learning how to control their autonomic senses by playing video games. The games, which use biofeedback information to change the virtual environment, help players achieve a meditative state, which in turn helps them with pain management.

      The Serious Games Initiative’s Sawyer believes that video games—serious or otherwise—will ultimately make us more productive. “They may be the pathway to certain types of things on a large scale that we didn’t think about,” he said.

      As an example, he mentioned the breakdown in lines of communication and coordination that occurred during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “One of the problems,” Sawyer said, “was that the training about ”˜What should I do?’ did not pervade the apparatus of state, local, federal officials.”

      It’s not as if U.S. officials hadn’t “war-gamed” the consequences of a Category 4 storm. But, Sawyer argued, tabletop exercises, like the ones they used, aren’t as efficient training tools as video games.

      If public officials turn to video games to better prepare themselves for disasters, perhaps they’ll be able to respond more effectively. And that might lead to fewer people losing their lives.



      Wil Arndt, Principal & Creative Director, mod7

      Nov 26, 2009 at 5:14pm

      Hi, thanks for this informative article! I'm with the company that developed Titanium Chef with the BC Dairy Foundation, and I'd just like to add an update on how this game is performing in this area. I think it's best demonstrated anecdotally, as expressed by a recent email from this Canadian mother:

      "Just a note to thank you for the fantastic game... My 8-yr old picky eater got obsessed for two days... and now she is helping me to plan daily / weekly menus & promises to try new things in order to make her daily recommended servings... This is the kind of health promotion that will change the lives of our children, for a healthier population in the future."

      Notes like this thrill us incredibly, supporting our belief that "serious games" (or "persuasive games") can indeed improve people's lives for the better. Thanks to people like Ben Sawyer, Ian Bogost, Terry Lavender, and Diane Gromala for recognizing the potential in game play to dramatically improve and, in some cases, literally save lives.


      Nov 27, 2009 at 9:14am

      Thanks, Wil, for the comment, and for sharing the anecdote from the mother who's family is benefitting as a result of a child playing Titanium Chef. It's a great tally for the positive impact games can have.