'Serious' Video Games for Education, Activism

Tech guru Mario Armstrong explains an emerging genre of educational videos games known as "serious games" — engrossing virtual worlds that help players learn how to control pain, train soldiers on how the military works, and even how to be a successful activist on a college campus.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Video games have a bad reputation. Many parents fear their kids spend too much time zoning out with the Xbox when they could be doing something more constructive. But as we look ahead, 2006 may be the year parents get a new attitude about gaming. An emerging genre called serious games is showing that video games can be valuable educational tools, and they're not just for kids. Professional fields from health and science industries to the military are incorporating serious games into their training procedures. But what are serious games? For an explanation, NPR's Farai Chideya turned to NEWS & NOTES tech guru Mario Armstrong.

MARIO ARMSTRONG reporting:

Serious games are games that can enhance policy change, games that can have some type of social impact, games that are being created for health care, for financial literacy, for the military. These are games that really have some value, other than just an entertainment value.

CHIDEYA: Give me an example.

ARMSTRONG: A great example of this genre of serious games would be Free Dive. Effectively what it does is it--is a pain control game that's being looked at by hospitals across the country to help ease the suffering of sick or injured children who may have to go under some painful medical procedures, and what they have found is by allowing kids to actually play this game while they're going through some of these uncomfortable medical procedures, that they actually can deal with pain in a much better way, so they're not focused on it, and it allows the operations to go through a lot more smoothly.

CHIDEYA: What about the military? We have talked a little bit about the fact, when we did our little visit to the E3 Convention, that the military is developing video games.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, and they are the largest buyer of game simulations. They spend a lot of money on this, and part of this, I look at as a recruitment tool, part of it as how they actually effectively train some of their military before they go out into real combat war zones. So one of the very popular games is called America's Army, and it's an online game that has well into the millions in terms of registered players, and your goal is to go from private to lieutenant and up the ranks. And it's really been a successful game in teaching people how the military works and how you can move throughout the military into different ranks. The other thing about that game, though, is it also can become a recruitment tool for the Army. They recognize that kids across the country love to play video games, so this may be also seen as a tool to try to recruit more kids to understand how the military does do war and does do battle and maybe that would entice more kids to be more interested.

CHIDEYA: There's also a game about activism. That's interesting. So you have a military game and a serious game about activism. What form does that take?

ARMSTRONG: Like I said, serious games are all about positive social change for the most part, and so one serious game that's out there right now that's being beta tested--it's not released yet, but it's coming--it's called A Force More Powerful, and this is really an interesting powerful learning tool that I say it's for future leaders. It's how you do activism on a college campus. So the plot is kind of like you have a couple of different groups on the college campus. There are a couple of issues that are happening on and off the campus, and you have to understand how to corral groups, get people behind your school of thought and get new stakeholders, get city council members involved. It's a really interesting game on how you can positively impact change in a non-violent manner.

CHIDEYA: I think you have to stick with what "South Park" taught us, which is punch and pie will make people come to meetings, so I hope they include that as a scenario in their game. But anyway, what about the profit margins for these games? Can you make money off of them or is it really more of a pro bono situation?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. And that's been a big challenge. I mean, the entertainment industry of the video game side, you're looking at $10 billion just in the local US market, national US market. If you go worldwide, you're looking at well over $30 billion. In the serious game side, you're only looking at about $1 billion, so it's a much, much different scale, and it has become more challenging for video game publishers and producers to get these games out. So the second annual Serious Games Summit just happened not too long ago in Washington, DC. So it's only the second year that they've actually formalized an annual group, an annual conference, so this is a very young industry with immense potential and opportunity, and I know the numbers are just going to go higher. It's just going to take a minute for venture capitalists and other investors to recognize that there is real money-making potential in serious games.

CHIDEYA: And what about the effectiveness? I mean, are these things really working and who's taking the time to measure it?

ARMSTRONG: MIT is probably one of the leaders. They have a thing called The Education Arcade, and it's an event that happens with professors and academia across the country. They all come to Los Angeles at the E3Expo, and they meet for a few days prior to that video gaming conference to talk about specifically what research is happening, what are professors using, how is it working? So the MIT Education Arcade is really leading the way, and there's also a teacher's arcade program, where they're showing that there is some effectiveness in using video games. If they're seeing significant academic achievement, they're seeing that you can have iconic, spatial and even visual attention skills through the process of video games.

So there's more research to come and more studies to be done, but one thing's for sure. Kurt Squire, who is a professor out of University of Madison-Wisconsin, uses a video game called Civilization, very popular commercial title, and he uses that to teach middle and high school kids in urban America how to study social studies better. And he's proven that that's been effective. So there's a lot of hope and a lot of optimism that we will continue to see more positive results about how video games can impact learning.

CHIDEYA: Well, that is the news from Mario Armstrong. He covers technology for us, NEWS & NOTES with Ed Gordon, and for Baltimore area NPR member stations WEAA and WYPR. He's also the technology advocate for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Thanks, Mario.

ARMSTRONG: Thanks so much.

COX: That's was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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