Video-Game Designers Target World Peace

A group of game designers says taht video-game technology can help save the world by raising humanitarian awareness. The creators of free educational games such as Darfur is Dying and PeaceMaker met with humanitarian activists during the third-annual Games for Change conference in New York.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Another permanent part of modern life is video games. They're often accused of wasting your time or promoting violence, but a conference in New York City this week called Games for Change wants video games to be known for something more. Here's NPR's Robert Smith.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

In the video game PeaceMaker, my character is the prime minister of Israel.

(Soundbite of Radar screen blips)

SMITH: And a suicide bomb has just gone off in Jerusalem.

(Soundbite of explosion)

SMITH: Now, the question comes on the screen: Do I retaliate? Standing behind me is Asi Burak, the developer of the game.

Mr. ASI BURAK (Co-Developer, PeaceMaker Video Game): I was in the Israeli army, so I experienced those things firsthand.

SMITH: When I decide to bomb the home of the suspected militants, my Israeli approval points go up, but Palestinians now hate me. In this video game you have to have the support of both side to win the game and a virtual Nobel Prize.

Mr. BURAK: The way to win PeaceMaker is to stop reacting to every event on the ground - every violent event - and start thinking more about your long-term agenda.

SMITH: At the Games for Change Conference, all the video competition forces you to look at the big picture: how to save the environment, make peace, battle poverty.

Mr. BENJAMIN STOKES (Co-Founder, Co-Director, Games For Change): If our youth are turning to games, we who are looking to do social change must meet youth with games.

SMITH: Benjamin Stokes is one of the organizers of the conference. He says there's been educational games around for a long time, but there was a problem: a lot of them weren't any fun.

Mr. STOKES: You were, for instance, roving the galaxy, doing some investigation, and every so often, you'd have to solve a math problem to get onto the next level. It was just something that interfered with the game, essentially. Good learning happens as part of the game, and the students don't even realize it's happening.

SMITH: Most of the games featured at the conference are modeled after successful hits like The Sims or Civilization. You immerse yourself in a complex world and solve the problems. Hardy Merriman, from the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict, shows off a game called A Force More Powerful. In it, you're an organizer leading a non-violent revolution against a dictator.

Mr. HARDY MERRIMAN (Director of Programs and Research, International Center on Non-Violent Conflict): So you can try to do a strike or a boycott, picket - so you can fundraise, try to recruit other people.

SMITH: But the game isn't all peace and love. In one scenario, the police force comes in and beats the protestor senseless.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MERRIMAN: So the game tries to show you that the stakes are high.

SMITH: These are not escapist games and there's a real question if this kind of immersion in the problems of the world is what young people want to play.

Connie Yowell with the MacArthur Foundation is funding studies into how children use games.

Dr. CONNIE YOWELL (Program Officer for Human and Community Development, MacArthur Foundation): As soon as it is preachy or as soon as there's a hint of adultness around the game, I think the kids are lost. And the reason that they're so particularly interesting is that video games know how to motivate kids and know how to engage kids, and so the challenge is, how do you maintain that, while also putting in and adding some content?

SMITH: The game designers may have noble aspirations, but how do you judge if they're effective? How can you tell if a game is creating change in the people playing it? For instance, in the video game Darfur is Dying, funded by MTV, you can play a refugee looking for water and dodging murderous militias. Seven hundred thousand people have played the game online, but still, creator Susana Ruiz asks herself this question.

Ms. SUSANA RUIZ (Creator, Darfur is Dying Video Game): How do you measure success? You know, I'm attempting to make something that spreads the message about what's happening so that the suffering can stop. It hasn't stopped in Darfur.

SMITH: She says she can only hope that the game has helped to make some progress. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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