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[] Video Game World Gives Peace a Chance


*Video Game World Gives Peace a Chance*

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 16, 2005; F01

Parents who worry that video games are teaching kids to settle conflicts
with blasters and bloodshed can take heart: A new generation of video
games wants to save the world through peace and democracy.

A team at Carnegie Mellon University is working on an educational
computer game that explores the Mideast conflict -- you win by
negotiating peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This spring, the
United Nations' World Food Programme released an online game in which
players must figure out how to feed thousands of people on a fictitious

This weekend, the University of Southern California is kicking off a
competition to develop a game that promotes international goodwill
toward the United States, a kind of Voice of America for the gamer set.

And lest anyone think only professors and policy wonks are involved, a
unit of MTV this week announced a contest to come up with a video game
that fights genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Internet-based computer games, in which players create characters in a
virtual world and interact to solve problems or win battles, are
branching out from fantasy into serious social issues. Academics
recognize their power as a new form of mass entertainment, and activists
hope to tap into their enormous worldwide popularity to reach a new
generation used to interacting through computers.

"It's been kind of a surprise for us. It just took off," said Jennifer
Parmelee, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'s food program.

So popular was the U.N.'s game, titled Food Force, Yahoo had to step in
as a Web host for the game when swarms of Internet users converged on and accidentally knocked it off-line. The
game, which Parmelee said was initially regarded with skepticism within
the U.N., has been downloaded 2 million times since its launch.

Stephen Friedman, general manager of an MTV channel shown on college
campuses, said he thinks his network's contest could help spread
awareness of Darfur to young people who are interested in games but who
don't follow world events.

"Activism needs to be rethought and reinvented with each generation," he
said. "This is a generation that lives online -- what better way to have
an effect?" The network is promising a $50,000 prize to the student or
team of students that comes up with the best idea.

Carnegie Mellon's project, called PeaceMaker, is led by an Israeli
citizen named Asi Burak, who has sought input from both sides of the
conflict for the game his team is building. In it, players take a role
as an Israeli or Palestinian leader charged with bringing peace to the
region. Use too much military force and the region falls into violence
-- but give too many concessions quickly and a leader risks assassination.

"We want to prove that video games can be serious and deal with
meaningful issues," said Burak, who will be lecturing about it at the
Serious Games conference in Washington next month, a get-together
dedicated to introducing game makers to potential clients interested in
educational games.

Edward Castronova, a professor at the University of Indiana who has
written a book about the dynamics of virtual worlds, said he wishes the
State Department would invest in an immersive online game that would
appeal to teenagers across the globe -- a game in which players could
participate in an online world governed by democratic principles.

"It would just have one feature," he said, " /live/ democracy. /See/
what it's like when issues get resolved through peaceful voting and
transition of power.

"Games give you the opportunity to live a culture and I think that is
dramatically more powerful and persuasive than a million leaflets or
60,000 Peace Corps volunteers."

A State Department official said the agency doesn't have plans to make
such an investment.

"We are not generally a source of funding for experimental technology,"
said Jeremy Curtin, senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for
public diplomacy. "But we are very interested in what the private sector
is doing in terms of creative use of technologies."

USC professors Joshua Fouts and Douglas Thomas, the organizers of that
school's contest, have discussed the project with State Department
officials and hope to get a policymaker on their judging panel. The
contest winner will be announced on the eve of a video game industry
conference in Los Angeles next year.

The two said their contest was inspired by playing and exploring the
virtual world of an online game called Star Wars Galaxies, which lets
players around the world log on and participate in the universe of the
"Star Wars" movies. They found that many players from other countries
had a negative view of Americans, an impression that sometimes became
more positive as they played cooperatively with players based in the
United States.

"It's a virtual exchange program," said Fouts, who worked at Voice of
America for six years before becoming the director of USC's Center on
Public Diplomacy.

The biggest challenge for programmers entering the contest might be one
that policymakers and activists have never had to think about: The game
will have to be fun. After all, the loftiest and most educational game
in the world won't have much positive result if nobody plays it.

David Tucker, a computer science major at the University of Maryland who
hopes to land a job in game design, said he didn't know whether he'd
want to play such a game or not. "I guess it would depend on the quality
of the game," he said. "I know I have played games that don't have
violence but are enjoyable." After a short pause, he added, "I can't
think of any at the moment."

"If you write a boring book and people stop on page two, it has no
impact," said Jesse H. Ausubel, a director at the Richard Lounsbery
Foundation, which provided $125,000 in funds to sponsor USC's contest.

Is democracy "fun"? Castronova thinks aspiring game designers should
have more than enough to work with for such a project. "You could look
at the U.S. Constitution as a big game," he said. "We've been playing it
for 200 years. And we love it."

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