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Serious Gaming: Improving The World, One Power-Up At A Time

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As a card-carrying member of the millennial generation, I came of age alongside video games. The soundtrack of my childhood could be compiled entirely from 8 and 16-bit Nintendo theme music.

Games -- from hide-and-seek on the kindergarten playground to canasta at the senior center -- are an integral, lifelong part of the human experience.

When we think of games, we often think of them as merely serving as entertainment or distraction from "serious" activities. At last week's Tech@State: Serious Games conference here in D.C., that limited understanding of games was thrown out the window. Sponsored by the U.S. State Department's Office of eDiplomacy, the two-day convergence of technologists, developers and innovators in the gaming industry illustrated the wide-ranging impact of games in our tech-infused world.2011-05-31-IMG_1510.JPG

The most profound takeaway I gleaned from the conference was the growing impact of social-based gaming as a platform for meaningful change in the real world. Two decades ago, the video game market consisted entirely of content designed for isolated, one or two-person experiences. I have vivid memories of guiding my ox cart across a 2-D Oregon Trail, hoping desperately that my traveling party would not be prematurely terminated by dysentery.

Today's games, by contrast, are built around giant, fluid and interactive networks of users. The powerhouse franchises of the past decade -- World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and FarmVille, to name a few -- are practically dependent on a critical mass of multiplayer interaction for basic operation.

The increasingly sophisticated communication technology that has enabled social gaming to operate on a massive scale has set the minds of many leading technologists and innovators to work finding ulterior, socially-beneficial purposes for these games. The same principles that underpin socialized "entertainment" games -- knowledge/skill acquisition in a rules-based environment, cooperative competition, achievement through progress and/or ranking against others, etc -- are being translated to games that aren't solely useful for amusement or challenge.

Being organized by the State Department, it was hardly surprising that many of the games discussed involved international affairs, public policy and diplomacy. The creators of overtly cause-based games such as Peacemaker (a RPG-style virtual simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that provides a historical context of the conflict to both Hebrew and Arabic-speaking audiences), Tilt (a puzzle-based iPhone/iPad game centered around cleaning up virtual carbon waste and sharing those achievements on a worldwide scoreboard), and the iCivics suite (web-based interactive games that educate users about civic institutions) were on hand to discuss the challenges and rewards of building "games for good."

2011-05-31-IMG_1500.JPGPlaypower, the pet project of a passionate group of programmers and researchers, is bringing simple educational video gaming to developing nations, where access to modern classrooms or textbooks is, at best, inconsistent. By building $10 TV-compatible computers out of discarded keyboards and equipping them with cartridge-based educational games, the Playpower team is aiming to inspire an 8-bit educational revolution.

"Gamification" in the real world is not new. Countless aspects of our society -- from tax incentives to local elections -- can be explained in terms of game mechanics. Even the runaway social media successes of the Web 2.0 era -- Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare -- are essentially thinly-veiled gaming platforms that thrive on our desire to compete for points in a fixed system, whether it be in terms of friends, followers or badges.

Translating virtual or intangible achievements into material improvements in the real world remains a challenge for developers, but progress is being made in surprising areas. Companies such as Arlington-based OPOWER have successfully fused the behavioral psychology of gaming with cutting-edge technology to encourage energy efficiency by way of your monthly electric bill. And any time you hear about the latest attempt to "crowdsource" a problem (e.g. by supplying open source health data sets to app developers), you are witnessing "serious games" in action.

The "metagame" on display at the conference -- i.e. the game of making serious games -- is one where the competition is growing and the rules are always changing. But in the end, it's a game where we all win.

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