Video games used as educational tools

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – The future of U.S. forests may depend on how well firefighters do their job in a video game, if the developers of “Wildfire” have their way.

Utah’s Office of Planning and Budget wants people tinkering with a game whose object is to shrink the state’s deficit.

The military’s use of electronic simulations to train soldiers for combat is already well known. But the creation of “serious games” made with instruction, rather than entertainment, in mind is quickly blossoming into a new industry, providing surgeons risk-free practice and aspiring university presidents with management opportunities they would not otherwise have until years down the road.

Last week’s “Serious Games Summit” convened in Washington, D.C., for two days to highlight the new uses being found for video games for policymakers and the public.

Serious gaming remains a small force in the lucrative interactive gaming industry, which garnered over $7 billion in software sales last year with bestsellers such as “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” and “NBA Live: 2004.”

John Wilson, an independent publisher who spoke at the event, said technology for serious games tends to follow behind that of their more profitable counterparts.

“What you can see today in Half-Life 2 or Doom 3 today could be put to use in training situations down the road,” he said.

Wilson added that to pick up financial clout, serious game developers will have to convince government agencies and other potential buyers that serious gaming is not a threat to traditional education through gatherings such as that of last week.

“The reason for feeling threatened is because education is designed to be regimented,” Wilson said. “I think the summit is definitely a terrific start to overcoming that.”

The serious game movement began in 2003 with a series of two-hour roundtables. In the spring of 2004, it turned into a two-day event, though it remained part of the larger Game Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif. This week’s sold-out summit is considered a breakthrough.

“Potential funding sources will have to shed the biases they have about video games as frivolous toys and recognize their potential beyond entertainment,” said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, in a statement at the spring conference.

Daniel Hewitt, public relations director for the Entertainment Software Association, a Washington-based firm that Electronic Entertainment Expo, said progress in is being made in government institutions.

“The government realizes that we are in a digital age where people grow up playing video games,” he said. But Wilson said games will not be replacing classroom instruction anytime soon.

“The university experience is that seminal garden where ideas can flow freely and flourish,” he said. “A game can’t replace that.”

Wilson said that Cold War simulators have given him an appreciation for the complexities of international relations and he has learned from other games designed for wider audiences.

“SimCity” raised my awareness of issues that affect growth,” he said. “While I don’t plan on running for office in local government anytime soon, I think really has made me a better citizen.”

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