Virtuous reality

An essay on “serious” gaming, first published in The Independent, January 2010

Nobody could argue that the £30bn video gaming isn’t by definition a serious business. But can games themselves ever be put to “serious” use? Could the same medium that offers us so much fun and entertainment also be a tool for raising political and social awareness?

Playing Darfur is Dying couldn’t be easier, so long as you have a computer and an internet connection. Visiting the game’s website, you are instantly thrown into the fray: a window in the centre of your screen asks you to “choose a Darfurian to represent your camp”. A family of two parents and six children are your charges: displaced by conflict, the game asks you to perform such tasks as foraging for water, irrigating crops, and generally trying to survive the appalling rigours of life as one of the 2.5 million refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan (a context that’s clearly explained in a couple of sentences underneath the game window onscreen).

I choose my family member, clicking on the image of Rahman, aged 30, the father. Now I must forage for water – except I can’t. A message has flashed up on the screen: “It’s very uncommon for an adult male to forage for water because he is likely to be killed by the Janjaweed militia. Choose another camp member to forage for water.” Right. Slightly nervously, I select the eldest child – Elham, a girl aged 14 – for the task. I’m told to use the arrow keys to control Elham’s movements, and then I’m off, dashing and dodging as the screen scrolls towards me.

My mission is to dodge wandering militia by hiding behind rocks and scrub, and to reach the well, whose distance and direction in relation to me are indicated at the bottom of the screen. It’s tough. Incredibly tough, in fact. I can press the space bar to hide, but it isn’t long before a jeep full of soldiers catches me out in the open. The screen freezes, and another blunt message flashes up: “You have been captured by the militia. You will likely become one of the hundreds of thousands of people lost to this humanitarian crisis. Girls in Darfur face abuse, rape and kidnapping by the Janjaweed. As someone at a far-off computer, and not a child or adult in Sudan, would you like the chance to try again?” I would.

One child down, five to go. I select the next eldest and set out once again into the scrub, dashing towards the well. This time, playing incredibly cautiously and hiding every hundred metres or so, I make it to the well. Success! I fill my canister and am promptly told I need to be extra careful as I’ll now be moving much more slowly on my way back. Drawing a deep breath I set off for the camp, this time running towards rather than away from the screen – meaning I can’t even identify any good hiding places in advance. A jeep appears in the distance, and I try to outrun it. Just a few hundred metres short of the camp, it catches me. I’ve lost another child and still not got any water.

At this point, several things occur to me. First, I’m not having much fun. I’m a pretty experienced gamer, and what I’ve been doing so far is both fairly crude and slightly excruciating. Second, I’m wondering whether my not having much fun is part of the point. After all, trying to get water to a real refugee camp in Darfur is neither fun nor easy, and the game may be honestly attempting to reflect this – which is both fair enough and somewhat self-defeating. It only takes a minute to absorb the lesson that getting water is a difficult task, and after this there isn’t much to motivate me to continue in this task. As the game itself has already pointed out, I don’t actually need this water because I’m sitting safe at home looking at a computer screen. What should keep me playing is a sense of challenge, achievement and engagement, and as yet I haven’t found too much of that.

Still, there is more to the game than water-gathering. Or, to be more precise, there is more to this particular “narrative-based simulation” than water-gathering – the designers of Darfur is Dying were evidently sufficiently uneasy with the idea of referring to it as a “game” that the word appears nowhere on their website that I can see. As well as gathering water, I can visit the camp itself, where I’m given an isometric overview of huts, fields and tents and tasked with assisting the residents in growing crops and maintaining the buildings. It’s an attractively drawn setting, with plenty of mouse-over information about the details of life in such a camp; what it isn’t, however, is either easy to fathom or to interact with.

After eventually managing to make a successful water run, I manage to keep things going for only one day before it’s game over. At which point a message asks me to enter my name, reminds me of the 2.5 million refugees currently living in camps, and invites me to spread awareness of the game virally to my friends. It also invites me to take further action by donating to charities working in Darfur, or contacting my elected representative.

Ethically, Darfur is Dying is hard to fault. As a game, however, its limitations are painfully obvious. It’s a little confusing, and “fun” has been rather too scrupulously avoided; or, a little more generously, its idea of “engagement” is somewhat dour and limited.

Suzanne Seggerman is the New York-based founder of the organisation Games for Change, a group founded in 2004 that promotes the use of video games as tools for raising political and social awareness. As she sees it, “fun” is an inadequate description of what video games do in the first place. “I don’t think the word is really right, I don’t think a game has to be ‘fun’. It has to be engaging, it has to be well-designed: what makes a game good is the balance of challenge and reward, and that is about learning.” At every step of a well designed game, you are engaged – but not necessarily entertained. It’s a process she believes is fundamentally akin to some of the most serious issues in the world today. “More and more we are recognising in the 21st century that the kind of problems we face globally are genuinely complex. They involve many interrelated variables: things relating to climate change or international trade, for example. Games are systems, and they offer a good way to explore complex systems, a way that we simply didn’t have before.” There is, in other words, no better way to understand a complex system than by experiencing it: by role-playing, shifting variables, and seeing how the outcomes are affected.

Darfur is Dying was funded via a competition, backed by the American television channel mtvU, a division of MTV that broadcasts across the US to college students. Playing it is rather like going back in time 15 years, back to when most games were made on similarly small budgets. There is tremendous enthusiasm for politically and ethically engaged gaming within much of the industry, but not – yet – the level of support from major developers and publishers that would be needed for the phenomenon to gain critical mass in terms of design and production values.

But there also remains the question of how far “serious gaming” is a contradiction in terms. The idea that I might have been really entertained by Darfur is Dying is a somewhat uncomfortable one. Wouldn’t the fact that I really enjoyed running a virtual refugee camp be, in some ways, inherently trivialising the issues involved? Seggerman rejects this idea, pointing to rapidly expanding array of titles that her organisation is already linked to from their website, titles that model everything from Third World farming to spotting signs of addiction in others to developing sustainable energy resources for cities.

“Games have to be taken on their own terms,” she argues. “They’re not trying to replace the reality of Darfur or Rwanda. But people cannot just go and experience these places, and the simulated experiences games offer are amazing. I don’t look on games as competing with the real world and human interactions. I see them as a medium and as a path towards actions in the real world.”

If you’re looking for further evidence that games are serious tools for purposes other than entertainment, it can be found in a field whose aims appear very different to those of Games for Change – the military. The US military alone now spends around $6bn a year on various kinds of virtual and simulated training programs. War games themselves are almost as ancient as warfare and many of the earliest games played in human societies were based around combat or fighting of some kind, from duelling and wrestling to javelin throwing. The earliest video games, too, found a rich resource for game designs in everything from hand-to-hand combat to virtual military campaigning. In fact, it’s probably fairer to say that video games found the military, rather than the other way around.

In 1996, seeing how popular the iconic first-person shooting game Doom was among soldiers, the US Marine Combat Development Command decided to produce a specially modified version of it.

Marine Doom, as it was inevitably known, was little more than a carefully reconfigured version of the existing game’s runaround-a-maze-shooting dynamic. What it introduced was “realistic” weaponry and a series of carefully structured environments. It was also, not unimportantly, great fun.

As well as strategy and teamwork, hurtling around in-game environments proved a fantastic way of training soldiers to identify and memorise locations suitable for hiding, sniping, taking cover and regrouping, skills that were soon harnessed by the decision to construct training levels based on the precise floorplans of various worldwide US embassies. This meant that, for example, hostage recovery scenarios could be rehearsed within accurate representations of actual embassy buildings. As any gamer will tell you, there are few better ways of memorising the layout of a space than running around a virtual representation of it a few hundred times under intense pressure.

Marine Doom was a hit within the corps. When a version of it was subsequently released for general consumption – a response which suggested a valuable secondary use for military video games. More than just training tools, the army realised they could also function as highly effective recruiting tools. What better way to harness the willingness of millions of gamers across the world to blow each other up in fantasy scenarios than to offer them a taste of the real thing – or, at least, to offer them a stamp of interactive military-grade authenticity? The result, released online in 2002, was the game America’s Army, “the official army game”, as it bills itself on its slick website. Simply download, create an account and you can start playing in a patriotic blaze of red, white and blue. Or rather, you can start training: America’s Army isn’t quite your standard blast-till-you-drop affair.

The first thing the game invites you to do is not – as some users might have hoped – kick some terrorist ass, but learn how to fire a gun at a training range, including full instructions on the importance of knowing how to unjam your rifle, conserve ammunition, and fire from standing, kneeling and prone positions. That done, it’s on to an obstacle course – at which, during my first attempt, I manage to hurl myself to my death with an overenthusiastic rope descent from a tower. The tone throughout isn’t quite that of your ordinary gung-ho game environment either: there’s a strong emphasis on listening for and obeying orders, putting your safety and that of your comrades ahead of blasting or running around, and above all on maintaining what the game calls “honour”. This is a kind of experience system that rewards players for “honourable” actions, like aiding a comrade or achieving an objective, and punishes them for “dishonourable” ones, like shooting civilians or allies.

America’s Army has been an unprecedented success, boasting 10,063,499 registered players (including this author). There have been no fewer than 26 editions of the game since its original release, spanning consoles as well as computers, and taking players through scenarios from special forces infiltrations to all-out assaults on terrorist bunkers or reconnaissance missions.

But a basic tension between the idea of seriousness and the idea of entertainment rears its head. Is the triumph of America’s Army as propaganda a tacit admission that the entire point of video games is the lack of certain kinds of real-world seriousness within them? You can certainly make the military seem a thrilling and thoroughly contemporary occupation by packaging it up in a hot new medium. Exactly how ethical an activity this is, however, remains open to debate. Indeed, as is often the way with modern video games, dissident voices have begun to be heard within the game itself, with a number of members of the public choosing to make “virtual protests” against the actions of the US military by, among other things, registering accounts under the names of soldiers killed while on active duty in Iraq.

Military games are in some respects not so dissimilar to many “games for change”. What a game can do, as Suzanne Seggerman noted, is turn just about any complex and potentially overwhelming system of variables into a manageable simulation that can be played, refined and analysed as many times as you want. It’s a process that, compared to the cost and hazards of “real” training exercises, offers fantastic value for money. And most intriguingly of all, it overlaps directly with one of the most potent and rapidly developing fields not just of modern warfare, but of all kinds of human exploration, excavation and interaction with the most hazardous and challenging of environments – robotics.

Unmanned aircraft have been in use for reconnaissance purposes by both the British and American military since the 1960s. Today, however, technology has advanced to the point where highly complex remote-controlled “drone” aircraft, known rather chillingly as Reapers, are being used for everything from interception and exploration missions to true “hunter-killer” roles. The operation of these machines bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain electronic leisure pursuit.

In simple terms, drone aircraft – of which the US military alone now operates more than 7,000 – are designed for complete integration with both video game simulations and video game control mechanisms. It can be literally impossible to differentiate a training scenario, taking place via a “virtual” drone within an environment generated by a modified version of the America’s Army game, from an actual mission as relayed by the multiple cameras and sensors attached to a real drone. As a profile in Wired magazine revealed, America’s top drone pilot is not a swaggering Top Gun type, but a high-school dropout whose great aptitude was not for action but for video games.

Similarly, the increasing use of “remote-controlled-soldiers” – caterpillar-track mounted robots able to wield machine guns, travel through snow, sand and water and relay home detailed images from their onboard cameras – blurs the line between simulation and reality in a disturbing, if highly effective, manner.

The possibility of robot armies marching across the world under the control of youths wielding video game controllers within sealed military bunkers is a frightening one (not least because this kind of thing can sound dangerously attractive to certain kinds of gaming ears); and yet, rather more hopefully, it’s in areas other than shooting that the wider possibilities of the kind of games the military have invested so much money in really start to become obvious, and to get closer to what are perhaps the most essential ‘serious’ capacities of video games. Take, for example, a “virtual training program” video game that has been developed for US military officers. Known as Gator Six, and based on hundreds of actual combat situations, the game uses actors and location filming to put players into the kind of decision-making situations that young officers actually face in the field.

Yet even the most complex video-and- multiple-choice game looks crude in some ways in comparison to the kinds of training simulations based on games technology that are already being piloted in other professions. Medicine is one area in which the use of game and virtual techniques is especially advanced – perhaps partly because the business of caring for the human body involves understanding the real-time interactions of countless complex systems and games are especially adept at reproducing such systems.

One vital area of training is emergency triage: equipping healthcare professionals to assess the order in which casualties should be seen in a crisis situation. The principles apply equally to events like train crashes, treating sick people in remote areas, or even military operations; the underlying idea is that it’s vital, when time and resources are limited and needs are devastatingly urgent, to differentiate between those patients who might be saved by intervention and those who won’t be.

A prototype triage game is currently under development by the TruSim division of Blitz Games Studios, whose areas of research include serious gaming. In the triage game, everything takes place in an interactive three-dimensional world: you explore the site of, for example, an explosion in a city, and find the bodies of those who need treatment as you investigate the wreckage. With highly realistic graphics and an interface that allows users to monitor vital signs, the data presented mirrors almost everything a medic would be able to discover about these patients in a real-life situation and, crucially, forces them to take triage decisions in real time without any break in the immersion.

The game is much less mediated than the “real” scenario; and, of course, the cost of running dozens or even hundreds of such game situations is negligible. “It’s interesting,” one doctor who had watched the TruSim demonstration told me, “because how can you simulate a complex, open fracture of the leg in real life?

“You can’t, at least not without a lot of tomato ketchup. But in a game, you can represent difficult wounds exactly. For large-scale emergency training, at the moment, they have people dressed up in latex and fake blood, pretending to be in a car crash. It’s involving, but it’s also very obviously unreal. A virtual world can simulate the noise, the chaos, everything. You could assess, for example, the exact percentage and degree of someone’s burns from the way they looked in a game.” And, of course, you could roll out such a scheme across the country and compare data and different approaches between centres at a minimal cost: game technologies excel at nothing so much as scoring, comparing and rewarding progress (medics, moreover, are a notoriously competitive bunch in the first place).


Perhaps the most important single demonstration of the potential of games for serious applications comes from the purest of all training environments: the education system. There will inevitably come a time when no one alive remembers a time before video games existed.

Within a modern school, that time has already arrived: every single pupil was born into a world where video games were simply a fact of life, and it’s in this environment and among these pupils that the serious potential of video games suddenly starts to seem less a novel possibility than a creeping inevitability. Until 1999, Derek Robertson was a primary school teacher in Scotland. “I still am at heart,” he says, when we first speak in March 2009, although his official job title has moved on considerably. Since June 2008 he has boasted the title of National Adviser for Emerging Technologies and Learning in Scotland. It’s largely thanks to him that Scotland now leads the world in the emerging field of what Robertson calls “games-based learning”.

Even a decade ago, Robertson was profoundly sceptical of everything to do with video games. Then, in 1997, on the last day of term before Christmas, the children got to bring in toys and games, one of which happened to be a Super Nintendo games console. “I watched these two boys play a game,” he explained, “where they were manipulating and arranging D shapes forming sequences and patterns. They were doing this really quickly, but what interested me was that these boys were in my supposedly bottom maths set and, when it came to problem solving in the traditional contexts with which I was presenting them, they appeared to be pretty hopeless. But this game challenged my thinking.”

So Robertson began trying out games in the classroom, according to what he felt were the principles of best practice in teaching: involvement, engagement, stimulation and rigour. He used, for instance, Nintendo’s series of Zelda adventure games to get children to write stories known as “ergodic” texts – that is, stories with no single linear path, where a reader’s decisions about which page to turn to next give rise to a whole range of narratives. It was an instant success, as was the learning of various mathematical principles through other games.

Yet the key point was not that video games achieved miraculous results but that, as Derek Robertson put it to me, they were a context that really meant something to the children. “I think it’s very important that learning doesn’t look at a child as though they come out of a vacuum: that school embraces where children come from and what there is out there that impacts on their cultural life.”

Within the digital culture that all children are now born into, video games have tremendously positive connotations. It was probably only a matter of time before they began to find their way into educational structures.

Robertson decided to create a physical space where he could bring all kinds of people – education managers, pupils, teachers – to get their hands on the actual games and discover that ‘it wasn’t all Pac-Man, Space Invaders and blowing up zombies”. He dubbed this space the “Consolarium”, and began to take it on tour. His mission was, in a sense, twofold: to take on people’s initial misconceptions about what video games actually were; and to change their perception of how games might be used within schools. The results have begun to speak for themselves. In 2008 he oversaw the most extensive trial to date of what games-based learning might mean for schools. Extended across 32 Scottish schools and involving over 600 pupils, the study was conducted to the most rigorously controlled scientific standards.

First, every pupil involved at every school took an initial maths test and their scores were recorded. They were then split into two groups, with 16 schools in each. The trial group used, under structured supervision, a game on the Nintendo hand-held DS console – Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, which contains a number of training games in mental arithmetic – for 20 minutes at the start of every day for nine weeks.

The control group simply continued their classes as normal. At the end of the nine weeks everyone was tested again. Both groups had improved, but those using the game had shown a 50 per cent greater improvement than those who had not. The time the games group took to complete the test had also dropped by more than twice that of the control group. Equally significantly, the increases in the game group were most significant among pupils at the lower end of the ability spectrum.

It’s a suggestive and hugely impressive set of results on a number of levels. But the most important single issue is, Robertson believes, one of attitude. “We find some pupils are disengaged from learning by the traditional fear they get from school. And the games are really powerful at dealing with this, at enthusing people, not so much in themselves as via the context for learning that the teacher manages to craft around them.” I asked how many schools are now using video games in learning across Scotland? “I would say at least 200. I’ve given local authorities the kit to get them started as well as loaning it out, and I go out taking the Consolarium on tour, giving talks, bringing it all with me. We have repositioned games-based learning from being a left-field idea to something that is very much mainstream.’

Robertson’s passionate enthusiasm is infectious – and in Scotland schools, parents, local authorities and councils are now queueing up to participate in the latest wave of video games learning. South of the border, initiatives based on Robertson’s work starting to spring up at a number of centres around the country.

One such centre is Oakdale Junior School in Woodford, East London. Game-based learning came to Oakdale after the borough, Redbridge, heard Derek Robertson speaking about his work in early 2008. Like many others before them, the local education authority were so impressed by Robertson’s work and results that they bought 30 Nintendo DS consoles and invited all the secondary and primary schools in the area to bid for them. Oakdale have for the last year been running their own trial version of Robertson’s scheme.

The main game used is Dr Kawashima. A typical class, packed with 30 pupils aged 10 and 11, was buzzing with quiet activity soon after form teacher Dawn Hallybone gave out the Nintendo hand-held consoles, with pupils striving to beat each other – and her – at 20 mental arithmetic questions. The pupils loved the competition because the machines kept score instantly and automatically, and were scrupulously fair; everyone could do a test at the same time and then compare results. They loved the presentation and interface (“You get to see one sum ahead, and it scrolls so smoothly,” one girl commented), perhaps unsurprisingly, given that several billion dollars’ worth of corporate research and development have gone into making the consoles as child-friendly as possible.

During this class and several others, a central point about game-based learning gradually became obvious. For teachers and parents, using games consoles as part of a lesson may still sound a little like science fiction, or at least like gimmickry. For pupils like those at Oakdale, however – a good local state school representing a whole spectrum of abilities, ethnicities and attitudes – the presence of the consoles in the classroom was a natural and familiar extension of much else in their lives. As pupil after pupil patiently noted, this was a welcome slice of their “real” lives transplanted into the sometimes-daunting world of the classroom. With this kind of technology in their hands, even the weakest member of the class felt entirely at home. So at home, in fact, that they competed to come back in break times to take more maths tests.

Oakdale’s head teacher, Linda Snow, is philosophical on this point. “Gone are the days when children sat for 30 minutes copying off a board: they expect the world to be singing and dancing. Dawn uses Twitter live in her class, live links with Australia for geography, posting stuff on websites: this is a world that even five years ago wasn’t there. And the DS consoles are part of that package. The pupils grew up with this technology. It’s part of who they are now.”