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How Gamers Will Save The World

Games aren’t a waste of time. Don’t let their fun facade fool you: they're changing us, enabling to defeat with complex problems and navigate strange spaces. They’re improving and educating the people who play them, transmitting radical political ideas, hard-wiring untested neural connections. In Japan games are being sold as anti-ageing devices, while in Europe and America scientists are just beginning to realise that games can be used as training simulators that have no precedent in human history. Videogames are going to be used by teachers to make the next generation of schoolchildren pay more attention in class and get smarter faster. They’re already creating a generation whose visual skills and information-processing talents far exceed those of their parents. The military want gamers to pilot their helicopters and fighter jets, but for many gamers their encounter with games has led in entirely different directions. We’re becoming skilled surgeons who learn with gamepads, we’re becoming motivated politicians who fight inequality with digital worlds, and we’re becoming human computers – nodes in a future of brain-powered processing we could barely have imagined just a few years ago.

Gamers will save the world, and that process is only getting started. Don’t believe us? Read on.

[This article first appeared last year in issue 172 of PC Gamer UK magazine.]

There is a very strong reason to spend time at your PC: it’s making you into a better, faster human being. Videogames are a new and important part of a rounded regime of brain exercise. You might think of them as athletics for the nervous system. What they do to the brain is unprecedented in nature: forcing us into spatially weird situations, and dumping abstract puzzles on us in a relentless and thrilling fashion. Reading, talking, and watching movies all exercise different areas of the brain, and videogames likewise provide us with unique stimuli, pushing the brain to become stronger and more flexible.

Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York have been looking at exactly how continued videogame-use influences our visual processing. The Rochester researchers intended to see whether habitual game-playing improved the visual skills of gamers, and they came up with a number of tests to measure this against nongamers. They reported that “videogame players were found to outperform non-videogame players on the localisation of an eccentric target among distractors, on the number of visual items they could apprehend at once, and on the fast temporal processing of visual information.” Or, in common-speak: gamers are better at using their eyes, and better at understanding what they see and doing something about it, than non-gamers.

The Federation of American Scientists has been doing similar work, and they think that games can improve our general idea handling and planning. Their 2006 report on the medium concluded that “videogame developers have instinctively implemented many of the common axioms of learning scientists. They have used these approaches to help game players exercise a skill set closely matching the thinking, planning, learning, and technical skills increasingly demanded by employers in a wide range of industries.” Translating again: games teach us techniques for problem solving that are very close to the scientific method of coming up with a hypothesis and then testing it.

The implications of this are enormous. Videogames are helping people become better translators and negotiators by giving them videogame characters to interact with – such as using the classic graphic adventure Grim Fandango to teach Spanish, or the US military simulator Tactical Iraqi to teach soldiers how to behave in Arab countries. We’re becoming better pilots, better navigators, better drivers, and we can learn in a safe environment: the British School of Motoring is following the lead provided by flight simulators by creating its own range of in-store driving simulators, enabling firsttime drivers to make their first foray behind the steering wheel in complete safety.

It’s long been a given that hand-eye co-ordination is improved by gaming, but in recent years there has been some significant evidence for this provided by medical practitioners. One crucial example is the work carried out by New York’s Dr James Rosser. A surgeon who works in the field of ‘minimally invasive surgery’, Rosser seems about as far from the slacker archetype of a gamer as possible. Nevertheless Rosser makes use of games – for him they are as much a practical tool for improving your hand-eye coordination as they are entertainment.

Rosser’s trainee doctors are instructed to play several hours of Super Monkey Ball each week, a tactic that the surgeon insists is an essential part of the success of his ‘Top Gun’ training programme. Surgeons who played at least three hours of Super Monkey Ball each week made 37% fewer errors, according to Rosser’s studies. Even if you don't believe in the power of games as training tools, just think of them as useful distractions. The PC-powered virtual reality game Snow World has been made available to hospitals across the world. The simple game, in which you explore a snowy world using a VR headset, acts as a powerful attention distracter for children who are suffering from burns that must be regularly and painfully treated by hospital staff. Just taking a child’s mind off their injuries is enough to help them bear the pain. Without games technologies this kind of non-medicinal relief would not exist.

Those people who think that games are a waste of time might point out at this point that merely becoming faster and brainier through playing games is a bit selfish. What about helping other people? Games have got that covered too. Improving the world around us with games that educate, train, or make political statements has become routine for game developers.

Consider Food Force – a downloadable game made by the UN. Intended to educate people about the challenges the UN faced in feeding disaster-stricken people, it was one of the most downloaded games of 2006. Six million players, and counting, have tried it out. If even a fraction of those players decide they need to help disaster victims, either by donating to or joining relief efforts, lives will be saved. That ability to reach so many people, politicians and opinion formers are discovering, is a fantastic tool for introducing their messages to new audiences.

As more of us turn away from film, radio and TV in favour of interactive experiences, so the people who want to educate and influence will adapt and find a place in gaming worlds. Every major US political party has invested in free-to-download playable propaganda games, with varying results. The Republican party funded a simple parody in the form of John Kerry Tax Invader (George Bush’s head shot back at the evil Democratic leaders coming to steal US tax dollars), while the Democrats responded with the Howard Dean for Iowa game, a sophisticated title that demonstrated how to canvas for support, how campaigning works, and how voters have to get involved in campaigns if they want to win.

It’s not just mainstream politicos who are using games to spread their messages: radicals, extremists, and protesters all see the value. There are games being developed that tell the story of the people deemed ‘terrorists’ by the West. A Hezbollah sympathetic coder designed the game Special Force in 2003 to promote anti-Israeli sentiment and to stir up Lebanese nationalistic fervour – the clunky first-person shooter portrayed a Hezbollah soldier as the hero fighting Israeli and US soldiers.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the world, the Half-Life mod Escape From Woomera spectacularly exposed the conditions suffered by people in Australia’s immigration detention camps. The project website explained their ‘subversive’ intentions: “With a first-person, 3D adventure game we invite gamers to assume the character, and ‘live’ through the experiences, of a modern day refugee. The effective media lock-out from immigration detention centres has meant that the whole truth about what goes on behind the razor-wire at Woomera, Baxter, Port Hedland, Maribyrnong and Villawood remains largely a mystery to the Australian public. “We want to challenge this by offering the world a glimpse – more than that even: an interactive, immersive experience – of life within the most secretive and controversial places on the Australian political and geographical landscape. In this way, Escape From Woomera will be an engine for mobilising experiences and situations otherwise inaccessible to a nation of disempowered onlookers. It will provide both a portal and a toolkit for reworking and engaging with what is otherwise an entirely mediated current affair.” Not bad for a mere ‘game'.

Videogames can deliver subtler but equally politically charged messages. Take the Flash game Airport Insecurity: it’s a simple puzzle game about getting people through airport security checkpoints, but it rapidly becomes a satire about how uptight and absurd airport restrictions have become over the past decade. Getting your traveller through airports becomes increasingly difficult, with irate passengers, ludicrous restrictions on what you can have in your luggage, and the constant danger of being humiliated by a public strip-search – all of which (including the time you spend queuing) is based on real events in US airports.

Or take September 12th, in which you fire laserguided missiles at terrorists in a crowded Middle Eastern marketplace. The mechanics beautifully illustrate the point: every civilian you hit will spawn three more terrorists. By the end of the game the entire market is ranged against you. These are pioneering projects that only have a limited bearing on mainstream gaming, but as the medium matures and finds how best to deliver its messages we could soon find mainstream games taking up the same political gauntlets as novels or films. How long, you have to wonder, before games have their own Syriana or Good Night And Good Luck?

And then there are the games that are being used in classrooms to teach subjects as varied as sociology and mathematics. Games, it seems, grab the attention of younger students for much longer than standard textbook and blackboard routines (who’d have guessed?) and they're increasingly being adapted to classroom uses by progressive and gaming-savvy teachers. It’ll be a long time before off-the-shelf games arrive on standard curricula, but they’re already making headway. James Paul Gee’s book ‘What Videogames Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy’ has become a popular subject for reference in academic and scholarly circles, and the news is starting to filter down to everyday teachers too. Gee argues that games teach us “proactively”: they ask gamers to do something, and we want to do it. This is, he suggests, rather different to the way students respond to the way they are taught in schools. Gee looked at dozens of games and identified teaching principles in them. The way they use a minimal amount of verbal instruction, for example: people are generally poor at following verbal instructions and games recognise this. Try remembering complex directions given to you when you’re trying to find somewhere: anything more than two lines is usually too much.

Games generally only deliver verbal instruction when absolutely necessary. Gee also noted that games encourage us to learn by enabling us to master skills and then use them, before providing us with new challenges. Think about how you learn to use a particular unit in an RTS like Command & Conquer, before later having to come up with new solutions to defeat a counter-unit that thwarts you. Standard learning doesn't usually give us time to master something and use it before we move on to something else. Gee also recognised that games are, as Sid Meier described them, “a series of interesting choices” and as such stimulate quite different responses from the people who play them to those invoked by textbook and blackboard teaching, especially when combined with investment in a character. Gee suggests that if we could be taught science by identifying with a ‘scientist’ character in the same way we’re taught to identify with a game character, we might be a little more committed to learning about science. Gee is not alone in his quest Software association ELSPA has made a number of attempts to illustrate how games and learning are linked. Their 2006 paper ‘Unlimited Learning’ sets out the argument for games as tools in the overall process of learning and education in schools. We could imagine, for example, a boardgame or pen and paper roleplaying game based on running a school, but add to this a computer, 3D planning systems, and the ability to control realtime calculations of costs as they will be encountered in the real world and you suddenly have something both accessible to children and complex enough to teach adult ideas.

One school in Birmingham opted for exactly this kind of approach. A contributor to the ELSPA report explained how it worked: “We were originally going to use SimCity 4 but thought it too detailed for the one-and-a-half hours we had the children. School Tycoon [a commercial product] allowed us to get the children to develop their spatial thinking skills, fiscal skills, numeracy and even social awareness. Many did not realise the jobs that are entailed in running a school and how essential they are. The pupils were given cards to make their own ‘physical’ school within a budget and were then shown the software. They were allowed to play in the ‘sandbox’ mode for an hour and then we print-screened the final school with financial and academic results to determine who had been successful.”

Dr Stephen Heppell, the CEO of learning foundation Ultralab, and one the authors of the ELSPA paper, had this to say about games and learning: “My own research work has revealed that a very clear set of strategies has evolved by children playing computer games. To succeed in even the simplest platform game, children have to lock their problem-solving into a tight cycle of observe, question, hypothesise, test. Curiously, this exactly matches the scientific method that education has been trying to embed in young scientists since the birth of science. The problem back in the early 1990s was that because teachers and policymakers didn't play those early games, they had no idea just how sophisticated their young learners’ iterative strategies were. As a result, the opportunity to build on those strategies and bring science to life was missed.” The message from academics who are serious about games is clear: games teach us to learn, and they do so in a fun way.

Games are changing. They’re finding uses that no one could have anticipated in years past. Take youthful Dutch genius Luis Von Ahn and the Games With A Purpose project. Von Ahn’s games entertain, yes, but they also process information. It’s what Von Ahn calls ‘human computing’ – the idea of making use of our collective brainpower by stealth. The ESP Game, Von Ahn's masterpiece, gets people to match descriptions of an image while avoiding the most obvious words. If it’s a picture of a dog then the world ‘dog’ will not be valid. The pairs of gamers have to separately come up with other relevant descriptions of the image. When this data, taken from thousands of individual games, is compiled, it allows Google to label internet images with startling clarity.

More sophisticated versions of the game could even allow image searches to identify where certain things are in a picture. All of this is achieved for free, by getting people to play the image matching game. It’s good fun too. What is exciting about Von Ahn’s work isn’t just that Google can label images better, but that games can be explicitly developed for ends other than pure entertainment. They can be used to compute, to solve problems that normal computing methods would find impossible. Another example was raised by epidemiologists after the ‘plague’ in World Of Warcraft, where an infectious debuff got out of hand and spread across whole servers. The game could, theoretically, have been used to map movements in a more ‘human’ way than normal computer models. Where as computers can only manage averages, a live MMO, full of real people, has the same kind of randomness that we find in real life. MMOs could, with a bit of work, allow for far more accurate models of how infectious diseases spread than current computing techniques.

Gaming is creating tools that no one had previously even been able to imagine. Take, for example, the work of World Without Oil (world, an alternate reality game that intends to educate people about what will happen when the oil reserves begin to run dry. It’s a problem that no one really wants to think much about, and fewer still really understand the implications of. This is literally a game that’s trying to save the world: a game that is using the power of modern media to make sure we’re prepared for the coming changes. And make no mistake: we are not prepared. World Without Oil will tell you what we need to do. The final point is one far closer to home, and far closer to your day-to-day concerns. There’s something else about gaming that is more important than anything else we’ve talked about. It’s this: playing games is about building the future. If you play World of Warcraft, or Second Life, or EVE Online, or Garry’s Mod, or any number of other innovative, creative games, then you are contributing to a trend towards a new form of creativity, which in turn will give rise to the culture and language of the future.

Gaming is changing how we communicate, how we do business, express ourselves, and meet new people. Collaborative gaming, where thousands of us are working together to create projects in game worlds like EVE Online, Second Life, A Tale in the Desert, or any number of other emerging worlds, forges new ways of playing, and new ways of learning. This is a phenomenon that is changing the world right now, and it’s happening without us really noticing. Furthermore, we are, by funding games and gaming-related research, creating the 3D web, the ‘metaverse’ – or the grid of information that will serve us in the decades to come. Moreover we are guaranteeing the propagation of a medium that engulfs cinema, architecture, music, animation, sculpture, sport, indeed all of culture. Games are a brave new frontier of imagination, art and science, and they’ve only just begun.

And is that a waste of time?

The Games That Are Changing The World...

Teachers at West Nottinghamshire College modded Neverwinter Nights to improve the attention and commitment of students in literacy and numeracy classes. The game was also reworked for the purposes of the University of Minnesota's Journalism courses, enabling its students to run a virtual newspaper.

SimCity 4 maps have been used to illustrate urban planning lessons at a Boston high school, while the original SimCity has been used in many American schools to instruct children in the value and mechanics of public transport.

Tim Rylands, a Somerset-based teacher, has been using Myst to teach the joys of creative writing to children aged 7-11.

University College London has been adapting Oblivion to use in architectural rendering, making a cheap tool for architecture students looking for a way to visualise their work using computer graphics.

Half-Life 2 has also been used heavily in architectural circles, with one student creating a Counter-Strike map based on the Kaufmann House – Falling Water’ – by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a version of Grim Fandango that teaches gamers Spanish – appropriate given that it's based on Mexico's Day of the Dead.

The same MIT team have been using The Sims 2 to develop interactive foreign language learning tools. The Sims 2 has also been modded for use in health and social development by New York-based teacher Bill Mackenty, and adapted for teaching sociology by David McDivitt.

The Cyberpsychology Lab at the University of Quebec in Ottawa created the Max Payne mod Overcoming Arachnophobia as an alternative therapy for treating people with a crippling fear of our eight-legged friends. Their Withering Heights mod is a VR therapy designed to help people overcome their fear of heights.

Rome: Total War has been used extensively in creating visuals for programmes on the History Channel, such as Decisive Battles and Modern Marvels. It was also used in the BBC2 historical battles programme, Time Commanders.

Researchers at the US National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, intended to show that depression is linked to the same areas of the brain that control spatial memory. They used Duke Nukem to create a spatial navigation test to prove this hypothesis. And indeed, depressed people’s navigation skills were notably worse.

California's Virtual Reality Medical Centre uses a version of Midtown Madness (complete with steering wheel control) to treat those afflicted with a fear of driving, which, in America, is probably the most crippling disease that you can suffer from.

The Canadian Army is developing a virtual battle lab’ in the form of a SWAT 4 mod called Canadian Forces: Direct Action. The mod will teach small arms tactics and useful urban conflict assault techniques. Hey, it's cheaper than playing paintball.

Second Life has been used to teach all kinds of things – a schizophrenia simulator and a virtual courtroom are just a couple of the educational tools to be found in the game. It has also been used by the US government to plan for major disasters (after the mess they made of saving New Orleans) and has been used to promote awareness of the terrible crimes being perpetrated in Darfur, Sudan.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen were interested in seeing whether games provided a better basis for teaching history than traditional methods. Both students and teachers found they underestimated just how complex a simulation of the historical period the game would provide.


PhD student Kurt Squire introduced Civilization III to tough American schools to see whether it would have an affect on teaching history. Unsurprisingly, allowing kids to replay history for themselves, and then discuss it, held their attention for far longer than traditional lessons.

This free online multiplayer game, where players had to match descriptions of an image without using a certain set of obvious words, has been used to process images for Google’s image search. The game enabled Google to label images with uncanny accuracy, and for free.

Even our console chums are getting in on the saving the world lark. The Nintendo DS game Brain Age has been recommended by doctors at a number of hospitals in Japan as a means of fighting off senility and the other brain-deteriorating effects of ageing. Portable games have also long been used in hospitals as a means of distracting patients from pre-operation anxiety, or during the treatment of painful wounds.

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