Video Games Get Serious

A new type of video game sets its sights on world peace and sustainability

| October 19, 2006

Imagine playing a videogame that you win not by killing or harming anyone, but by freeing yourself of karma and purifying your chakras. Instead of blasting through worlds with machine guns, you ride elephants, read the stars, meditate, and practice Ayurvedic healing. Rather than acquiring increasingly destructive weaponry or meaningless points, you gain clairvoyance, invisibility, or the ability to levitate. Best of all, instead of having three lives, your character is reincarnated.

This was the concept video game designer Allen Varney proposed when he was recruited by a group of well-heeled recent graduates from the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, to create a video game that would convey Hindu principles of nonviolence. As Varney amusingly recounts for the gaming magazine Escapist, things didn't turn out as planned. The Maharishi grads just didn't have the graphic skills to execute their complex vision.

Others, however, are meeting with a modicum of success in their attempts to create alternatives to shoot-'em-ups like Grand Theft Auto. In Greater Good, Kathy M. Newman cites PeaceMaker as one of a growing slate of 'serious' games aimed at raising 'users' awareness of real-world social and political issues.' Created by a former Israeli army captain, the game has players navigate the perils of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as either the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president and has proven an engaging educational tool for students in the United States and Qatar.

In Plenty, Deborah Snoonian reports on another game that's tackling a seemingly intractable problem: global warming. Adventure Ecology lets students as young as nine tackle feats including 'preventing deforestation, scoping out alternative fuel strategies, or convincing a clothing company to sell eco-friendly duds.'

Of course, these games probably won't appeal to the young guys, who are the industry's bread and butter, so don't expect them to be lining store shelves any time soon. As serious game expert Marc Prensky tells Greater Good, such games 'should probably be funded by universities or foundations and then distributed for free.' The games are, however, offering interesting alternatives to those drawn to the medium but not its violent messages.

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