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Monday, October 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Problem-solving games on the rise
By Jose Antonio Vargas
WASHINGTON "Glucoboy," a glucose meter that can be connected to a Nintendo GameBoy, will be available for kids with diabetes next spring. "SuperCharged!," released last year, helps physics students understand electromagnetism; "Virtual U," released in 2001, lets players take on the role of a university president.
By the end of next year, the "Federal Budget Game" how do you solve the deficit? will be available to play online.
The U.S. military early on recognized the use of "serious games" the term used to describe video games for nonentertainment purposes. The Pentagon spends more than $4 billion a year on simulation equipment and war games, and this week it will tell what it has learned to other NATO members at a conference in the Hague titled "Exploiting Commercial Games for Military Use."
New frontier for gaming
But there's more to "serious games" than the U.S. Army's "Full Spectrum Warrior" and "America's Army." Health-care providers, college professors and other professionals are developing nonentertainment games in which "fun factor" ranks below their "serious factor" as with "Glucoboy."
This kind of outside-the-Xbox thinking represents the next frontier for the lucrative interactive gaming industry, which had $7 billion in software sales last year, thanks to games like "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" and "NBA Live 2004."
A Serious Games Summit convened last week in Washington, bringing together more than 500 game developers and people interested in their use. The summit featured sessions like "How Can Games Shape Future Behavior?," "The Potential of Games in Healthcare," "Inside Infinite Teams: Game-Based Team Training," and "Real, Reel, Surreal: How Games Impact Perception."
Military's strong presence
Befitting its pioneer status, the military will be a considerable presence at the event, with sessions such as "Non-Combat Military Game Efforts" and "Using Games: The War College Perspective." Jim Dunnigan, a veteran and author of "The Complete Wargames Handbook," is the keynote speaker.
He is also a consultant on Wall Street, where someone training to be a currency trader, for example, spends a "lot of hours" playing on a simulated system. The yen is going one way, the euro is going another. What do you do?
This is, indeed, the Xbox and PlayStation generation, a world of hyperactivity, at least when it comes to fun.
"You want to be entertained? There are all kind of games that will entertain you for ages and ages. No argument there," says Ben Sawyer, organizer of this week's summit, who grew up playing video and computer games and who now runs Digitalmill, a Portland, Maine-based consulting firm that produces market research on the industry.
"But this summit is about creating games that can solve other types of problems. How to train soldiers to go into a new culture. How to get people to work in teams together. How to teach principles of science to children."
Craig Anderson, chairman of the psychology department at Iowa State University, has written more than 20 articles on video games since 1986, and has concluded, after years of research, that "playing a lot of violent video games is related to having more aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviors."
Still, he adds, "video games can be a very good teaching tool, and if the content of a game is educational, then that's what the player can learn."
The military grasped this concept years ago.
The average age of the 510,000 people in the U.S. Army is 20. "They can't remember when there wasn't a PlayStation or a Nintendo. They're immersed in the technology," said Michael Macedonia, chief technology officer for the U.S. Army's Orlando-based Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation. There, the motto is "All but war is simulation."
Macedonia's brother, Christian, is in charge of a clinical staff of 180 at a field hospital at Abu Ghraib prison. Before volunteering in Iraq, he was an OB-GYN in Bethesda, Md., for the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, where he directed students through medical simulations, from physical exams to life support.
In one of their first phone conversations after Christian Macedonia landed in Iraq, he told older brother Michael that he missed his "simulation labs."
"The great thing about living in a gaming world is you can do things that happen only once in a lifetime or once a year and do them 20 times a day," says Christian, 41, in a phone call from Iraq.
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