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Game Designer, Heal Thyself
Alex Steffen, 4 Mar 06

Games can be tools for learning how to change the world: in virtual worlds we can design cities, overthrow dictatorships and run refugee camps, but many of the most popular games are still about adventure and combat. But what if we had games whose adventures were based not on violence, but healing?

"Picture an MMORPG just like the ones today, but everywhere you see combat, replace it with healing. A six-man encounter would be a surgical operation that required teamwork. Soloing would be a brilliant doctor doing drive-by diagnostics. Raids would be massive experimental treatments. Rather than spawning mobs, spawn ill people. Instead of weapons, have medicines. Instead of managing aggro, manage fever. Instead of armors, we have disinfectants. Quests would include tasks to find and gather new plants for pharmaceuticals, and bespoke missions to fix the sanitation in a remote village. Puzzles might involve finding the standing water where the mosquitoes are breeding."

Much of the truly heroic work people do in the world today has nothing to do with fighting. We admire peacekeepers, certainly, and just war is a concept I do not personally take to be an oxymoron: but consider as well the lives of disaster relief workers, public health epidemiologists, refugee camp teachers, urban slum social entrepreneurs, park rangers in desperately poor places... I can easily imagine a variety of addictively compelling games designers could weave from the worlds in which these people are battling to stave off mounting disasters while learning and innovating new solutions.

Such games could be not only absorbing but instructive. All game worlds have political lessons embedded within them, and almost all play has an aspect of learning to it. Sometimes, the political lessons are overt, sometimes they are hidden. When they are hidden, the actual agendas they serve can be dubious (though obviously role-playing is just that, and enjoying sending your pixelated orcs to burn villages doesn't make you a political adherent of the philosophy of Attila). On the other hand, games can help the mind grapple with new ideas and complex interactions in a way which is difficult (and boring) to do in an abstract, analytical way. The world needs more worldchanging games.

(via BB)

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The problem with these ideas is that they're not very fun. They're more educational than entertainment, and while you can have both, it only works well if you have the latter as your primary objective. The guy who likes blowing stuff up (e.g. me) won't enjoy doing things he can do in reality. That's the whole point of video games--to experience things you can't (or won't, in your right mind) in the real world.

We can only blow stuff up if we're fighting in a war, but that would mean we could die. We want the fun of "playing" with guns without the death, hence the popularity of violent games.

To be successful with non-violent game concepts you must introduce them not as the focus but rather sublimely, so the player barely notices them. The great game Civilization, for example, has the focus of conquering the world, but to do so you must deal with diplomacy, city management (which includes population and pollution control), government, culture and religion (in IV), and others along with the usual militaristic issues. Those elements individually wouldn't be as fun**, but making them a part of a bigger scheme turns them into challenging stepping stones that provide the sense of accomplishment needed to give the player satisfaction if he wins.

** Except the military part. Why? Every action gives the player immediate feedback full of glorious lights and noise, which are fantastic audio/visual candy that gives him Instant Satisfaction (the American God ;)

Posted by: Corey Birnbaum on 4 Mar 06

This would be a great game, but as far as changing the world goes it would be better to have an approach where the duality of life is realized. Yes you'll introduce new medicines but the game takes that into account and spurs new mutations in bacteria and viruses that will result from this medicine. A game with this type of organic growth / "balance" aspect would be ideal. Instead of teaching to conquer it would teach to understand the necessary harmonious balance.

Posted by: Jeff on 4 Mar 06

"The problem with these ideas is that they're not very fun. ... That's the whole point of video games--to experience things you can't (or won't, in your right mind) in the real world."

Fun for whom? The typically-targeted male demographic (late teens-early 20's). There are indications that this demographic no longer represents the industry.

I also recall reading that one of the fastest (if not the fastest) growing segment was "casual games". Just so happens that segment is flooded with women... and many are over the age of 35.

Perhaps the first thing we need to do is drop the idea that videogame players are dateless teenage boys.

Posted by: csven on 4 Mar 06

I have often longed for a computer game that captured my imagination, and didn't involve blowing things up. I've tried SimCity, but never stayed with it long enough to build more than a small hamlet. Tried FreeCiv (the open-source Civilisation clone), but found it too militaristic (and hard to learn).

What came to mind after reading this post was this: I really was immersed in the world Kim Stanley Robinson created for the Mars Trilogy. It really had (has?) potential as a gaming environment. Large spaces, colonizing tribes, debate over how to move forward, but without continual violence.

There's lots of speculative fiction beyond the popular media creations that could offer WorldChanging gaming. Here's hoping it comes soon.

Posted by: Mike McCallister on 6 Mar 06

Hospital games are out there ...

... no sign of "Refugee Camp Sanitation Engineer" yet though.

Posted by: Adam Burke on 6 Mar 06

Sounds pretty challenging to me. A game where you can build a whole city taking into consideration pollution, environmental effects, materials, and resource use? Why, just being able to build a fully-functioning green city ought to make people think about how possible it would be to have one in real life.

Posted by: Lynn on 7 Mar 06

Young people tend to like excitement, normal life isn't that exciting. Games which include violence and destruction tend to be the norm amongst younger (or less emotionally rounded) people.

Simulations are fine for people who like to try out "what if" scenarios.

We're currently only using sim/shootup alt realities to teach our soldiers how to kill more efficiently.

What we need for the advancement of our societies is a more effective education system. No matter how good someone is at living a virtual life, when reality hits, they need a good knowledge base to help make decisions.

I'm all for more immersive VR and simulations, but lets not pin our hopes on technology if the end user can't deal with reality.

On the point of a "green city", an old architect/philosopher called R. Buckminster Fuller
wrote a book called CRITICAL PATH which describes in detail methods of makeing our world more ecologically sound and also described a wonderful system of housing which was pretty much self sufficient.

Keep posting!

Posted by: shane sidlow on 20 Mar 06



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