The Reuters Digital Vision Program is a one-year fellowship at Stanford University for mid-career tech professionals. I'm blogging my experiences there: the amazing guest speakers, the interesting classes and discussion groups with other fellows, and thoughts on how technology can help reduce the gulf between the global rich and poor.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

RDVP Seminar: Henry Lowood (4/20/2005)

Henry Lowood came to speak about computer games, of the Serious Games variety. Stuart invited him hoping that by using the interactivity and playful attributes that cause people to spend hours with regular games, we could create powerful tools to help end users engage with our project material. We learned a bit about the debate of "narratology vs. ludology" (are games about telling stories or just about playing?) and the challenge between the pedagogical aspect of creating a simulation versus playing one. I was also surprised to learn how widespread game playing is--in Korea there's a virtual world game that counts some 4M subscribers (out of a population of 45M). And of course, some of the "lurid details" of the gaming world came up: the sad popularity of violent games like Grand Theft Auto and the lack of games that focus on growth and development rather than conflict. Henry did talk about some games like September 12th, where the nominal goal is to shoot cruise missles at terrorists, but killing civilians by mistake generates more terrorists. The game is "rigged" to make it impossible to win--a statement that Lowood compared to a political cartoon. The author of "Kaboom" (suicide bomber simulation) claimed not to have a political agenda. "There's nothing political in my game. It's just about someone blowing himself up."

Perhaps a bit more relevant to the RDVP focus of the developing world was the real world sweatshops where low-paid workers are taught simple "farming" techniques in the virtual world to accumulate points that can be converted into weapons, etc, and sold (for real dollars) on eBay (See for example, their market in Ultima Online goods). Upset by the manipulation of the game, a set of vigilantes has sprung up, trying to eliminate these farmers by drawing monsters to where the farmers do their work. Untrained in defense, the farmers are killed. So now, the virtual sweatshop managers are training their workers in virtual self-defense, too. Sigh.

Henry shared in my nostalgia for turn-based model/data simulation games, but said that they have been in decline, out of favor after the advance of the "Quake" model of "experiential" (also called first-person shooter) games. Even real-time strategy games are becoming action/click-oriented, he said.