Serious Games, Social Issues & Learning

Last week, @ SEU, I helped host a global webinar on learning in alternate reality games, courtesy of Simon Brookes, a faculty member @ the University of Portsmouth in the UK.  This week, I was surprised to find myself listed as a featured member on Gameful–the community that enabled this collaboration to happen: .  It was a great opportunity to help this really outstanding webinar happen.  We had about 30 people attend via Elluminate, and Simon presented from the UK.  You can find the webinar here:

April 2011 Webinar on learning in ARGs with Simon Brookes

Virtual Worlds Snapshot

Doing another class on virtual worlds–including but not limited to Second Life, and using the Second Life 2.0 viewer live for the first time!  We’re going to explore a snapshot of how people look @ virtual worlds, from the perspective of Second Life to organizations such as the Association of Virtual Worlds to Hypergrid Business, Engage and Gartner. We’re also going to explore a bevy of sims in Second Life, as well as some clips of youtube videos of interesting projects in Second Life, such as the Canadian Border Crossing sim @ Loyalist College and Okapi Island, a super-cool archaeological dig in Turkey, replicated in detail in Second Life.

Virtual World Organizations

News about Virtual Worlds

Second Life  – Economy, Q4 2009 & where are they going now? @

Gartner Hype Cycle @

Gartner – Virtual Worlds Businesses Fail @

OpenSim Growth @

CBS – Child’s Play Goes Virtual @

Second Life Vids & URL’s

Linden Prize Competition Finalists:

Murrow Center 3D Newsroom @ Washington State University @

Federal Virtual Worlds Competition @

Second Life Loyalist College Canadian Border Simulation @

Second Health:

Palomar West conceptual hospital :

Okapi Island in Second Life @

Educational Gaming Workshop @ SEU

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about ed gaming on the blog, but it’s time I got caught up.  There’s been a lot of work done on ed gaming (not to mention we released the Plato sim this semester).  However, I’d like to share resources from a recent workshop that I delivered to faculty members @ St. Eds on educational gaming.  The session covered a range of broad topics in educational gaming that ranged from: game genres, research in educational games, and an overview of what institutions such as Penn State, the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University and MIT are doing with educational gaming.  Participants were also introduced to Evoke!, and were given the chance to play Peacemaker, Global Conflicts Latin America, and iTouch-compatible game called Mentira created by the University of New Mexico (and developed using the ARIS games platform).  I’ve posted a copyright-friendly version here, as well as provided a listing of URLs & citations that were used in the presentation.

URL’s & Citations

Games & Civic Awareness – a compilation

Next week I’ll be doing a short, hands-on workshop for faculty here @ SEU on applications of educational games.  The focus of this workshop is to present faculty with different types of persuasive games that may help promote civic awareness as well as an awareness of social and political processes in a variety of areas.   There are blog entries for many of the links listed.

Download this handout

or follow these links:

Peacemaker : Simulation of policies & politics in the mid-east conflict :

Global Conflicts Latin America : Investigative journalism to expose processes that drive developing world economics in Latin America:

Ayiti – The Cost of Life : Impoverishment of life in Haiti:

Darfur is Dying : Genocide in Darfur :

Homeland Guantanamos : Treatment of immigrant detainees in the US:

Climate Change : Policies, politics, and science of climate change:

Oiligarchy : Politics of Oil : : World hunger awareness

Points of Entry : Immigration policy:

WWO (world without oil): Alt. reality game about oil & its real-world consequences:

Web Resources



Teens, Video Games & Civics: Pew/Internet & American Life Project:

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Ian Bogost :

Climate Change

First off, let me again reiterate that not all educational games are created equally–so my intention is to provide a peek into the games that I think get the learner interested by encouraging them to learn how systems behave and to learn “content”–by uncovering it, presenting them with both challenge and immersion through narrative.  Although approaches that “show, teach, n’ click” have their place, the aforementioned approach interests me much more.

To that end, I’d like to mention the game, Climate Change, which was produced by the BBC, with support from the Univ. of Oxford.  Climate Change puts the player in role of the President of the EU.  As president, the player has to make policy choices that drive down levels of CO2 emmisions from the year 2000 to 2100.  Throughout the process the play has keep emission reduction balanced with resources such as electricity, water and food, all the while remaining popular with the people.  Let me vouch as someone who’s played this multiple times–it is not easy.

Game creators are the first to admit that although a lot scientific research went into the game, players shouldn’t take the outcome of the game as “serious climate change prediction”.   That said, the game uses climate change data published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)–and the authors provide a most excellent write-up about the science behind the game.

However, climate change modeling is complex, and the purpose of the game isn’t climate modeling.  Rather, the game seeks to help people learn about the factors that cause climate change, and the policies and politics that governments need to wrestle with when making decisions that affect these choices.

To that end, I found myself in the middle of yet another learning experience.  Even though part of my background is in science, knowledge of science alone is insufficient to solve the problem.  Every policy decision that I made in the game (players can choose from national, trade, industrial, local, and household policies), there were consequences that affected food production, power consumption, and water availability.  Incidentally, the policies that I mentioned were all taken from written government policies (with a few exceptions in end-game play–e.g. mining the moon).  Add to this the need to be favored in the electorate, and having to “answer” to the UN on setting and meeting CO2 emissions standards, I found myself with a real challenge.  For instance, supporting policies on biofuels / alternative energies alone didn’t solve the CO2 emissions problem since implementing those policies has costs which must be addressed.  Taxing the public (either through a fuel tax, emissions tax or general tax) has the consequence of increasing income, but at the expense of popularity.  For each policy option, the public either strongly approves or disapproves (and everything in-between) your decisions, and if your popularity plumets too far, you’re ousted from office.

At the end, you’re given a screen that tells you how well you did in each of 3 broad areas:  CO2 emission reduction, Wealth (of the EU), and Popularity.  Basically, I found that by prioritizing CO2 emission reduction to meet the standards proposed by the game, my country’s resources took a huge hit–and thus basic public services in some cases fell apart–as did my popularity.

It’s worth saying that Climate Change is both an informative and fun game.  Let’s just say that I’m glad that being the one responsible for leading climate change for real isn’t my real job.

Games 4 Change

So, as a follow-on to a workshop last week, and in preparation for an upcoming workshop I thought I’d share a few thoughts about more games in this “Persuasive Games” genre that are highlighted by the website, Games For Change (G4C)–their motto: “Real world games, real world impact”.  G4C was created in 2004 and is an online resource to help “organizations network and develop video game projects beyond their traditional expertise, and provides special assistance to foundations and nonprofits entering the field.”

Their site contains various blogs, and currently highlights a G4C Festival that was held early this summer.  Among the people involved in this conference were Henry Jenkins & James Gee.  You can read more about the festival here and here.  As we discussed earlier in this blog, games alone aren’t enough to support learning, a view echoed by Gee and Jenkins who suggested that “communities surrounding games play a critical role in creating space for discussion and mentorship that cultivates learning.”

Ian Bogost also attended (we’ll come back to Ian and his ideas of persuasive games and procedural rhetoric) and discussed his ideas on “computational journalism”–the notion that people who report the news should use media such as “infographics and games” as tools to communicate.  Examples cited include “The Redistricting Game” (whose purpose is to “educate, engage, and empower” people about redistricting and “Budget Hero” (a game about the federal budget).

These are just a couple of games amongst a laundry list of games listed.  The categories of games offered range from human rights, poverty, and public policy to economics, environment and global conflict. Next, let’s look @ a few of these games in a bit more depth.


In keeping with the recent series of posts on persuasive games, I thought I’d post on a game that is somewhat less serious and can be categorized as ‘political satire’.  The game is Oiligarchy, which is produced by Molle industries (whose motto btw is “Radical games against the dictatorship of entertainment”).

In Oiligarchy the player plays the role of a would-be oil baron whose primary goal is to drill for oil all over the world and in doing so promote an oil-based economy.  And, as Molle puts it, “…Be sure to have fun before the resources began to deplete.”

Oiligarchy is overall a fun game.  You get to search for and drill oil wells, defend your oil wells from attacks, and grease the wheels of the american political machine by influencing the choice of president as well as oil policy.  Gameplay does beg the question–what does it mean to “win” the game?  I don’t want to give away the ending but let’s just say that ‘winning’ isn’t always everything.

Validity & learning

Should classes use these games as teaching & learning tools?  How we know that game content is relevant to learning, or even valid?  Personally, I defer to the experts.  I think it’s up to both the students and the professor of the class to validate the content of media-supported content.  In many ways, games that provide controversial information can be opportunities for critical inquiry.

For instance, PeaceMaker is a challenging simulation that puts the fate of MidEast peace in the hands of the player.  As to whether game interactions and rule of play match real-life scenarios, I am inspired by the description of the game’s intent as well as the wealth of positive reviews.  However, I can’t say with any certainty that the material is absolutely accurate.  If I were to study this problem in depth, I would need guidance by people who are experts–or at least devoted students–in the field.  I have yet to see a game that can facilitate learning without either instructor intervention or some type of facilitated interaction and reflection.

We should be critical about games, especially if we expect people to learn from them.   Frankly, I think we should assume that no matter how well designed the game might be, we should ask how we might help facilitate learning for the students, beyond asking questions related to coverage of course content.  Where does expert interaction or intervention play in learning?  What type of reflective components should be planned and when should they be required?

Ethics of Persuasion

As one of my favorite profs in the College of Ed @ UT, Dr. Northcutt, told me my first semester back in grad school, “It’s not about the answers folks, it’s about the questions…” So, how do we know that the questions raised by these games are valid?  Who decides the rules that drive these games?

By definition, the job of persuasive gameplay is to guide us towards a particular viewpoint or otherwise serves a social objective, both by direct interaction as well as through publicity.  By definition then, the organization that sponsors the game–in many cases not the game design firm–gets to define the rules of gameplay.  For instance, in Ayiti, the game on Haiti was designed by kids in the Global Kids Initiative, who used Unicef resources inform them about background content for the game.

Darfur is Dying was developed in partnership with the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and International Crisis Group.  MtvU held a ‘Darfur Digital Activist Contest’ as a way to encourage student activism.  As a result, 5 students from USC designed the game and worked with experienced aid workers to develop the game.

So, this begs the question,

In what ways are the issues raised by games such as the ones in these posts valid?  In what ways are they controversial?  Perhaps the games mentioned thus far aren’t that controversial, but what of games such as “Harpooned”?  Harpooned is a game that raises awareness of Japan’s controversial (and not widely discussed in the media) whaling program.  In Harpooned, participants control a whaling ship and get to slaughter whales, offload the carcasses and capture protestors.  Controversial?  To say the least.  Is it right to promote such games?  Or play them?

Some would argue that games like this play a critical role in raising awareness of a tragic issue, and that without such exposure the activity would never be brought to light.  Do the ends justify the means?  Go to the Harpooned website, read the press and decide for yourself.

RSS for Posts
RSS for Comments