Playstations for Peace

Playstations for Peace

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These days, kids are multitasking like mad. Two weeks ago, the Washington Post described one high school junior talking on the phone, emailing, IM-ing, listening to Internet radio and writing a paper on her computer–all at the same time!

According to a recent report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, she’s far from the only teenager with a flair for multitasking. Kids today are spending six and a half hours a day, seven days a week, with electronic media–and more than twice as much time on video games and computers than in 1999.

Let’s face it: We live in a brave new world of blogging, with the iPodization of news, and kids plugged in everywhere. The Washington Post recently ran a separate story about how college students are using interactive mini blogs¨ or “wikis” to create “freewheeling, collaborative” communities, trade ideas and link to each other’s essays. Progressives use new technologies like BitTorrent–a filesharing program–that let them create websites like CommonBits.org that allow kids to watch clips from television news programs like the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Democracy Now.”

But one new frontier of the digital era has received almost no attention in the mainstream press.

In fact, says David Rejeski, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Foresight and Governance Project, ‘progressives have already occupied the space.” He points to several games that are transforming what those active in this community call the “serious games” landscape, many of them with a progressive message. (No, it’s not a brand name, but it’s the phrase that most people in the industry use to describe the games that carry a serious message.)

Conservatives and too many liberals view video games through a jaundiced lens: they are sources of violence and mayhem that destroy the minds of impressionable teenagers. But, as Rejeski points out, “policymakers have spent far too much time focused on the effects of a small number of violent video releases and lost sight of the pedagogical function and advantages of games in general.” True, violence makes video games a highly profitable enterprise.

But it’s also the case that the new frontier of the serious game space contradicts those who like to fulminate against video games as a fount of evil. According to Rejeski and other experts, serious games are at a point in their history that resembles the movement towards independent film in its earliest stages. Serious games aren’t big money-makers, nor have they truly entered the mainstream.

But they are starting to make waves. The controversial “Escape from Woomera” puts players into so-called “Australian detention camps,” so that people will understand what it’s like to be a political refugee seeking asylum. Rejeski cited the award-winning “Tropical America” that revives Latin America’s past, explaining from a Latin-American standpoint how aspects of the history of the Americas have gotten lost in mainstream versions. “The Meatrix“– an online film which spoofs “The Matrix”–stars a young pig named Leo, and teaches players about the problems associated with modern farming, as well as the benefits of eating “sustainably-raised meat.” At activismgame.com, players must learn to juggle six priorities facing America like revitalizing the economy and providing college tuition relief.

There is tremendous energy and excitement about the potential benefits. Two and a half years ago, Rejeski “had trouble getting 30 people” to attend a serious games conference. In October, 500 people signed up for a serious games conference, a group so large that Rejeski was forced to start turning people away two weeks before the conference even began. Video games are earning more money than the movies–and the age of the average video game player is around 29 or 30. “This is their media,” Rejeski said.

At Newsgaming.com, one finds games like “Madrid,” which features men, women and children wearing t-shirts that say, “I love Madrid”; “I love New York,” and other cities that terrorists have attacked. These people hold candles, as players are instructed to click on the flames so that the flames leap into the air. “Madrid” is a moving expression of hope and mourning, a bold social statement in the face of bloody politics,” the Denver Post argued.

At Watercoolergames.org, you’ll find a game called “World Heros” that teaches children about Unicef. Players are told that they must lead the UN organization on a relief mission in the developing world to feed people, immunize them, and purify their water.

Henry Jenkins, the director of MIT’s comparative media studies program, argued that Newsgaming.com, Kuma Games and other sites are among the “very political games groups made outside the corporate game system” that are “raising issues through media but using the distinct properties of games to engage people from a fresh perspective.” Such games, he said, constitute a “radical fictional work.”

Rejeski says that among the first games ever developed was a serious game called “Balance of Power” that told players that they had to “keep the world from destroying itself.” It was played on an Atari system.

Founder and President of the New America Foundation Ted Halstead would like, he said, to see a serious game developed featuring a “really cool” simulated candidate and then “use it as a tool to get out a bunch of new ideas in politics.” Serious games are “a space of experimentation, resistance, critique, innovations, and constant pushing and churning of new content,” added Jenkins.

Finally, take the game space itself, which holds great promise. Some 90 percent of children play video games, Gameboys and Playstations have become mobile platforms, and in New York and elsewhere organizers have held sessions in which they’ve discussed how they can use serious games to spread the messages of the NGO community. Once this vital and expanding community finds a viable business model, serious games look like they’ll be the next big thing. Hell, maybe even blogs will seem quaint by comparison.

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