Daily Archives: June 6, 2007

Serious Games

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest blogger is Michelle Boule, Social Sciences Librarian at the University of Houston. Michelle was one of the planners behind Five Weeks to a Social Library and she is an ALA Emerging Leader. Michelle blogs as Jane on A Wandering Eyre.

I am old enough to remember the Atari, but I was too young to own one myself. The gaming console of my generation was the Nintendo. We played Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt, Zelda, and were shocked at the end of Metroid. With the introduction of Mortal Combat we were also the first children whose parents were concerned that all that spine ripping and blood in our games would harm our sense of right and wrong. Violence was not new in media, but it was new to have that much blood marketed to a younger generation.

Today there is a new movement in gaming that, while it does often focus on a violent world, its purpose is to raise awareness, instruct a new generation of good citizens, create new business models, train military personnel, or model surgery for doctors. These games are called serious games. Many of the military and medical games use 3D technology, the same technology used to build Second Life. The games that I find the most fascinating are the ones that are designed to create an awareness about a topic. Games for Change is a nonprofit group that supports individuals and organizations which are creating games that produce public awareness.

Darfur Is Dying is a video game that was created for a contest sponsored by mtvU and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation The contest asked students, game designers, and activists to create a game that would raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur. The result, Darfur Is Dying, is an internet game in which the player becomes a villager in Darfur and then must try to forage for water while avoiding capture by the Janjuweed. When your character fails to escape, and failure is the usual outcome, statistics are displayed about the life of people in Darfur.

On a lighter note, Escape From Diab is a game that follows a healthy youth who becomes trapped in a place called Diab where everyone eats only junk food. It was designed to teach kids about healthy eating habits. Planet Green Game, produced by Starbucks, allows a player to travel through a fantasy city, finding ways to decrease the CO2 emissions, and creating an awareness of changes we can make to slow global warming.

Serious games take educational games to a new level. They go beyond Oregon Trail and strive to teach people about the world in which we live in an interesting and engaging way.

What does this have to do with libraries?

Libraries have long been agents of culture and the gateways to information. Today, most of us realize that information can be presented to people in many different ways. The idea of serious gaming can impact libraries in both small and large ways.

A game could provide models through which we could better understand how people search for information. Consider a game in which a puzzle must be solved or some knowledge must be gained. How will the player gain the knowledge? What are the options open to the player? A game that modeled information seeking behavior, like useability testing, would give us insight as to what people do when faced with particular challenges.

We could also build games that teach information literacy. If a game were to present a problem to users, sending them down the path of information gathering, various kinds of information could be presented. The player might have to choose between scholarly and popular sources, information formats, and then synthesize the information into useable answers to the problem. What would a 3D version of the information highway look like?

Building games from scratch is out of the realm of most library budgets and expertise. However, it only takes one school with some grant money and an eager student of game programming to create a game that could be modified for many different settings. We use games in Information Literacy classes already, like quiz games, that can be easily translated into online worlds. What about an information literacy quiz game that takes place in a Second Life environment? If your university has land in Second Life, does the library have space there? Information modeled in an online environment can become almost anything from a maze, to an amusement park, to a fully formed world and story.

Games can be serious. Games can change the way we think about things and they are changing the way we acquire knowledge. More libraries are beginning to offer different types of gaming environments for patrons, like equipment or space for game playing, but I think we should also consider what we can create that will foster better information skills in our patrons.