At a July meeting at the White House, a group of information-technology gurus brought up the topic of video games — specifically, the untapped potential of gaming as an educational tool for non-military agencies involved in diplomacy and nation-building.
The military has long been an avid user of video games to train troops for war, but civilian agencies have yet to take advantage of the increasingly sophisticated and low-cost technology available, said Beth Noveck, deputy chief technology officer for open government at the White House’s office of science and technology policy.
The Obama administration is “looking very seriously at the role that games can play in achieving national priorities,” Noveck told an overflowing audience attending a “simulations and serious games for peace-building” conference at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
“People who are playing massive multi-player games like World of Warcraft, who are engaged in these social and visual technologies learn the skills of coordination, learn the skills of working together, learn the skills of decision-making … that are central to their being effective workers, but also effective citizens in democracy,” she said.
Four of the priorities on the president’s agenda include education, energy, economy and the environment. Games can teach citizens about energy consumption and how personal habits affect energy use and the environment. They can help students achieve higher literacy rates and improve math skills. They also can tell consumers how to manage their money better, she said.
The question before the administration is not about which games to use, Noveck said. Rather, it’s about how to develop a strategy to foster partnerships with the private and public sectors to employ games in achieving national goals. There is also the challenge of encouraging federal agencies to consider simulation technologies as they craft their priorities for the 2011 budget cycle.
Some agencies already are branching out and embracing gaming opportunities. NASA has a presence in Second Life, an online virtual world where users can create an avatar, or computer-animated character, and explore islands and interact with others. The FBI has erected a billboard of its 10 most-wanted criminals on the site. The military services are building displays on “Coalition Island” to share with the public some of their ongoing research efforts, said Scott Sechser, government accounts manager. Some groups have utilized the site for training and education, he added.
Government agencies also are reaching out to other gaming environments, including Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Virtual World Environment project — an immersive simulation that replicates actual locations around the globe.
“If you look at what a peace-builder needs, he needs the ability to collaborate any time in a robust environment,” said Charlie Hargraves, who is the program manager. He showed a clip from an Army exercise in which troops practiced a homeland security drill in a digitized representation of the National Mall. The environment is “a virtual control center that you can use as a peace-building tool,” he said. The team is working on incorporating a live, real-world view in its next iteration.
But there are other ways to leverage these simulations. “Think of peace-building as not only wars, but as capacity building and helping to develop education and learning opportunities to avoid conflict in the first place,” said Noveck.
The University of Maryland built a simulation called “International Communications and Negotiations Simulations,” or ICONS, that allows multiple players to tackle difficult problems, such as the effect of globalization of the Niger delta region in Nigeria. “We wanted to focus on how people and nations negotiate with each other over complex, interlocking and interconnected issues,” said Jon Wilkenfeld, director of the university’s center for international development and conflict management. Eight teams representing the Nigerian government, Nigerian military, Shell Corp., United States Agency for International Development, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, a coalition group and a women’s group played in that forum. The simulation allowed the teams to send messages to each other and provided templates and other digital tools to help them articulate their proposals and stances for improved negotiations.
Similarly, the Institute for Defense Analyses helped to build a simulation that teaches government officials how to run a country’s affairs following a conflict. The Strategic Economic Needs and Security Exercise project, or SENSE, is a free-play game that allows participants to make policy decisions and learn how they impact a nation’s development.
High-ranking government officials in Bosnia and Georgia played the game following their respective country’s conflicts. The simulation helped them to understand the long-term implications that their decisions could have on their citizens and nations.
“We have been surprised with how successfully it’s been applied to a number of different countries and audiences,” said Jason Deschant, director of the program.
For those interested in civil resistance or nonviolent struggles, the sequel game to “A Force More Powerful,” is forthcoming, developers said. The computer strategy game teaches players how to fight dictators, military occupiers and corrupt leaders with nonviolent methods. Since the game’s initial release in 2006, developers have shipped out 12,000 copies.
The new version takes a different approach to the typical strategy game, said Ivan Moravic, one of the developers and a founder of the Serbian student resistance movement, Otpor, which played a role in the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
Instead of seeing a “God’s eye view” perspective of the scenario, players commence the game from a small cramped office in the first-person view. Players can consult binders on a desk to read up on the regime. They can walk next door to a conference room to talk to colleagues in the movement. They can delve into the social networks of the key characters in the game. Once players are acquainted with the history of the situation, they can conduct their tactics.
The team plans to ship scenario-building software with the game to give players opportunities to model it around an existing or fictional conflict. Players will be able to post their scenarios on a website, and eventually the game will be downloadable from there, Moravic added. “When people do things on their own and train themselves, there’s much more influence than targeted communications,” he said.
A 2005 study concluded that in the past 33 years, civil resistance was a key factor in 70 percent of countries where political transitions involved the defeat of dictators or authoritarians. That accounts for 50 out of 67 transitions, said Steve York, project director of the game and documentary filmmaker of “A Force More Powerful,” from which the game derives its name.
“From my point of view, this is a serious game because people’s lives are at stake and freedom is at stake,” said Peter Ackermann, founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, an advocacy organization. “It’s our hope that when people play this game … that this will give people confidence to act. It will very specifically help Iranians to deal with the oppression they’re dealing with right now and to increase proactive success,” he said.