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Students hope Mideast video game will produce insights, investors
The Associated Press (apwire)     Print Article 
Published 2006-04-02 15:35 (KST)   
By DANIEL LOVERING

PITTSBURGH

A Palestinian suicide bomber blows up a bus, leaving the newly elected Israeli prime minister to puzzle over a response. A missile strike could ease security fears, or prompt more violence. A diplomatic approach might anger Israelis, leading to an assassination plot.

The complex choices facing leaders in the Middle East have long confounded observers. But two graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University are hoping their video game based on the conflict will help players find solutions _ and raise capital for their new company.

Asi Burak and Eric Brown, along with a team of fellowr students, have spent more than a year building PeaceMaker, a computer game that attempts to simulate the violence and political turbulence of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

With graduation just weeks away, Burak _ a 34-year-old former Israeli intelligence officer _ and Brown _ a 29-year-old game developer with a degree in painting _ recently formed a company, ImpactGames, to try to take the game to market.

But will a video game focused on a sensitive geopolitical standoff attract both players and investors? Proponents of so-called serious games, an emerging genre of interactive games that tackle real-world problems, think so. But major video game makers, while applauding such efforts, are wary of investing in them.

Serious games seek to educate and train public officials, students and professionals in various fields using video game simulations _ technology used by the U.S. military for years.

They include Incident Commander, a government-commissioned game being designed by BreakAway Games of Hunt Valley, Maryland, that offers models of terrorist attacks, school hostage crises and natural disasters. Another game, A Force More Powerful,teaches nonviolent ways of fighting dictators, military occupiers and corrupt rulers.

Unlike most serious games, PeaceMaker aims to bridge the gap between education and entertainment and reach players from diverse backgrounds. Burak and Brown hope to do that in a market hungry for games featuring death and destruction, but also receptive to the nonviolent themes featured in best sellers such as The Sims and Myst.

''We had a challenge to make a peace game engaging,'' Burak said.

''What we see out there is all of those war games. There is a reason people are making them _ because they're engaging, there is a challenge, there is a conflict.'' In PeaceMaker, players choose between the role of an Israeli prime minister or a Palestinian Authority president. They make policy decisions, communicate with the international community and monitor opinion polls while coping with ''black events'' _ bursts of violence that threaten to throw the game off course.

''They might happen at any time,like a suicide bomb or an Israeli military attack, and they can ruin your progress in one day,'' he said. ''You make progress, you build trust and suddenly everyone is upset again and it's chaotic.'' The game's objective is peace through a two-state solution, but players can wage attacks at any time. ''We're not trying to say these things aren't available,'' Brown said. ''We didn't want to restrict the player.'' PeaceMaker incorporates news footage of actual events ''to pull you in'' and make players ''understand that you're connected to the real world.'' But reality might not appeal to some players, said Steve Seabolt, vice president of university and marketing education at Electronic Arts Inc., the Redwood City, California-based producer of The Sims and the world's largest video game maker.

''Let's be realistic. Lots of people like entertainment because it takes them somewhere other than the world as it is or the life they're leading. And PeaceMaker doesn't do that,'' he said.

Games that emphasize education over entertainment often risk failure in the marketplace, Seabolt said.

''Why did 'Sesame Street' work? 'Sesame Street' worked because 'Sesame Street' was a fun TV show to watch and learning felt incidental to the experience,'' he said.

Seabolt said California's venture capital world is ''littered with the aged carcasses'' of serious games companies, and that precious few serious games have achieved commercial viability.

Mark J.P. Wolf, a professor at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, who has written about video game theory, said entertainment-based video game companies may tend ''to shy away from anything that's too political because they're afraid that could narrow their market.'' Yet serious game developers see a bright future for PeaceMaker and other games that apply computer modeling techniques to social, environmental or public health problems.

Last year, the U.N. World Food Program unveiled Food Force, a free downloadable game that challenges players to distribute food rations on a fictitious island. It was downloaded more than one million times in its first six weeks online, according to the agency.

''A lot of people are interested in these games,'' said David Rejeski, head of the Serious Games Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Games like PeaceMaker can help players understand how difficult situations arise and how they might get out of them, he said.

''You could do the same thing with a game ... that models some of the things that happened when the hurricane (Katrina) hit New Orleans,'' he said. ''It's an incredibly complex set of interlocking actions and reactions.'' It is unlikely that such serious games will become multimillion-dollar blockbusters, Rejeski said, noting that most are developed by energetic graduate students and funded by the government, foundations or altruistic investors.

''So one of the real issues is, what's the business model here? How can you actually do this and earn a decent living doing it? And that hasn't been resolved yet,'' he said.

Electronic Arts, Seabolt said, has no plans to enter the serious games market. But ''do we think Peacemaker and games like that have huge value and are worthwhile pursuits?'' he said. ''Yeah, absolutely.''
On the Net: PeaceMaker: http://www.etc.cmu.edu/projects/peacemaker/ Serious Games Initiative: http://www.seriousgames.org/index.html U.N. World Food Programme Food Force: http://www.food-force.com/ BreakAway Games: http://www.breakawaygames.com/index.htm
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter The Associated Press

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