Games Aim For Good

Games Aim For Good

Ten million shipped in the first 18 months. Fifty million by the third year and 150 million within five years. These are the kind of numbers Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo would kill for and offer the kind of reach any publisher would die for. But don’t expect to see Gears of War or Crackdown on this platform. This one’s for serious games only.

The platform in question is the Laptop XO, aka the $100 laptop. Tuesday set the serious games community astir with S.J. Klein’s keynote about serious games for the Laptop XO. Given that One Laptop Per Child, the brainchild of MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, aims to seed delivery of 10 million machines to children in undeveloped countries by the end of 2008, 50 million by 2010, and 150 million million thereafter—with the goal of eventually distributing a laptop to every child in the undeveloped world—it’s not hard to see why Suzanne Seggerman, a founder of Games For Change, described the development as “the single biggest thing to happen to our community, perhaps ever.”

That sentiment was echoed by Daniel Ostenso, Associate Professor from the Illinois Institute of Art at Chicago, who told a reporter between sessions that “Eventually, we’ll look back on this moment as the beginning of something that changed the world for the better and completely transformed economies the process. And it’ll happen in our lifetime.”

 Klein was quick to point out that OLPC isn’t really about the Laptop XO itself, or even about getting educational games onto the platform. “It’s really about building a learning tool that is an outlet for curiosity,” he said. “Kids without games can learn, but the first way kids learn is by playing. They learn by seeing how things work, by remaking their own world. This is where games come in. Games can give them a sense of what might be.”

To this end, Klein went on to explain that OLPC is especially eager to see projects that develop gaming tool chains for the machine, most of which applications will be in Python, and is built on an open-source framework. To illustrate his point, he used an analogy involving glass Legos. The idea is to build a box with glass Legos. Then kids can look inside the Legos, see how they work, and then build whatever they can imagine with them. The analogy underscored Mr. Klein’s emphasis on writing “beautiful code” for the laptop that is both modular and light, supporting the design philosophy behind the machine and its limited resources. “Putting those kind of tools at the mercy of millions of curious kids is a truly ‘dangerous idea,’” he said.

It’s also a great challenge, one that even Klein acknowledged. It will require developers to completely rethink their approach to serious games, which are often designed using conventions and motifs that target specific populations of literate, well-educated, already tech-savvy gamers—precisely the opposite of Laptop XO’s target users.

That’s a challenge the community seems eager to meet, however. Amil Husain of the United Nations Millennium Campaign, which has begun lobbying developers to generate modules in service of its Millennium Development Goals—eight goals agreed to by every country on the planet that, if met, will eliminate extreme poverty by 2015—dropped a single post on the Social Issues Game listserv two weeks ago. The response, he says, was truly overwhelming. And organizations as diverse as Children’s Television Workshop, Carnegie Melon, and UNICEF are eager to support the project.
Of course there will be at least two traditional games available on the Laptop XO. One will be that king of ‘flow’ games, Tetris. The other, thanks to the help of Will Wright, will be an open-source version of SimCity.

The excitement generated by the keynotes permeated nearly every aspect of this year’s Serious Games Summit at GDC, whether it was XNA guru Rob Gruhl’s pitch for serious games on Microsoft’s Live platform, Ian Bogost’s examination of procedural rhetoric and persuasive games, or Jane McGonigal’s fascinating talk about massively multiplayer problem solving. The convergence of educators, designers, researchers, and dedicated interest from many of the biggest players in the commercial game industry gave real support for a possible world where, as Mr. Klein put it, “games [aren’t] simply their own category. Rather, they should be a component of everything we do.”