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Terry Lavender

'Serious games' can change attitudes

September 17, 2008

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Parents take heart: your children may not be wasting their time playing video games. They may in fact be learning to feel compassion for the homeless, or reduce their carbon footprint or eliminate malaria in Africa.

That’s the view of Surrey campus communcations manager Terry Lavender (above), who is also a graduate student in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT). He has been researching an emerging class of educational video games known as "serious games".

Lavender says serious games, which are being produced by such diverse organizations as the U.S. Army, Burger King and Greenpeace, are designed to change people’s attitudes – get them to vote a certain way, join the army or buy hamburgers.

"There’s a perception that video games are just mindless entertainment," Lavender says. "That’s not necessarily true. Video games can be used for many purposes, just like any other media of expression. Games can be used to encourage cancer patients, train doctors and nurses, or teach activists for democracy in autocratic regimes how to organize non-violent protests."

Serious video games are now big business, says Lavender. "America’s Army, an action video game produced by the U.S. Army, has been played millions of times. And Food Force has been downloaded from World Food Programme’s website more than four million times."

Lavender created a video game about homelessness, which he tested with 120 people recruited over the Internet to see whether people could be made to feel more sympathetic towards homeless people.

Although there was a definite increase in sympathy among people who played the game, Lavender says more research needs to be done to see whether the increased sympathy lasted, for example, and what other factors might play a part.

And he says parents and players alike should approach serious video games with a healthy dose of skepticism: "What are the motives of the game designers and what information are they leaving out of the game or distorting in order to change your mind?"

Lavender’s game, Homeless: It’s No Game, can be played at http://www.homelessgame.net/.
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