December 28, 2007

Review: PeaceMaker

OK, educators in history, social studies, Middle-East culture, and political science, here is a game for you! You'll need to do some work to fit it into your curriculum, but this game has all the marks of a useful educational game that remains challengingly engaging while fitting in both content and episodic/experiential learning.

The game is PeaceMaker by Impact Games. It is a single-player, stand alone turn-based-strategy game available for both the PC and the Macintosh computer platforms. With 3-D graphics and stereo soundtrack, this serious game competes effectively with current commercial entertainment games in look and feel, which adds its appeal among current and new gamers.

Like most turn-based video games, PeaceMaker differs from the stereotypical video game in that it does not sport a lot of blood, shooting, or explosions. The only violence seen comes on the news footage used to illustrate the results of poorly-timed moves. These increase the level of tension and violence in the game, which also generally decreases the player's score and lessens the likelihood of winning. In short, violence is not overtly or covertly rewarded.

There is a lot to like about this award-winning game. The player takes on the role of leader of either the Israeli or Palestinian leader, but the goal of the game is really to find an solution acceptable to not only the player but the opposite faction as well. This is a win/win or lose all game. Neither side can decimate the other if the player wishes to win. While one side or the other can be unhappy about the status, the dissatisfaction of either side cannot dip beyond a certain level before the game is declared lost.

The game itself educates the player about the history and the various competing factions in the Middle East without being didactic, embodying procedural rhetoric effectively. The game's introduction is brief but ends with an interactive time line of the major events that lead up to the status, in 2007, of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. More in-depth information can be requested by the player as he or she weighs options, and the game's feedback system provides additional information about the current situation and probable outcomes as the game progresses. One of the most interesting aspects of this game is the number of factions (local and international) whose opinions must be heeded (to varying degrees) and whose needs must be met in order to achieve peace in the region. The complex interplay between these groups illustrates beautifully how processes can be used to make a point. In this case, the point is that balancing these competing needs over the long term is an extremely difficult task. While it is easy to write that, it is difficult to play it, and I repeatedly lost while trying to find a way to manage the opinions of local and international organizations. That is the difference between rote and episodic learning - and I will never read the paper in the same way again.

Content-wise, players quickly learn where the major cities and regions are located, who are the major factions involved, where holy sites are located, and what barriers hinder a peaceful co-existence. They also must learn - and remember! - historical facts in order to progress in the game. There are too many choices and configurations to allow random guessing, so students will be motivated to learn and quickly recall information.

There is also no one right path through the game, and some random elements will prevent any two gaming sessions from working out the same way. Hence, your students can't use each other's solutions, although they might be able to share strategies to see how well they generalize to different game sessions. From this, educators can make use of game debriefing time to see if students can form theories about conflict and conflict resolution - or turn it around and see if specific theories about what should be done in the Middle East would work under the game assumptions and rules.

Further, the game can be played from either the Israeli or Palestinian perspective, and the game designers encourage everyone to try the game both ways since each leader has different challenges to meet. Even if you do not have time to let everyone play both sides, the competing faction in the conflict is not demonized. In this game world, your opponent is someone with whom you need to cooperate and with whom you share some goals. This is a refreshing look at conflict that is worth bringing into the classroom for its own sake.

You can try it out for yourself for free, although you can only make a limited number of moves before you need to buy a license. At under $20, it is not particularly expensive, and a good deal cheaper than most commercial titles these days. With a promise of lesson plans under development, this game is worth considering as an addition to your spring semester.

Posted by bjohnson at 10:09 AM

December 10, 2007

Food Force

Food Force is a single-player game about global hunger and the complex multi-stage process of getting food relief to needy areas.

Developed by the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP) for a relatively modest price of $350,000, Food Force had been downloaded and played by an estimated 4 million players by 2006. An impressive 1 million players had played it within the first 6 weeks of its release. Through this game, the WFP hoped to generate interest among children in the so-called developed countries about global hunger.

This non-violent video game, specifically designed for children aged 8 to 13, has been so highly successful, in part, because it incorporates key features of successful, commercial video games. Six action-packed missions must be completed in a specified amount of time and are scored – with room on the game’s web site for players to post their top scores. The quality of the game itself is a major factor in its popularity. With full-motion video cutaways, 3-D graphics, and a narrative story in which the player is cast as the hero figure, this game looks like many modern commercial games.

Despite the adoption of features common to the action game genre, Food Force still is a game with a message. Through the game, the player is introduced to the various aspects – and difficulties – of food aid operations. The player must pilot air craft, negotiate with rebels, rebuild food production infrastructure, design optimum ration packets, and decide what assistance offered by various countries will actually help in the effort. Through playing the various missions, players come to understand that food aid is a complex, multi-stage process.

Sections of the supporting web site can aid educators who want to integrate the game into their curriculum, with links to related educational sites. The game is a free download from the associated web site and is available for both PC and Macintosh computers.

Posted by bjohnson at 6:33 PM