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Around here we’re as guilty as anyone of getting caught up in negative headlines about video games. Recent years have seemed particularly challenging as the industry struggles to solve issues in politics, player communities, and the workplace simultaneously. If playing games was nothing but a fun hobby, it would be time to weigh whether it was worth it. Thankfully, as gaming permeates our culture, groups and individuals continuously take advantage of opportunities to make a positive impact with games. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the best stories currently unfolding in the game industry.
Learning to save the world
The Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP), part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has several initiatives underway to simultaneously develop play-based teaching methodologies and create playable content focused on issues facing the global community. Current undertakings include game design training for teachers and students in India and workshops using Cantor’s World, a government simulator game created by the organization to educate policy makers about the Inclusive Wealth Index and the complexities of governing a socio-economic system.
The concept of teaching teachers to design and implement their own playable curriculum experiences is certainly unique, but this initiative apparently goes a step further to extend this training to students. This reminded me of a tone interval training program I created for my fellow high school senior year Music Theory students in late 2002 while I was also taking a Visual Basic class. This clever little app had buttons you could press to hear any tone interval played as a sequence of MIDI notes to prepare for identification tests coming up later in the semester. Some of my classmates complained the interval tones were clearly wrong, others said pressing the buttons caused the computer to make bizarre sound effects. I soon learned that sound fonts were different across the various computers people had at the time and I would have needed to create WAV files or include a sound font to make the program work. I had a lot to learn about music composition and code.
The UNESCO MKIEP Games for Learning site has more information about their projects as well as academic papers about their findings in the field.
Kids are gaming their way into college
Petula Dvorak recently contributed a piece to The Washington Post that will sound quite familiar to anyone following our patron posts. It’s an article intended to introduce parents of teenagers to the new competitive gaming landscape. Now’s the time for openmindedness—high school and collegiate level programs are starting to shell out big scholarship money for talented players who can balance controller skills with strict academic eligibility requirements. Dvorak highlights Virginia as the ninth state to add esports to its athletics department across all state high schools in an effort to better serve student players who will have scholarship opportunities at more than 130 colleges currently offering esports scholarships.
While some are concerned about the possibility of an esports “bubble” that’s destined to pop, I maintain a much more positive outlook. Esports is a win for everyone involved, and while I suspect the economics of the industry will shift back and forth, I can’t see any reason it isn’t here to stay. If esports provided these kinds of opportunities in my teen years I would have dropped musical performance activities like they were hot. I knew I was going into software development while I was still in high school. Why wouldn’t I spend that time exploring related areas of the industry, hustle to pay my way through school, and get to know the skillsets of streamers and content creators? I couldn’t sign this dotted line for my kid fast enough.
Gamers are playing healer IRL
Medical Daily recently covered initiatives at Stanford that aim to use games to educate players about important scientific concepts and to leverage their actual play sessions to complete real-world scientific research.
Discussed in Medical Daily’s article are Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, a designer of educational games for students, and Rhiju Das, an associate professor responsible for developing Eterna, an online puzzle game directly leveraging gameplay to formulate designs for molecular medicine, perform actual peer review, and more. If those claims sound a little too fantastic, check out one of their recent trial updates:
We are pleased to now announce a partnership with Stanford Insititute for Immunity, Transplantation, and Infection and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to now determine if these sensors can actually diagnose TB in samples donated by patients. Our mission now is to design more molecules – as diverse as possible – that can calculate the OpenTB signature. We’ll be using the entire ensemble of the molecules for our tests. In Round 4, we are targeting the same set of segments of the RNA genes as in Round 2, which was our most successful. The sequences used in this round were chosen from ones nominated by players.
While the new collaboration between Das and Riedel-Kruse seems to be early in development, it seems safe to say many people will be grateful for their work and their community’s play.
Veterans are rehabilitating mind and body in-game
Stephanie Colombini recently wrote on the impact of games on veteran rehabilitation for The American Homefront and it’s a story everyone should hear.
The article describes Colombini’s visit to the office of Jamie Kaplan, a recreational therapist at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida where he’s using the Microsoft Xbox Adaptive Controller to help individuals with physical impairment reconnect with gaming. Kaplan explains the benefits of gaming as what he calls “sneaky therapy,” as gaming first and foremost provides a lighthearted escape and outlet for players struggling with disability but also provides a unique way to retrain motor skills and improve coordination. Finally, a veteran participating in the program adds insight into the added benefits of being a part of the gaming community when he needed somewhere to turn.
Having seen the shortcomings of the VA system in the United States (and almost everyone knows someone struggling with it) it’s refreshing to hear such positive results for these deserving patients.
The entire Elite Dangerous community came together for a dying teen
In the interest of full disclosure, I did not want to write about this story. Not because it isn’t the best or most deserving—it’s probably both—but I’ve been a father for less than five years and there are certain themes I honestly have a hard time dealing with for too long at a stretch. This is one of the hardest.
On July 4th, The Guardian published an article written by Mat Westhorpe, who witnessed an incredible outpouring of kindness from the Elite Dangerous community in his ill nephew’s final days.
Mat’s nephew, Michael, was a 15-year-old diagnosed with autism and a debilitating condition that kept him confined to the hospital where he played video games for comfort and to pass the time. Mat tweeted about Michael’s love of Elite, which kicked off a chain of events that brought his nephew great joy in what turned out to be the very end of his life.
Mat’s tweet came to the attention of Frontier Developments’ community management team and resulted in a visit to Michael’s hospital room complete with gifts from the studio. Michael’s father hung a framed poster, signed by the development team, on his wall. Elite players sent well wishes from all over the world, as did authors and publishers from the Elite literary series. Fellow Elite commanders organized in Facebook groups to take Michael on special missions and adventures in-game.
When Michael’s condition worsened and facial swelling left him unable to see well enough to play Elite, best-selling science fiction author, Drew Wagar, wrote a 7,000-word script in one day which Frontier commissioned three voice actors to record it specially for Michael. He listened to the story with Mat in the hospital and passed away the next day.
Gaming has evolved to become a vast technology platform with loads of potential, and the way we assign credit and blame to it doesn’t always make sense. It seems popular games coverage is quick to both celebrate everyone as a gamer (correctly) but also charge “gamers” with any negative trend we see fit. We don’t do nearly enough marketing for incredible stories like I’ve listed above after even the most basic research. Gaming, like social media, like email, or even like a playground at a park can be the center of great progress or great evil. I could begin today and likely match pessimists story for story, advertising good over evil as a result of gaming for as long as someone cared to. The back and forth is more a reflection on greater humanity which I’ll leave to philosophers, but we do get to choose how we view negativity in gaming, just as we can choose to see the good, celebrate it, and hopefully, participate.
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.