Future of play focus of video game maker gathering

Video game makers from around the world will gather in San Francisco beginning on Monday to collaborate about the future of play.

The 20th annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) is the largest gathering of its kind and is dedicated to the “art, science, and business of games,” according to its organizers at CMP Technology firm.

Among its features will be lessons in designing games for Nintendo’s popular new Wii video game console with motion-sensitive controllers.

Casual and “serious” games summits will kick-off the weeklong gathering that is expected to draw more than 12,500 people involved in creating or publishing video games.

Casual games are based on non-violent strategy, wordplay, puzzles or classic board games as opposed to warfare, car racing or other action.

“The casual game market has grown to be an integral part of the videogame industry, making gamers out of anyone with a PC (personal computer), a mobile phone or an iPod,” said conference manager Meggan Scavio.

Serious games are those in which the main motivations are along the lines of teaching, healing or therapy instead of purely entertainment and profit, according to RealTime Associates president David Warhol.

The Southern California company created a Re-Mission game that improves the outlooks of children with cancer and gets them to adhere to treatment programs.

Warhol will present conference goers with insights into RealTime’s new Cool School computer game designed to teach young children to peacefully resolve conflicts ranging from bullies to classmates cutting in lines.

US government funding for the game was inspired by the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in which two students went on a deadly shooting rampage, according to Warhol.

Cool School lets children enter a virtual fantasy school where erasers get into tiffs with chalkboards and balls squabble in the playground.

“It’s not so much a video game as it is an interactive movie,” Warhol told AFP. "

“Re-Mission showed that games like this work. The serious game industry is really blossoming." In Cool School, animated objects get into spats based on typical clashes between children and the players get to choose how to deal with the conflicts.

If a child opts for responses such as “bribery” or “threatening” the scene plays out with predictably undesirable results. If a player selects a “compromise” option the scene has a happier ending.

“It has universal appeal because these kinds of conflicts are universal, you can go to a rural town in China, Japan, France or anywhere and find kids fighting over toys,” said developmental psychologist Melanie Killen, a University of Maryland professor who spent years helping craft the games content.

“It focuses on kids in their world. Ideally, you’d love to have teachers spend an hour a day on social skills, but pragmatically, they have negative two minutes of time for it."

A challenge facing serious games is a lack of funding from private publishers that routinely spurn educational or therapeutic games in favor of violence-oriented titles such as Grand Theft Auto, Killen said.

In the Grand Theft Auto video game, points are scored for acts such as stealing cars or killing prostitutes and police officers.

“Serious games are wonderful, but it is an uphill battle,” said Killen, who told of a fruitless quest to get private backing for Cool School.

“People have got the idea that blood and gore and sexually explicit images are what sell. I think that is a false assumption. If given the chance, parents would buy high-quality serious games for their children instead."

With continued backing from the US Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Cool School will begin a pilot program in a school district in the state of Illinois on Monday, Warhol said.

Cool School will need private support to build a website capable of taking the game live online for free play by anyone, according to Warhol.

France-based Game Connection will spend two days applying its “matchmaking” skills to video game creators and publishers and venture capitalists that pay to get promising titles into the market.

Game Connection orchestrates rapid-fire meetings between the parties in a business version of “speed dating,” company spokesman David Tractenberg said.

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Future of play focus of video game maker gathering