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At TED, changing the future of the world is entertainment

Sims creator, Lost writer and former eBay president discuss how technology and entertainment can change the world.

MONTEREY, Calif.--The Sims creator Will Wright, media mogul and former eBay president Jeff Skoll, and war documentarian Deborah Scranton share something in common.

They believe entertainment and technology can help change the world.

The three media executives, along with Lost creator J.J. Abrams, shared the stage here Friday at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference. During a two-hour talk called "Screenovation," each executive tied his or her work in entertainment to altruistic ambitions or social responsibility, major themes emerging at this year's TED conference.

Will Wright Will Wright

For example, Wright wants his upcoming simulation game, Spore, to help kids think more about how their actions today can have a long-term effect on the world. With the evolution game, kids can learn about global warming, he said, by pumping carbon dioxide into the virtual atmosphere and then watching the planet burn up in minutes.

"By giving kids toys like this, I hope to give them some sense of what it might be like to (live on Earth) in 100 years," the game creator said of Spore. "That's why I think toys can change the world."

For Skoll, making a difference meant leaving eBay in 2000 and ultimately joining the entertainment business. The online-auction giant's first employee, now a billionaire, became inspired by Common Cause founder John Gardner, who told the former Silicon Valley executive to "bet on good people doing good things."

In 2003, Skoll founded Participant Productions, which aims to create films inspiring social change.

"The surest way to become a millionaire is to be a billionaire and go to Hollywood and make movies," Skoll joked, referring to the tough odds of a social entrepreneur surviving in Hollywood.

His film company has since funded and produced Al Gore's , George Clooney's media censorship drama . Upcoming projects include a Jimmy Carter documentary called He Comes in Peace and a film about 1960s war protesters called Cicage 10.

Skoll said Participant Productions has spawned a Web-based community of hundreds of thousands of advocates around the films it has produced.

"What drives me is a vision of the future, a world of peace, prosperity and sustainability," Skoll said, though "I realize how far we have to go to get there."

Chapter 1 begins today, Skoll added. "It begins within each of us. We have the power to equal those opportunity gaps. If the men and women here can't make a difference, I don't know who can."

One of those women speaking the TED conference was Scranton, director of featuring video from American soldiers in Iraq.

The War Tapes debuted last year at the Tribeca Film Festival and won an award for best documentary feature. Scranton discussed how she couldn't have told the story of those soldiers' lives without technology and the Internet.

For her project, nearly a dozen soldiers used Sony cameras and Microsoft Vista software . Scranton said her film crew saved 3,211 of the soldiers' e-mails, instant messages and text messages, and installed cameras on the military Humvees for real-time video that captured "that intimacy" of the war and the soldiers' experiences.

Scranton commented on the detachment of the war from Americans' day-to-day lives. "There's such a disconnect," she said. "People can go for days here and not feel like there's a war going on."

Scranton added that she's asking people who say they're against the war but support the soldiers to do something to demonstrate that support. "I challenge us to operationalize those terms."

The talk given by J.J. Abrams was comparatively lighter in tone. The Hollywood impresario behind TV hits Lost and Alias joked on stage that a lot of people ask him, "What the hell is that island? No seriously, what the hell is that island?"

Abrams traced his fascination with mysteries to his childhood, when his grandfather introduced him to a Super 8 camera and a Tannen's Mystery Box of tricks, which Abrams still hasn't opened.

"I love the design of this thing," Abrams said. "It represents something important to me; it represents my grandfather. It represents infinite possibility, hope and potential...Mystery boxes are everywhere in what I do. The mystery box is inside all of us."

Abrams used this anecdote as segue to discussing what he said is proving to be the biggest magic box today in the entertainment business: technology. "The most incredible mystery now is what I think is happening with technology. Technology is democratizing the creation of media."

For his part, Spore creator Wright hopes technology will do more than democratize media. He wants the game to inspire a generation to invent a new future.

Spore, expected to launch this fall, encourages players to grow from a microbe to a land-based creature, and eventually to explore and colonize space, as technology and business moguls like Virgin CEO Richard Branson are trying to do today. But gamers can also play with simple weather systems, the dynamics of the world and the geology of innumerable planets within it.

"Most games put players in the role of (Star Wars') Luke Skywalker. This is about putting the player in the role of George Lucas," Wright said.