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Video games: Not just for fun seekers anymore

"Serious games" teach everything from flying a jet plane to negotiating a hostage crisis. Photo: Bashing bioterror

Video games--often accused of having little or no redeeming value--are becoming a way for firefighters, soldiers, currency traders and college administrators to hone their skills.

Although entertaining shoot-'em-ups such as Microsoft's "Halo 2" still dominate the $10 billion video game industry, a new breed of designer is crafting programs that teach much more than just hand-eye coordination.

"Serious games" demonstrating everything from flying a jet plane to negotiating a hostage crisis are used to train workers who can't afford to slip up on the job.

Firefighters, for example, can use "HazMat:Hotzone" to learn how to respond to a chemical-weapons attack, George Soros wannabes can learn the ins and outs of currency trading with Forex Trader , and college administrators can use Virtual U to wrestle with angry professors and meddlesome state legislators.

Developers say serious games are especially effective for younger workers who have grown up with "Madden Football" and "Grand Theft Auto," but stress that designers of the so-called serious games need to incorporate the irresistible appeal of these mainstream hits in order to keep participants engaged.

"Without addiction, you're out of business," Pentagon consultant Jim Dunnigan said. "Serious games have to attain their addiction from the inherently addictive elements of the job."

The U.S. military is by far the largest buyer of game simulations, accounting for roughly half of the $20 million to $40 million market.

But Dunnigan and other industry boosters say these games could soon command a significant chunk of the $100 billion corporate and industrial training industry as the level of technological sophistication increases.

"Gaming only in a few years has hit a level of ubiquity and visual capability where people are going, 'Wow, we can do some real cool stuff,'" said Ben Sawyer, president of Portland, Maine, consulting firm Digitalmill.

"We're certainly not going to look like 'Doom'," he said, "but...we're going to make it as fun as we can."

"Instead of shooting people, you're talking to them and trying to win their trust."
--Hannes Vilhjalmsson, research scientist

America's Army harnesses state-of-the-art game play to win new recruits for the U.S. Army, taking players from the rifle range to bombed-out desert cities. It ranks as one of the most popular online games, with more than 4 million registered players.

Other military games focus on equally important survival skills, such as teaching Arabic and cross-cultural etiquette. Users of the Rapid Tactical Language Training System can stumble through conversations with animated computer characters rather than real Iraqi citizens who might take offense at the wrong hand gesture.

"Instead of shooting people, you're talking to them and trying to win their trust," said Hannes Vilhjalmsson, a research scientist at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute who helped develop the game.

Will Interactive's releases focus on leadership skills, putting players in situations where there is no clear right or wrong answer. Players must decide what to do if they don't have enough chemical suits for their troops, how to get a wounded soldier to safety or how to defuse a tense hostage situation.

Realism is key to the games' effectiveness, CEO Sharon Sloane said. "Until you engage someone emotionally as well as cognitively, you cannot effect behavior change."

One way to do this is to put the action where the players are. Some researchers are ditching virtual reality for the real world.

One project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology challenged participants to stop a biological attack spreading rapidly across campus. Using Internet-connected handheld computers, players could determine who was "infected" and search for vaccines to stop the spread of the virus.

In Zurich, Switzerland, students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology used handheld computers to find an imaginary bomb that had been planted on campus, but things turned ugly when they locked up other players suspected of sabotaging their progress.

There is such a thing as too much realism, said Steffen Walz, the game's designer.

"I think people will start playing games where they can not tell anymore whether they are part of the game or not," he said, "and we have to think about ways to prevent that."

Story Copyright  © 2004 Reuters Limited.  All rights reserved.