PlayStations For Peace

Kids play video games AP

This column from The Nation was written by Katrina vanden Heuvel.
These days, kids are multi-tasking like mad. Two weeks ago, the Washington Post described one high school junior talking on the phone, e-mailing, IM-ing, listening to Internet radio and writing a paper on her computer -- all at the same time!

According to a recent report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, she's far from the only teenager with a flair for multi-tasking. Kids today are spending six and a half hours a day, seven days a week, with electronic media -- and more than twice as much time on video games and computers than in 1999.

Let's face it: We live in a brave new world of blogging, with the iPodization of news and kids plugged in everywhere. The Washington Post recently ran a separate story about how college students are using interactive mini blogs or "wikis" to create "freewheeling, collaborative" communities, trade ideas and link to each other's essays. Progressives use new technologies like BitTorrent -- a filesharing program -- that let them create Web sites like CommonBits.org that allow kids to watch clips from television news programs like the "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "Democracy Now."

But one new frontier of the digital era has received almost no attention in the mainstream press.

In fact, says David Rejeski, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Foresight and Governance Project, "progressives have already occupied the space." He points to several games that are transforming what those active in this community call the "serious games" landscape, many of them with a progressive message. (No, it's not a brand name, but it's the phrase that most people in the industry use to describe the games that carry a serious message.)

Conservatives and too many liberals view video games through a jaundiced lens: sources of violence and mayhem that destroy the minds of impressionable teenagers. But, as Rejeski points out, "policymakers have spent far too much time focused on the effects of a small number of violent video releases and lost sight of the pedagogical function and advantages of games in general."

True, violence makes video games a highly profitable enterprise, but it's also the case that the new frontier of the serious game space contradicts those who like to fulminate against video games as a fount of evil. According to Rejeski and other experts, serious games are at a point in their history that resembles the movement towards independent film in its earliest stages. Serious games aren't big money-makers, nor have they truly entered the mainstream, but they are starting to make waves.

The controversial "Escape from Woomera" puts players into so-called "Australian detention camps," so that people will understand what it's like to be a political refugee seeking asylum. Rejeski cited the award-winning "Tropical America" that revives Latin America's past, explaining from a Latin-American standpoint how aspects of the history of the Americas have gotten lost in mainstream versions. "The Meatrix" -- an online film which spoofs "The Matrix" -- stars a young pig named Leo, and teaches players about the problems associated with modern farming, as well as the benefits of eating "sustainably-raised meat." At activismgame.com, players must learn to juggle six priorities facing America like revitalizing the economy and providing college tuition relief.

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