The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Changing Games, Changing Gamers

Like about 37% of adults, I’m an avid gamer. But like I’ve said before, I’m a bit of a odd duck when it comes to gaming. I’m pretty bad at first-person shooters, and most of them don’t appeal to me. My bent is towards simulation games. Those are common enough but only occasionally do I come across games that also involve another interest of mine, like political simulation games.  

So, I was surprised and intrigued to learn of a game that incorporated another interest of mine: Buddhism. And when I found out it was a game about Buddhist ethics, I decided to check it out. After all, it’s a game where you lose points for killing (including animals). How could I not check it out?

A new video game has been launched in Thailand to help bring Thai youth closer to the fundamental principles of Buddhism. The religious affairs department of the Thai government came up with the idea to develop and distribute what is known as the “Ethics Game”.

The game’s creator, Pakorn Tancharoen, is the director of the office for the moral and ethics development, admitted that he himself had “never played a videogame” and that he “spent weeks observing how children played”, before developing the programme for the game.

The main characters in the game are Dharmmahapanyo, an old Buddhist monk, and three children – Charn, who is considered the life of the group, Nu Na, the only female child and Paloe, a pudgy boy who has a lot of fun playing jokes.

… The five main principles of Buddhism – not to kill, steal, commit adultery, tell lies or drink alcohol – are fundamental to reach the highest level in the game, where they will then be called upon to teach farmers or peasants the fundamental rules of Buddhism.

The game’s creator said that he was inspired to develop the game after having read a report about a child who attacked his mother after she refused to give him money to play a videogame.

Needless to say, I immediately went to download the game. However, after installation, it became clear that either I need a Thai translator (though Zach at Gameology managed to play without translation) or I need to wait until there’s an English version of the game.

But with so much ink being spilled and bandwidth being burned over the supposed negative effect of video games (the latest being that people who play racing games become reckless drivers, though on the other hand gaming can improve your eyesight), it’s at least refreshing to hear about someone using gaming to change gamers; that is, using games to teach values or change perspectives. There are games out there that do that, but rarely does that seem to be the intent.

The last game I know of to do that was A Force More Powerful, “the game of nonviolent strategy” that I blogged about a year ago. The next one may come from a commercial game developer. And not just any commercial game developer, but the one responsible for some of my favorite games. Will Wright, creator of The Sims, mused about his upcoming game — Spore — shares the same goal as the ethics game: making players think about the consequences of their actions.

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 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.

A tall order, but for the guy who brought us games like Sim City and The Sims — both games that, when you think about it, are all about choice and consequences — it may not be. 

Based on my experience of Wright’s previous creations, Spore  (which sounds like an updated version of Wright’s Sim Earth, which I played quite a bit in college) is definitely the next big game I’m waiting for, and I expect I’ll stay up into the wee hours exploring it. But it’s not due out until this fall. So I’ll have to wait. (That is unless Wright and EA Games need some dedicated, long-time fans, who know their way around Wright’s previous games to test drive pre-release versions and help get the kinks out. Hey, Will! Are ya listening? And I’ll do it for no more than a free copy of the game once it’s one.)

In the meantime, I’ll settle for the latest videos of the evolutionary phases in  Spore’s gameplay. I’m not sure it will influence the way I see the world — though it will likely leave me somewhat bleary-eyed for the first week or so I have it — but it may change some younger gamers, like the ones Tancharoen and write want to reach.

And maybe they’ll be less likely to do things like clash of clans cheats and key generator, kill homeless people and blame it on video games. The downside is that whatever good they do instead probably won’t be “blamed” on video games, even when the games are intended to have a positive impact.

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