How video games have the power to change real lives

From the rooftop of the tallest skyscraper in Los Santos, you can see for miles in all directions. The densely crowded downtown area and the sprawling suburbs surround it; there’s the industrial quarter down by the railway tracks, giving way to a blighted, gang-infested slum on the fringes: so much life and detail but all to one end: the entertainment of players. Los Santos is a fictional city – the setting of crime adventure, Grand Theft Auto V.

In this lavish reimagining of Los Angeles, traffic jams only happen when the narrative demands them. Here, the squares and public spaces provide combat arenas, the buildings are places to rob, and parking is rarely an issue. But the intricate fantasy environments imagined for games like GTA V may well prove more useful than they seem. Now the technologies and tools developed by this multibillion-dollar entertainment industry are making changes in the real world.

Games as planning tools

John Isaacs, a lecturer in computing at the University of Abertay, explores the possibilities of game engines. In 2011, he developed an urban mapping application for his PhD project. The Sustainable City Visualisation Tool was used to generate a 3D visualization of the Dundee Waterfront, modeling different approaches to its regeneration. Built using the XNA game design tools created by Microsoft for its Xbox console, S-CITY VT enabled users to apply different proposals and see how they affected noise levels, energy consumption, and other factors.

Importantly, Isaacs’ tool helped residents to understand how the redevelopment would affect them. “One of the first things we did was to find out where [a resident’s] house was, and then spin the camera around so they could see the development from there,” he explains. Since then, the tool has been applied to a golf course flood-defense at St Andrews, models for solar building heating, and most recently to recreate a housing estate in Fife. Isaacs sees the next step as a move to a web-based approach, making it easier for residents to access and collaborate on plans.

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From Minecraft to village crafting

Although they may not have the same level of detail as Isaacs’ tool, there are vastly popular building systems already on the market, sold as games. The United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) aims to create or improve 300 public spaces in the developing world by 2016. That mission led them to Sweden, and Mojang, makers of the insanely popular sandbox game Minecraft.

The resulting Block by Block project commissioned Fyre, a British Minecraft community, allows users to build models of areas lined up for redevelopment. Groups of locals are then unleashed on them, guided by experienced Minecraft players, to build whatever they want to see in reality. Recently, Block by Block visited the Les Cayes waterfront in Haiti, which is lined up for a $2.5 million redevelopment. “Previously, the professionals would stand at one end of the room and ask people questions,” says Pontus Westerberg, UN-Habitat’s digital projects officer. “Now the citizens are presenting the professionals with their designs. That’s very powerful.”

SimCityEDU also draws on an existing, mass-market game – Electronic Arts’ SimCity – and modifies it for classrooms. The first title in the series, Pollution Challenge, sets students as young as 10 a series of environmental problems to solve without damaging their city’s economy. Jessica Lindl, general manager of developer GlassLab, notes that American schoolchildren spend an average of 13 hours a week playing video games and four hours doing homework:

“Students are far more likely to feel comfortable with video games and feel at ease jumping into a challenge rather than taking a test”. The concept is similar to Minecraft and sandbox space sim Kerbal Space Program, converted for school room use by the Finnish company, TeacherGaming. More than 200 UK schools are now using MinecraftEdu in lessons to teach geography and basic urban planning.

Training soldiers to recover from war

Make something that looks like a game and is fun to play, the logic of SimCityEDU goes, and its message will be absorbed by willing repetition. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, the assistant professor of computer science, Mark Riedl, is developing an “open story generator” named Scheherazade. The program is capable of constructing virtual worlds and scenarios based on real-life events. It can collect written experiences from groups, work out collective themes and turn them into a simulation. His research has been funded by Darpa, which is interested in finding new ways to teach soldiers how to interact and behave with indigenous populations in war zones.

As Riedl explains, “Veteran soldiers can write down their experiences, and if several people are reporting similar things, the program says, all right, this is significant, let’s try to learn from it and recreate it.” The aim is for Scheherazade to turn these reports into graphically authentic simulations, teaching a new generation of soldiers what their predecessors learned directly in the field of battle. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a consequence of war rarely explored in battle games – but they can help here. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, associate director of the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC, used assets from Full Spectrum Warrior, a video game commissioned by the US Army, to create a virtual reality therapy for veterans with PTSD in 2005.

The current version of Rizzo’s system is powered by the Unity3D engine, a popular game development technology. The patient wears a VR headset and moves around a simulation while a therapist introduces triggers such as explosions or gunfire. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, this has proven effective in managing symptoms. 16 of 20 subjects no longer met the standards for a PTSD diagnosis after completing treatment in one recent open trial.

Gaming technologies are also being applied to physical war wounds. Vitalize was produced by Leamington Spa-based studio Radiant Worlds for the US Army’s rehabilitation center in Texas. Commissioned to help soldiers with damaged or missing limbs to recover mobility, Radiant Worlds’ CTO Andrew Oliver initially expected to make a fitness game. “But every time we did the review boards, the soldiers said: ‘We’re soldiers. We want to be soldiers’.” Vitalize ended up as a combat game, where players perform prescribed motions in front of a Kinect motion sensor to destroy giant robots.

Play all about it

Video games are also being used to explore and question war environments, both in terms of geometry and politics. Built by MolleIndustria and Jim Munroe, Unmanned, depicts the mundane life of an American drone operator – playing video games with his son, flirting with his colleague, and occasionally killing “persons of interest.”

At the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the researcher Nonny de la Pena has developed a project named Immersive Journalism which uses virtual reality to place viewers into the environment of contemporary news stories. Once example, Project Syria puts participants into a simulated street scene in the Aleppo district, just as a rocket hits. It was premiered at the World Economic Forum in January. The aim is to give people a very visceral understanding of current affairs.

Such “news games” can be controversial. In 2004, Katharine Neil took the graphics engine behind first-person shooters Half-Life and Counter-Strike. She used it to create a game depicting the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre. She worked on Escape From Woomera anonymously for fear of losing her job. At one Australian games’ festival, she sat incognita in the audience as a text-to-speech program delivered her presentation.

More recently, Endgame: Syria by Gamethenews is a mobile game highlighting the complexities of the Syrian Civil War. The title sparked discussion when it was banned from Apple’s App Store and resubmitted as Endgame: Eurasia. Apple has also excluded games dealing with people smuggling, sweatshop labor, and the ethics of smartphone manufacture.

“It would be good to see Apple move with the times and update its submission guidelines in line with how games are being used,” says Endgame: Syria developer Tomas Rawlings. Games are incredibly successful training systems – but all they usually do is train people how to play within fictional worlds, as the tools employed to make them evolve, the potential to engage with the real world. In this way, video games offer the power to capture, comment on and change lives.


Writer. Pop culture buff. Certified alcohol trailblazer. Tv nerd. Music fanatic. Professional problem solver. Explorer. Uniquely-equipped for working on Easter candy in Las Vegas, NV. Uniquely-equipped for analyzing toy monkeys for the government. Spent a year testing the market for action figures in Minneapolis, MN. Spent high school summers donating walnuts in Phoenix, AZ. Earned praised for my work researching human brains in Orlando, FL. Spent college summers writing about pubic lice in Washington, DC.