by Anand Ramachandran
Let's face it, except within a few select demographics and a few specific geographic pockets, video games are widely regarded as a waste of time, meant mainly for kids or nerds. Cultured, intelligent, successful people don't play video games - so goes the perception. And nowhere is this perhaps truer than in India.
Nobody says the same thing about movies. Or music. Or books. Why?
I believe it's because, by way of being more evolved and mature media, they are no longer viewed as purely entertainment. Think about it. Movies (documentaries, newsreels, instructionals) are often used to educate, inform, provoke thought. Ditto books, obviously. Music is used in teaching tiny tots a range of things - who doesn't remember the A-B-C-D tune, or those nursery rhymes that taught us how to count? Even comics have bridged the gap better than games have managed to do - TINKLE and Amar Chitra Katha being shining examples of products parents would happily buy for their children.
People tend to devalue anything that is purely recreational. For the mainstream to embrace a medium, it must be perceived as something that can be used to actually help people grow as individuals. Become smarter. Or more cultured. Or wiser. Or healthier.
While there are stray instances (America's Army, Civilization) of games that can be held up as products that are designed to educate and instruct, an overwhelmingly large majority of commercially made games are principally entertainment-oriented. Fun is the mantra - and rightly so.
In fact, I'm a great believer in the ability of games to build skills, teach and educate - I'm talking about commercially available, regular games here, and not games built specifically for educational purposes. Playing games can enhance, among other things, skills like hand-eye coordination, decision making, strategic thinking and memory. However, the fact remains that all this learning is hidden under a layer of entertainment. Hence the lack of understanding among the general populace. You can't really expect them to understand the hidden, subtle benefits of a game that, to all outward appearances, is about shooting things with insanely overpowered weapons. It's not even reasonable to expect them to take the effort to connect - the effort must undoubtedly come from the gaming community. Namely gamers, developers, and the gaming press.
This is where Serious Games come in. Serious Games are, for the uninitiated, games that are designed for purposes other than just entertainment. These games use the medium as a vehicle to educate, train or inform. They're used in areas as diverse as military, healthcare, agriculture, politics, environment and education. America's Army is probably the one everyone knows.Darfur is Dying is another that has gained popularity.
It's an important movement, and it's gaining momentum. Which is good news for all of us.
Because once Serious Games break through and begin to get mainstream press, people will begin to look at gaming as a medium, and not simply as recreation. A medium that can be used for purposes other than filling the minds of children with violent thoughts. And, as we well know, perception is everything. The same reality suddenly begins to look different - and as a result, more people buy, play and talk about games. And yes, more people have fun playing them. Just like movies. And books. And all that other stuff. Yay!
For this very reason, more of us need to support the Serious Games movement. By participating in the community. By talking about Serious Games. By working on projects, however small.
Consider the possibilities in India - simply enormous in my opinion. Make a game that teaches children to use fireworks safely at Diwali. Or an RTS that promotes communal harmony where factions must work together to win. Or a game that demonstrates the effects of pollution in cities, and how citizens can help control it. I believe that the press will give you quite a bit of coverage - it's an interesting story angle for them as well. When a simplistic crap-mountain like 'Kargil' can appear on India Today . . . enough said.
So that all those sceptics will stop regarding us as some sort of cultish group of outsiders. Yes, even Roger Ebert.
More on Serious Games here.