Games aren't just for gamers anymore. 'Serious games' can teach web users to fight terrorism and the illiterate to read - even fleeing to Europe has become a game. But there's a seed of seriousness there, as well.
It seems insurmountable, this seven-meter-high fence that stands looming in front of the dark-skinned men. Beyond the fence lies that longed-for goal: Europe. But the escape to Europe is full of peril - the border patrol is already bearing down.
But in this video game, "Frontiers - you have reached fortress Europe," the guard is not made of flesh and blood, but rather, pixels. The player must decide whether to run from the border guards, or try to bribe them. Level by level, the player attempts to enter Europe's external borders - or can also play for the other side, taking on the role of a border guard.
While this 2008 game is based on real life, thought up by Austrian artists' group Gold Extra, it's one of a number of so-called "serious games," which are comprising an ever-increasing role in video games.
Modern serious games originally can be traced to the Prussian army in the early 19th century, when officers formalized rules for Kreigsspiel, which literally means "wargame" in German. In modern times, military and political leaders will often use "paper" wargames to simulate possible military outcomes.
This week, The New York Times reported that a classified American military war simulation showed that an Israeli strike on Iran would drawn the US into a wider regional conflict, with hundreds of Americans dead.
But even militaries are getting involved in serious video games as well. Just last fall, the American government awarded a $10.5 million (7.9 million euros) contract to Raytheon BBN Technologies to develop serious games that feature an "international detective theme," likely for national security and military training purposes.
'Refugees want us to tell their stories'
For their production, the Austrian artists conducted intensive research with refugees, aid organizations and spokespeople from border agencies.
Gold extra's Tobias Hammerle described the process at a presentation of the game at the Center for Art and Media last month in Karlsruhe, in southwestern Germany.
"The refugees wanted us to tell their stories," Hammerle stated. "They gave us express permission to use their appearance for the computer characters," he added.
At the end of the game, players have to face reality - they come to an area where they click on and hear actual interviews with refugees. That's the driving principle behind such serious games: They're designed to lead the player to think about reality, including on current political events as in so-called "news games," a subcategory of serious games.
Gonzalo Frasca is one game developer and theorist who's made his mark on the genre. He developed his online game "September 12th" in reaction to the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001.
An unwinnable game
The plot: Terrorists are hiding out in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. The player has to catch them in his crosshairs. He pulls the trigger, and his shot is supposed to kill the terrorist. But suddenly, all the terrorists disappear, and it's turned out that the player has killed innocent civillians instead.
The more innocent people the player kills, the more civilians arm themselves and become terrorists. So, the player cannot win.
Serious games largely avoid the gratuitous violence in first-person shooter games
Not only political messages are transmitted through gaming, noted Stefan Göbel, an e-learning researcher at the Technical University of Darmstadt.
"Serious games can be used in practically every sector," he said.
For years now, the German Computer Games Prize has even had a "Serious Games Award" -- last year's prize went to "Winterfest," a game designed to help the illiterate to read, write and do basic math in their daily lives.
Germany limps behind
In the meantime, several companies in German have begun to specialize in developing such games, although some argue Germany is behind.
"In the USA, in Scandinavia, Great Britain, the Netherlands or France, they're far more progressive," said Thorsten Unger, of the German computer gaming industry group, GAME.
How exactly Germany can increase its output of serious games, and studying how such games can be effective will be the topic of discussion at the GameDays 2012 conference, to be held in September in the western city of Darmstadt.
Author: Laura Döing / sad
Editor: Cyrus Farivar