For an institution, such as the State Department, to be seen playing games might raise an eyebrow or two, but last week's Tech@State: Serious Games conference showed a crowd of nearly 200 that there's real substance to play.
Steve York, a film- and game-maker, recounted recent conversations with Egyptian activists who last summer were playing York's new People Power game. These activists had difficulty winning People Power's civil-resistance simulation on the computer, but apparently the game enabled some powerful learning.
"They told me, 'We lost the game but won the revolution'," York said.
Tech@State events are quarterly networking conferences that examine the intersection of technology and diplomacy. This edition, focused on the constructive aims and mechanics of games and simulations, took place May 27-28 at the Jack Morton Auditorium on the campus of The George Washington University.
York was among some 40 presenters who described the intricacies of games themselves and the ends to which their designers sometimes put them. There were panels on the psychology of games, on military and government applications, on education and design and more aspects of what can be compelling and thought-provoking experiences and not merely entertainment.
In addition to People Power, there were discussions of Peacemaker, a game where players attempt to create Middle East peace. Asi Burak, who created Peacemaker, also presented Half the Sky, a new game on women and gender issues that stems from a book by Nick Kristof. The audience also heard about America2049 from Breakthrough, WeForest from Playmob, Tilt HD from XEODesign, and Diplomacy from iCivics and Filament, and MMOWGLI, a U.S. Navy game aimed at solving piracy off the coast of Somalia. These and other games all aim at using human feelings to solve problems through games.
"All animals from dogs, to humans, to gorillas learn through play," said Heather Chaplin, an author and journalist who has written extensively on games. She said games allow people to engage with complex subjects in a safe way and so let their creativity work out solutions. "You want to give people a chance to make mistakes."
Emotion plays a role as well. Nicole Lazzaro of XEODesign explained the motivations that make games work through what she describes as the four keys to fun: challenge, novelty, friendship, and meaning.
"Social emotions drive most of our actions," Lazzaro said, "That's the potential of games."
Others built on those ideas and talked about how human qualities are what can make game play a socially constructive activity. Several speakers noted that everything in life can be considered a game, even if the rules and constraints and outcomes aren't always clear.
"There are game mechanics in everything, in key aspects of life," said Shervin Pishevar, founder of the Social Gaming Network.
Conference participants also considered a challenge issued in opening remarks by Farah Pandith, the Department's Special Representative to Muslim Communities. She introduced the event and talked of the burgeoning global population of Muslim youth who are thirsty for technology and social interaction.
"There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world," she said, "and 60 percent are under the age of 30. They're online and they play games. We need to reach them."
Special Representative Pandith challenged the audience to build games for this demographic. She said she is looking for people who are creating games that harness the energy of the "youthquake" we are seeing around the world and that help the next generation -- Generation Change -- "imagine the unimaginable." She underscored the necessity for diplomats to utilize the creativity and innovation of technologist and gamers to help the State Department find solutions to some of the globes most vexing challenges.
For further information, see tech.state.gov.