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Last Updated: Friday, 28 July 2006, 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK
Playing reality in virtual games
David Reid
By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click

For many years playing computer games has been viewed as a enjoyable way to spend time. But now a new generation of games are emerging with a serious agenda behind the fun.

Cyber-Budget screen grab
Cyber-Budget tries to make economics fun
For centuries, millennia even, we have learnt the skills of life through play.

Chess teaches strategy, others teach dexterity or even team-work.

This century is no different.

On a good day video games can sharpen our reaction times and coordination, but they can also have a more earnest purpose.

In fact, when it comes to video games it seems everyone is getting serious, including French politicians.

Fed up of people continually complaining about their taxes, France's ministry of finance developed a video game, so now the people themselves can have a go at doing the minister's job of balancing the country's budget.

Cyber-Budget has been a runaway success since it went online this summer.

The French public gets to do more than just wander through the corridors of power, they also get to play with the controls. In the end they get to make decisions about how their hard-earned Euros are spent.

It is my duty to make sure that the French citizens who want to know and learn more about public administration [can put themselves] in the situation and feel how it is to work under pressure
French Budget Minister Jean-Francois Cope
French Budget Minister Jean-Francois Cope says: "The principle of the game is to become the French minister of budget.

"For instance, you have to learn about the price of oil, a new war and so on, and of course there are consequences on the economic situation.

"And then after that you have to make your decision: when you invest more, increase public spending, increase public debt, what happens?"

Making economics fun, and French economics at that, is a lot to ask, but the ministry's video game is not all that bad.

It is nicely spiced up with little touches of realism, like the continual glances over the shoulder at how the press are reacting to your decisions.

Jean-Francois Cope says: "I decided to become a French politician. It is my job.

"I think it is important, it is my duty to make sure that the French citizens who want to know and learn more about public administration [can put themselves] in the situation and feel how it is to work under pressure."

Defence training

Not all serious games have the noble goal of bringing economics to the masses.

They do, however, differ from their lighter-hearted cousins in that the reality they portray is more, as it were, virtual.

The company Kynogon puts artificial intelligence into security games and knows that unless crowds behave like the real thing its clients will not be very interested.

Likewise, body guards can always be programmed to surround and stick to a subject, but unless they can analyse what is going on around them they are not much more use in a gun-fight than a raincoat.

The online game America's Army is partly a recruitment tool for the US military and has itself come under fire, accused of trivialising conflict
Kynogon's Pierre Pontevia says: "It's how do I protect my VIP?

"Well, first I need to understand from the surrounding point of view where could a threat come from and then position myself between this threat and my VIP.

"In the demo...all the three guards are identifying potential threats in real time, organising themselves to get the best [position].

"When you have that, I think you have 90% of what you can expect as being clever behaviour in a game."

But being clever and serious does not stop you getting criticised.

The online game America's Army is partly a recruitment tool for the US military and has itself come under fire, accused of trivialising conflict, not least the one in Iraq.

The game has been turned from serious to a solemn one by a university art professor whose online memorial has been to sign in as Dead in Iraq and then list the names of US soldiers killed in the conflict.

While America's Army may obscure the ugly truth of real armed conflict, other serious games can give us an original insight into what really makes the world go round.



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