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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK
Games blur news and entertainment
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

Some game developers are trying to get players to expand their horizons by reflecting on news events in computer games.

Screenshot of September 12th game
September 12th looks like a shooting game
Ambiguity is not a quality that most of today's popular computer games embrace.

Take a title like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. It is a classic first-person shooter game set during World War II that pits you as an American GI against the German army.

The rules are straightforward. You are the good guy and the Nazis are evil and it is your task to shoot as many of them as possible.

This is the kind of black-and-white view of the world that gamers, and game developers, have thrived on over the years.

But some, like Gonzalo Frasca, are looking at getting more out of games.

News influences

A games developer from Uruguay, he studied computer science in the US. Once he graduated, he landed a job writing for CNN's Spanish language website.

While he was working there, he came up with the idea of making computer games tied to current events.

Gonzalo Frasca
We're happy when people agree with us, but we're even happier if this can trigger interest in international politics
Gonzalo Frasca
"They're kind of a half-breed between political cartoons and games," he said.

"You have to capture the essence of the moment, you can't elaborate very much on it."

Mr Frasca moved back to Uruguay in 2002, where he and a group of friends set up a site called newsgaming.com

By early 2003, the team already had an idea for their first online "newsgame".

Titled September 12th, it was based on the US-led invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.

"It looks just like a shooting game," explained Mr Frasca.

"You have this view from the air, and you have this Middle Eastern town, and you have this target.

"You see civilians walking on the streets, and these little black and white characters that are supposed to be terrorists."

No win situation

The game has some straightforward instructions. Players can shoot, or not. If you decide to shoot, a missile will smash into the targeted area.

Screenshot of September 12th game
The instructions for September 12th offer a stark message
You may kill some terrorists but there is a catch - you will almost certainly kill innocent civilians too.

"What happens is when you kill a civilian, you destroy the houses and environment, but then you see people coming by the dead bodies and they start crying," said Mr Frasca.

"After a while, they transform themselves into terrorists. So, the more you shoot, and the more you destroy, you may kill terrorists, but you will encourage more and more people to become terrorists."

In other words, September 12th is a game you cannot win.

In spite of this, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe have played the game.

They have spread the word about it through online forums and chatrooms.

Teaching tool

For some, games like September 12th herald a new era in gaming.

"Digital media, and particularly digital media of a game simulation type, is going to become one of our staple kinds of expressive media," said Noah Wardrip-Fruin, co-editor of First Person, a book on computer games.

"Newsgaming, instead of some kind of passing fad, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Screenshot of Madrid game
Madrid is a simple yet effective game
"We're going to see a lot more types of expression that use things we're used to seeing in games, but using them in ways that the normal gaming industry wouldn't see as a market opportunity."

Some players love September 12th. They see it as a great teaching tool about the war on terror.

Others hate it, either because they cannot win, or because they feel it dishonours those who died on 11 September.

The team behind the game welcome the resulting debate.

"We're happy when people agree with us, but we're even happier if this can trigger interest in international politics," said Mr Frasca.

The team have already developed a second game commemorating the attacks in Spain on 11 March earlier this year.

Just called Madrid, a silent computer screen shows a group of people holding lighted candles.

The people wear T-shirts reading, "I Love Madrid", "I Love New York" and "I Love Baghdad", - all places where terror has struck.

Your task is to move your mouse and click on as many candles as possible.

When you click on a candle, the flame burns brighter for a brief period of time. The object is simply to create as much light as possible.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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