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Q&A: Microsoft's Bell Talks XNA Global Warming Game Challenge

As part of today's in-depth feature on the Games For Change conference, Gamasutra sat down with Microsoft's Jeff Bell to discuss the company's new XNA-rela
As part of today's in-depth feature on the Games For Change conference, Gamasutra sat down with Microsoft's Jeff Bell to discuss the company's new XNA-related Games For Change Challenge. Bell, who is Global VP of Interactive Marketing at Microsoft, announced the Xbox 360 Games for Change Challenge at the New York conference earlier this week, a competition that challenges university students around the world to design a game around the theme of global warming. Students will design their entries using Microsoft’s XNA Game Studio Express, and the winners, announced next August in Paris, will receive cash prizes and the opportunity to present their games to Microsoft’s games management team for possible inclusion as a download on Xbox Live Arcade. The team or individual that places first will also receive an internship with Microsoft’s Interactive Games business group. Bell knows a thing or two about games — he’s a Level 14 Master Chief in the Halo 3 Beta, and just crossed 100,000 points in the new championship version of Pac-Man. Formerly involved with “adver-gaming” — games as advertisement — a little over a year ago at Daimler-Chrysler, he’s also got experience with the versatile concept of serious games, and the potential of games as informative tools. Coincidentally, Bell and Games for Change president Suzanne Seggerman are former classmates, who were able to reconnect and collaborate on this joint initiative. Following Expo Night, we sat down with Bell for an interview about Microsoft’s involvement with Games for Change: How did you become involved with the Games for Change project? The Xbox 360 had a different strategy than the first Xbox; you could see from the marketing tagline, “Jump In”—it’s invitational. It’s trying to increase its approachability. One of the things in the back of my mind was, ‘what can we do around social gaming and education?’ Because I could see the power of it. We think that the power of Microsoft is beyond the purse; that it’s very deeply ingrained in the fact that we’re a technology company, and we make software that improves people’s lives. So we wanted to use the XNA Express, which is a free download, as a slow but steady move towards democratization of our gaming industry. We wanted to focus with Games for Change on something that was dealing with an issue or challenge of the real world, and we chose the environment, because it’s such a large issue in popular culture right now. You have kids ages 10, 14 and 18 — do you use them as a barometer? Absolutely. And they’re very different; it’s very interesting to me. In fact, I’d say my 18-year-old, in some ways, is starting to move away from playing games as he’s become more engaged in reading, debate and social issues. So, that tells you that to continue to engage that demographic, you need to make the graduation with him into social issues. Exactly. My 14-year-old plays quite a bit of World of Warcraft; he’s a level 70 dwarf tank warrior, or something like that. And there, again, the thing that I found very enlightening is that he uses it as a way to communicate for free with his friends back in Detroit. So they all play together, and communicate in their text messaging — and there, again, they’re looking for something a little bit more interesting than just learning how to beat the big boss in each level. Why does Microsoft care about this idea of socially-conscious gaming? Well, I’d say that it’s not a new thing. We have been very interested in safety and security in the world of computing for some time. When you have as large a role to play in the operating systems of the world’s computing as we do, then you have to take larger issues very seriously, and we continue to be committed to that with the Xbox. Because we’re such leaders in the world of Xbox Live, we also know that we have a responsibility to the community. We’ve always taken very seriously the safety and security role; I think that now, we’ve moved from putting the tools in place, raising awareness and education for parents and others playing games about ratings and controls—now, we’re moving towards content. So if you have these positive messages, and these socially-conscious games, it’s good PR for the gaming industry in general. It is; without any question; there’s a positive ecosystem overall. Age of Empires — my kids love that game. And they’d come tell me that they were learning about Genghis Khan, and the history of his leadership. And they’re learning from [the game]. Lightbulbs are going off. And when they get excited about learning, discovering this practical application of games, it makes them want to consume more games… Exactly. It’s a very virtuous cycle. The ethic of service is a nice idea. On the other hand, for this kind of vision to actually materialize in reality, these games need to translate to being viable on the commercial market—and there seems to be a general consensus that they’re not there yet. Any of these developers can use XNA to create a game and upload it to Xbox Live — but what do you think these organizations and these game developers need to do to get to the point where they’re actually working for you? Absolutely, they’re not there yet. But we’re not looking, with this first step, to do anything other than empower and motivate people that love gaming, and love these social issues, to use gaming to try and drive awareness and education and participation. I don’t know if our vision is that different than the ones that came out of file-sharing ideas like Napster, or even YouTube. It’s a democratization of content—and we’re just starting. I wish I could tell you that I knew for sure that [these games] were all going to be great, but we will make available the Xbox Live Arcade ecosystem to present these games for people to play them—assuming that they’re of a quality that it’s not embarrassing to their creators, or to the community of participants within this challenge. Will you be establishing standardized quality benchmarks? Well, I’m interested, in the course of the next year, to explore the notion of a peer review. I think that’s really a strong idea. We have a Creators’ Club now where people are participating with XNA Express—but ultimately, yes. I think both external to Microsoft, as well as Microsoft Games Studio’s experts — we need to have a jury that’s going to make the final decision on who are the best games. And then, I’m confident that these will be engaging and terribly wonderful games that we will be able to put onto Xbox Live Arcade for everyone to enjoy. What are Microsoft’s plans for continuing involvement in this arena? We certainly are committed to this conference and through next year, and we’re hoping that from small things, big things grow. We really want it to succeed, and this is just the first of many initiatives promoting the breadth of the game development community. The depth is there—this is no way a criticism of our partners, who are clearly on the vanguard of tech. But we are using this as a way to increase breadth specifically, and explore new genres. [Further information on the 2007 Games for Change conference, which took place earlier this week in New York, is available in Gamasutra's newly posted in-depth feature on the subject.]

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