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The Academic Word: 'Saving the Planet through Gaming'

This week's The Academic Word column from educational site Game Career Guide sees Thunderbird Robotics developer and former DigiPen teacher Tyler Folsom discussing why we need games that "get the message across
This week's The Academic Word column from educational site Game Career Guide sees Thunderbird Robotics developer and former DigiPen teacher Tyler Folsom discussing why we need games that "get the message across" on climate education. The Thunderbird Robotics team is using simulation based on Unreal Tournament as part of its strategy to win the DARPA Grand Challenge in November 2007. "I'm not teaching [at DigiPen] this semester, so there are no students to lay this on. If I had a class, I might start with this. Indulge me in a bit of philosophy at the start of the semester. The rest of the course will be technical and we will put social concerns in the background. DigiPen is a secular institution. Yet in a sense it is spiritual. None of us would be here if we were just materialists. If you want to maximize the amount of money that you earn, you will go into a computer science field other than games. If my motivation were just to maximize my income, I would not be teaching here. Economic materialists think that the only rational justification for an action is measured in dollars. How many of you have parents who would prefer that you be an accountant, lawyer or doctor? These are fine professions, but if your heart isn't in it, it's not for you. Making more money doesn't make it right. You are here because you love games. That is a non-materialistic value. You think that having fun can be more important than acquiring profits and power. For you the bottom line is not just in dollars. You are willing to spend much money and sacrifice long hours to make a career of doing what you love. You don't want to be earning big bucks in a mind-numbing job that you hate. The video game industry has been criticized for violence. It is no more violent than our TV, movies, books or society. You are not assassins or mercenaries in training. In fact, you are less mercenary than most workers because you believe in the value of having fun. Paradoxically, playing a virtual death match may be less harmful than riding a real snowmobile. You know that you are just blasting away at pixels. Having fun is a non-materialistic value. The bean-counters may do their balance sheets showing that a game corporation can return a profit, but that is not why we are here. Most of us would be doing this if we gave our game away on the Internet, provided that we had some outside income that kept body and soul together. We like having fun and we want to make fun games for our friends. I have started contributing software though the open source movement. I am fortunate to have earned enough money working commercially that I don't need to bring in more money. I am doubly fortunate to recognize how much is enough. Non-commercial production of software has an entirely different feel. The project on which I am presently working is sponsored by the military but I see the major application as civilian. If cars can drive themselves, then our freeways can have platoons of cars following each other by inches, NASCAR style. This greatly cuts down on fuel consumption and increases the volume that highways can handle without pouring more concrete. If the cars are hybrids, the lead car may need gasoline, but the followers can run on electricity. Simulation is an important part of this effort and NIST is involved. Part of my recent experience has been a strong Canadian connection. A poll taken November 10-16 2006 by Ipsos Reid for the Vancouver Sun asked 300 adults whether they agreed with the statement: "I am desperately concerned that if we don't take drastic action on climate change / global warming right now, the world may not last much longer than another couple of generations because of the damage that is being done." The result? 72% totally agree. This is scary. Forget about having kids; it's game over. I think that gaming and simulation is one of the best approaches to slowing climate change. We only have a short time to put the brakes on. We don't know exactly how to do that or what will be most effective. If you can build an accurate prediction via a game, and put it in the hands of millions of people, we might have a chance. If you do that, you can make money, save the planet and have fun. We need serious games for our leaders. We also need fun games that get the message across. Suppose that a school program were to spend a year on an ecological focus. At DigiPen, we have found that incorporating game production into the curriculum is a great focus around which to teach toward a BS/MS in Computer Science or a BFA in Art. Suppose K-12 education took up the same trick. Make students play a game for a year and analyze why some techniques help more than others in slowing climate change. When kids start badgering their parents to take action, it will happen. My first job offer was from the Defense Communications Agency. The location was the Pentagon, outside of Washington, DC. The task was to model the after-effects of a nuclear war. I didn't have any other job offer at the time, so I turned it down. I didn't want to make that my daily reality. The reality that you are facing may be almost as unpleasant. I think that you can improve the outcome through simulation. Go for it!" [Tyler Folsom has taught at DigiPen Institute of Technology for several years. He has left to work with the Thunderbird Robotics team at University of British Columbia.]

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