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GDC: The Game Design Challenge: The Nobel Peace Prize

March 24, 2006
 

Will Wright, the former champ bowed out from participating this year.

Only in its third year here at the Game Developers Conference, the annual Game Design Challenge is already one of the highlights of the lecture series. Like years previous, the contestants presented their ideas before a packed house. Unlike year previous, one of those contestants was not Will Wright.

Will, explained host Eric Zimmerman of gameLab, insisted that he be able to step quietly out of the challenge for this year rather than defend his title, as he did successfully last year in a challenge involving licensing Emily Dickinson's poetry. While Eric had little problem granting that request, he couldn't let Will be totally out of the limelight during this year's challenge: the sight of Will being crowned with a shiny tiara garnered roars of applause from the appreciative crowd.

This year, three new contestants had a shot to take the tiara away from Will. First was Harvey Smith, Studio Creative Director at Midway, most famous for his work in the Deus Ex and Thief series of games. Next was Cliff Bleszinski, Lead Designer at Epic Games who continues to work on the Unreal series. Third was Keita Takahashi of Namco, creator of the hit Katamari Damacy series.

The Game Design Challenge that faced these designers was, like previous years, spawned as a commentary to the current state of the game industry. Issues of violence and emotional space in games led to the first challenge: create a love story. Licensing activity and questions created the second: what to do with the Emily Dickinson license. In light of the Game Developers Conference's Serious Games track as well as the recent formation of many serious games organizations and gatherings, this year's challenge pushes game designers to create a game that involves the Nobel Peace Prize in some way. The game need not be designed explicitly to win the fabled prize; other valid approaches include coercing players into winning the prize or creating a game about the Nobel Peace Prize.


From left to right: Eric Zimmerman, Harvey Smith, Cliff Bleszinski, and Keita Takahashi.

Before the contest went underway, Eric noted the irony and relatedness of Nobel's pacifist ways. Alfred Nobel is most noted for instituting the Nobel Prizes as well as for inventing dynamite. Dynamite and the explosive concoctions that followed afterward were chief among Nobel's methods of attaining worldwide peace. His reasoning was that as weapons become increasingly powerful, there would be a point at which waging war would not be feasible to anyone in the world; with the impossibility of war, the world will be at peace.

After anecdotes like this and a few playful verbal jabs between Eric and the contestants, the contest began with Harvey Smith.

Harvey began by talking about video games that changed society for the better and noted happily that there are some excellent examples out there. He described two particular ones that impressed him: Escape from Woomera (www.escapefromwoomera.org) which has the player attempt to flee from a refugee detention center in Australia and Beyond Manzanar (www.mission-base.com/manzanar) which depicts the Manzanar Internment Camp in a virtual reality installation. Both of these he found really moving and influential in his design process.

His process, however, seemed to come up with ideas that just wouldn't click with him, and he shared these rejected ideas with the audience to much thought and a good deal of laughter. Among the rejected ideas were: a Subvert-the-Nobel game where the player works for an evil corporation and must win the Nobel prize through nefarious means like killing Asian Bird Flu carriers through the use of oil spills; a cute life-sim critter that teaches kids healthy moral concepts for their daily lives; Bono's Africa, a sort of inverse war game that has players ending chaos in African countries through the One campaign.

Eventually, he turned back to one of his earliest ideas and ran with it. He quickly explained to the audience the concept of flash mobs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob) and presented his idea that used this as the core mechanic: Peace Bomb. Harvey conceived Peace Bomb as a web-enhanced Nintendo DS title that had players creating social networks not unlike those in place in conventional MMO games. The game however isn't in the social networking so much as it is in the constructive projects that it can engender. The game is designed to spill into the real world by having flash mobs erupt out of the wheeling and dealing that happens in the virtual space. The social networking happens not just over TCP/IP, but also over a sort of sneaknet, where people get together to do constructive projects on various levels.

Ideally, the game would create many, many little and not-so-little project groups all over the world that would plant, clean, or build spontaneously. Peace Bomb could also leverage groups like Habitat for Humanity to build its projects around. While Harvey didn't talk much about the lower-level game dynamic, he noted that the game would have to be incredibly fun to spread the way it should to create the needed sneaknet infrastructure. With that size also comes meaning; "I wanted a game that affords the player a sense of higher purpose," he said.

Cliff Bleszinski started off his presentation by looking at how he evaluated himself as a game designer and looking at the types of projects that he probably wouldn't be designing: distributed projects like Folding@home, Spore-like behemoths, and nuclear proliferation sims. What he does do is shoot from the hip and loves pop culture and war movies. He understood that games are good at both teaching and engaging, and his design had an interesting take on who to teach.

His game, Empathy, has players play the role of a civilian patriarch of a family of five in a nation that is on the brink of war and eventually thrown into chaos. The goal of the game is to keep your family alive and intact, while the goal of the design is to facilitate the perception of "collateral damage" as human life. Throughout the game, the player interacts with his family and tries to maintain a sense of normalcy in the family's world. Also the player must leave the safety of home from time to time in order to gather essentials like food and candles to keep his family alive. You can finish the game by either surviving the war or successfully escaping it with your family, or you can lose it by dying, getting captured, or having a family member leave.

Notable was the fact that this game would be targeted toward war combatants and heads of industrialized nations. Everyone from local police to fighter pilots would be required to play this game. Even the commander-in-chief would be forced to play, under some sort of UN resolution requiring mandatory play time. Imagine what it would be life for state officials' score to be available for public scrutiny.

Keita Takahashi was the last of the contestants, and he decided to compound the game design challenge with a challenge of his own; his highly-animated Powerpoint presentation began with the title card changing "Game Design Challenge 2006" to "My English Challenge 2006" much to the audience's enjoyment.

Keita began by talking about how games already achieve peace; they do it by creating love: a love for the games themselves. He presented many pictures of people having fun costuming as characters from Katamari Damacy. A video from Mega64 featuring a guy dressed as the game's Prince character rolling a large ball around a neighborhood elicited cheers from the audience. "I still believe we can become close to world peace if everyone believes in love… The existence of games themselves leads to peace."


Keita Takahashi's vision of peace

Despite the overwhelming amount of love for games that must be around, because there are a lot of gamers out there, Keita still finds that it is only among close circles of friends. We should strive to create games that cross language and cultural borders. To not do so, "it is almost a crime!" he says.

With that in mind, however, Keita sees that there are still many people around the world that are too busy dealing with the problems of life to have fun with games. War, poverty, disease, and starvation must be addressed before we can even begin to bring games to their worlds. "We have to create [an] environment to play games!" Once we have that, we can bring the games, TVs, generators, and cosplay costumes that Keita sees as key to having love and peace.

Throughout the presentation, Keita had his unique art fill the Powerpoint presentation, and the audience responded with laughter and applause. At the end of his presentation, he said, "If we are going to the trouble of spreading games around the world, we can't make games like this." The last slide featured a group of his characters sitting down saying things like "Boring" "Crappy" and "Cheesy."


Transfering the crown to the new champion.

After an audience voting session consisting of Will and Eric making the extremely close call of audience's cheering for the contestants' names, the tiara went to Harvey Smith, who graciously accepted the award from the previous champion. It was an entertaining session for everyone involved, and many designers who were in attendance today are looking forward to how Harvey will defend his title in next year's Game Design Challenge.

 

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