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Feature: Real World Gaming

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Video games have traditionally been used as a fun and colourful way to escape the mundane realities of everyday life. Gaming offers people the chance to live out fantasies and step into the shoes of somebody or something completely different. Gamers have become military commanders, sports stars, badass fighters, plucky plumbers and even blobs of goo (with no shoes), and players have been tasked with everything from shooting down hordes of alien invaders, to rescuing a princess who has been koopa-kidnapped for the hundredth time.

However, if the recent success of titles such as Brain Training and Wii Fit are anything to go by, games can be about so much more than high scores and body counts. Games are increasingly being used to educate, enhance, train and recruit, in both the high street titles that we see topping the charts and within schools and professional organisations that are keen to find new ways to engage the minds of staff and students.

Digital Spy takes a look at some of the different ways in which developers have managed to transcend traditional video game boundaries and at some of the titles and companies that have created video games with real world applications.

In November 2008 the US Army announced that it was preparing to invest $50 million into video game training software. The Army isn't planning to release military action titles such as Call Of Duty en masse, but is instead looking at purchasing a state-of-the-art game engine that can accurately recreate combat situations for the purpose of training new recruits.

The US Army already uses FPS title DARWARS Ambush to train soldiers in how to deal with roadside ambushes and bomb attacks, and it is now looking to upgrade the slightly outdated technology of DARWARS to something that can incorporate virtual reality-based battlefields and the Army's actual satellite tracking equipment.

In 2002, following years of declining enlistment figures, the US Army also built a realistic game called America's Army, which was available to play through its recruitment website. The game was a huge success and piqued the interest of many of its teenage target audience. According to The Nation, the game, along with an aggressive marketing campaign, helped the army to fulfil its recruitment quota after falling short in the years prior to its release.

The key to success for the US Army's video game division is realism and immersion. Playing as a soldier and rescuing POWs on the back of elephants in Metal Slug 3 is enormous fun, but try doing that in a real-life hostage situation and it's safe to assume that neither you nor the elephant will make it home in one piece. The US Army games give a completely safe and realistic account of soldiering and offer personal feedback on a one-on-one basis, without the need for additional manpower and personal supervision.

In the Army's case, increased realism is essential and greater levels of learning come with technological advancements. However, despite the Army's need for better technology, Graeme Duncan, CEO of Caspian Learning, told us that game-based learning has been around for quite some time, even before the advent of 3D worlds and textures.

"Gaming methodologies have been used in learning for a long while. While the technologies used now are new, the idea and principles behind the use of games in learning have been around for a long while."

Caspian Learning is a 'serious games' company that creates 3D learning and training titles with its 'Thinking Worlds' game engine and delivers them through the web. As well as more adult-themed training software including Oil Rig Safety, it has also created more colourful, child-friendly titles such as the award-winning Rome In Danger. The purpose of the game is to teach children about Ancient Rome and it does so with historically accurate information, locations and characters, but mixes them with a fantasy narrative involving time travel and supervillains.

The game has been applauded for its ability to revitalise a subject such as history, with Duncan agreeing that games such as Rome In Danger can take serious issues and make them engaging and fun.

"One of the main problems with traditional learning has been a lack of learner engagement - games help solve this problem. Our games are 'serious games' and dramatically transform levels of learner engagement whilst dealing with serious issues."

In addition to increased levels of engagement, Duncan believes that games allow for greater context immersion, the ability to practise in real time, and also the ability to offer personal feedback and progress measurement. Duncan also speculates that using games in learning is likely to increase in popularity and appeal especially among "the digital natives and generation workforce that is starting to pervade the workplace".

Despite the long institutional success of learning titles, mainstream popularity has taken much longer to achieve. Educational games such as Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? managed a degree of success throughout the '80s and '90s, but it wasn't until Dr Kawashima's Brain Training and Wii Fit hit the shelves that educational and self-improvement titles became commercial giants.

The key to Brain Training and Wii Fit's success is its ability to appeal, in the same way as the DS and Wii itself, to a new audience. The games were released at a time when the public's awareness of health issues were at an all-time high, but, most importantly of all, both Brain Training and Wii Fit present their objectives in a bite-sized and user-friendly manner, which results in a highly engaged userbase.

Nintendo has identified its target market and has been able to transfer its innovative hardware ethos into its titles and timed it all to perfection. Interestingly, despite the radical aesthetic differences, the same characteristics that can be found in the US Army and Caspian Learning's 'serious titles' can also be found within Nintendo's. Immersion is generally a given within video games and by using Miis and personal profiles Nintendo games achieve this. The concepts are also just as real in Nintendo's games, but they are presented differently. And finally, constant updates and feedback means that players know exactly how they are progressing.

It's a far cry from filling in a crossword puzzle with more letters than spaces or doing 20 sit-ups a day without feeling the burn or benefits.

However, real-world applications within games aren't always intentional. Before the release of the highly successful Football Manager 2009, Sports Interactive announced that it had sold the exclusive rights to the Football Manager database to Everton FC. The game draws information from 1,000 scouts around the world and the makers claim that it has been used for years as a research tool by managers.

"We’ve known for a while that teams use the game to research certain players, whether to buy or to check out the opposition, but this formal recognition by a Premiership team is fantastic," said Sports Interactive studio director Miles Jacobson.

It's unlikely that this was Sports Interactive's original aim when it created the series, but it shows that by creating an accurate simulation of its subject matter, game-based technology can be transferable to the real world. It also makes you wonder, could Football Manager maestros make it as real managers? I'm sure many of us have thought we can take on Fergie and Wenger after guiding Scunthorpe to the Champions League within the game.

Not every game can be applied to the real world quite so radically, but even on a small scale games such as Pong can offer simple improvements to our hand-to-eye coordination, while bullet-laden titles such as Ikaruga can test our memory retention and reflexes through the learning of enemy attack patterns. It all goes to show that whether intentional or not, many games have the ability to serve more purposes than they initially set out to, and contain physical and mental objectives and outcomes that can theoretically be applied to the real world.

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