A new research lab at the prestigious Parsons design school in New York City aims to develop video games with a conscience—called “serious games”—and study whether playing them can be a force for social good.

The games, which aim to educate, would be used to train and teach students, public officials, and professionals in various fields.

The U.S. military, for example, trains with games that model terrorist attacks, school hostage crises, and natural disasters. And digital games, such as SimSchool and the STAR Classroom Simulator, also are used to train some school teachers and administrators.

Director Colleen Macklin hopes research at Parsons The New School of Design’s PETLab, launched Dec. 12 and made up of students and faculty, will make serious games like these more mainstream.

“Our goal is really to create intersections between game design, social issues, and learning,” she said.

PETLab, one of the first such efforts in the country, will create models of new types of games or interactive designs that address social issues. It also will research whether playing the games helps effect positive social change.

It is funded by a $450,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation as part of the foundation’s study of how digital technologies are changing the way people learn and socialize.

Lab researchers hope to create more games such as the popular “Ayiti: The Cost of Life,” developed by the nonprofit Global Kids and tech company GameLab, in which players manage life for a virtual family of five in rural Haiti. The object of the game is to make spending decisions—saving money vs. throwing a party vs. buying food—that keep the family healthy.

PETLab has partnered with Games for Change, a nonprofit group that supports serious game designers and provides a forum for designers to show off their work.

“We’re planting seeds for the next generation of game makers,” said Suzanne Seggerman, founder of Games for Change. “How amazing would it be to have Fast Food Nation or An Inconvenient Truth as a video game, where players can actually learn how to make their environment better through the game?”

So far, the lab is working with Microsoft Corp., studying whether the software maker’s Xbox game-development tool could be modified to create socially conscious games.

PETLab will work with the Microsoft toolkit XNA Express to create a curriculum through which universities nationwide can use the Xbox platform to make public-interest games. Currently, 150 universities reportedly use the Xbox/XNA game development platform for introductory instruction in the computer sciences.

PETLab will develop a prototype and test a curriculum emphasizing aspects of game design and digital literacy, as well as create a series of games around real-world issues as part of a “Game Designer Kit,” officials say. This will be made available as open-source material for other universities to adopt and expand.

The lab also is working with the social arm of MTV’s web site, think.MTV.com, which offers information on the environment, sexual health, and immigration. And it is designing tutorials on creating games for young people.


Parsons The New School of Design

Games for Change

Global Kids