Putting play to work: Agencies find creative new uses for online games

At Army recreation centers overseas, a soldier can relieve tension with a few hands of poker on a gaming machine, but the service and other government agencies also offer electronic games for teaching purposes:
  • The Army has fielded a popular computer game to teach potential recruits about military life.

  • The Justice Department has contracted with a commercial game company to build a first-responder simulation for law enforcement.
  • The Massachusetts Revenue Department has invited taxpayers to try to balance its financial ledger.
  • NASA has helped develop a commercial space station game.

Across all levels of government, organizations are borrowing techniques and tools from the commercial gaming industry, said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association.

The software gaming industry, which rang up $6.9 billion in sales in 2002, has devoted a lot of effort to finding the best ways to get humans to interact with computers, Lowenstein said.

Since its debut in July 2002, 'America's Army: The Official U.S. Army Game,' has drawn 2.4 million users who have taken part in more than 30 million sessions, said Maj. Bret Wilson, the support operations officer for the game.

The first-person shooter game is available both online and as a download. To reach the combat zones, users must pass basic rifle tests, obstacle courses and other training exercises.

The Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis chose the game approach to show civilians what Army life is like, Wilson said. It built up scenarios for a virtual tour of duty through basic training and combat, using the rendering engine from the Unreal game, licensed from Epic Games Inc. of Raleigh, N.C.

The office contracted with a hosting company to make 300 servers available for thousands of simultaneous users. It also has ported the source code to Linux in hopes that other sites will host the game.

The office maintains an authentication gateway so that players on external hosts can accrue honor points'a way of competing against other players.

Public awareness was also the driving force behind Massachusetts' game, MassBalance. The idea came from state Sen. Richard Moore, who wanted constituents to know how difficult it is to balance a state budget. A student gaming club at Worcester Polytechnic Institute wrote the code in nine weeks, using mostly open-source tools such as the PHP server scripting language and the Gnu Image Manipulation Program, game producer Michael Gesner said.

Also on the public-awareness front, NASA signed an agreement with Gentle Revolution Software Inc. of Towson, Md., to help build a new software game, tentatively titled Space Station Sim.

The game, to be released in June for Sony PlayStation, will give users a chance to manage space station life, from feeding and training astronauts to mediating the interests of the participating nations. NASA hopes to raise awareness and respect for its mission, said Bill Mueller, president of Gentle Revolution Software.

On the training side, the Justice Department gave a $200,000 grant to BreakAway Ltd. of Hunt Valley, Md., to build a basic incident management game for first responders, said Doug Whatley, chief executive officer of BreakAway.

The Incident Commander game prompts public-safety managers and field workers to think about how they will respond to common emergencies. The first release will feature school shooting, hazardous spill and weather disaster scenarios, Whatley said. Players must allocate resources and set priorities about which aspects of a disaster to handle first.

Justice plans to distribute 30,000 of the games on CD-ROM to first-response agencies.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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