The students at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center live and breathe video games. But it's not all about making games or playing them: Plenty of intensive work goes into their research. Some of ETC's most interesting products are serious business: They're designed to raise awareness of social and global issues through rich, complex and immersive interactive experiences.
The ETC is a graduate program that combines research in several disciplines -- including technology, programming, animation and storytelling. Students work in teams on three research projects to complete the requirements for the master of entertainment technology degree.
In the fall 2012 semester, Atomic Zone was designed for the Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center, a program within the United States Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, the medical research arm of the Department of Defense. TATRC's goal is to use Atomic Zone for future medical training simulations in how to deal with nuclear disasters. Atomic Zone is one of several projects ETC is doing for TATRC under a multiyear research contract. The team delivered a working prototype to TATRC in December 2012.
The aim is to highlight the human element of nuclear warfare and the power of nuclear weaponry. The interactive experience accurately simulates nuclear destruction and its effects on people and places. The team re-created the impact zone around Hiroshima, Japan, following the atomic bombing in August 1945 during World War II. The landscape is rendered in 3-D using mapping tools, photographs and archival materials.
"Part of what spurred Atomic Zone is the need to educate people about the event and about the horrific consequences of nuclear warfare. It's an event of unimaginable magnitude," said ETC professor Scott Stevens, who served as faculty adviser on the project. "[People] don't realize what that event was like and the world as a whole doesn't realize that it's just as likely to happen today as it was during the height of the Cold War."
When completed, Atomic Zone could serve as a training tool for Army medical personnel who have no exposure to what it would be like to be in a city that has experienced a nuclear strike, and to help them decide how to triage the injured. And it could potentially be expanded for use in schools as a history teaching tool.
Future Tech was initiated by Firaxis Games, developer of the popular "Sid Meier's Civilization" -- a complex strategy game in which players guide their civilization from prehistoric times into the future, working with factors like economic development, education, science, infrastructure, expansion and how they relate with other evolving civilizations.
Future Tech is a modification for Civilization V, and its goal is to raise awareness of real world issues using the virtual Civilization game environment. The modification creates a new layer for the game, using the issue of human trafficking and child labor. Players have to make choices during the game -- for example, whether to send children to work in the mines. They learn that there are consequences if they do: For example, profits go up, but so do accidents.
The ETC team gave a final presentation to Firaxis in December 2012. There are plans to revisit the project, using it to highlight other social issues.
Beyond Interactions is a new project being launched this semester for Games for Change, a New York-based organization founded in 2004 to help foster the creation of social impact games.
Beyond Interactions will explore the problem of trying to get people to engage and enact change. The mission is to come up with a prototype that could engage large crowds of people at once.
The project is still in its earliest stages: the team has met with the client and is starting the brainstorming process.
ETC plans to present Beyond Interactions at the annual Games for Change conference this summer.
Research into games like these isn't new, and some of it has been the launching pad for some of ETC's spinoff companies. PeaceMaker, a 2005 ETC project, simulates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the players' objective is to resolve it peacefully. PeaceMaker is highly regarded in the gaming community as an example of serious social applications for games.
Two of the students on the PeaceMaker team -- Asi Burak and Eric Brown -- decided to continue the project. They launched Pittsburgh-based Impact Games in 2007. Mr. Burak is now president of Games for Change. Mr. Brown is president of Hybrid Learning Systems, another local company, which acquired Impact Games in 2010.
Correction/Clarification:(Posted Feb. 19, 2013)In an earlier version of this story, the Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) was incorrectly identified.
Adrian McCoy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1865. First Published February 17, 2013 5:00 AM