Can Video Games Save the World?

Time has just published my piece on activism in video games:

There’s a scene in the video game 24, based on the popular television show, in which the player takes on the role of government agent Jack Bauer and tortures a terrorist. To extract a set of codes, Bauer shoots the man in the gut, slams his head on the table, refuses to call a doctor, and places his pistol against his victim’s head.

The violence is exhibit A in a recent report by two Swiss human-rights organizations that examined video games for situations that violated international human-rights laws. “With games, you’re playing for hours performing actions which could in real life be criminal,” says Frida Castillo, the author of the report “Playing by the Rules.” “It’s different from sitting on a couch, eating popcorn and watching a movie.” In addition to torture, the report documented extra-judicial executions, the shooting of injured soldiers and attacks against civilian targets, including mosques and churches. (See the top video games of 2009.)

But rather than just complain about violent games, the report’s authors recommend that game creators weave in elements of international law to draw players into more realistic, immersive situations. “Games could actually be more creative if some of these rules were incorporated,” says Castillo. It’s an idea that’s already catching on. We’ve long known that video games have a unique ability to promote a message; now designers are creating games built not around destroying worlds but saving our own. “Games are growing up,” says Suzanne Seggerman, president of Games for Change, a group promoting games with a positive impact. “People are realizing that they can do a lot more than entertain.”