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New take on the game of life

Computer simulations put players in charge of realistic situations

American soldiers win and lose major battles every day -- on the Internet. "America's Army," a multiplayer combat simulator developed by the US Army and given away for free, has become one of the most popular computer games on earth, with more than 2 million players.

But "America's Army" isn't just a time-wasting shoot-'em-up. It's full of accurate information about military training and tactics, intended to prepare a new generation of potential recruits. Amidst all the shouting drill sergeants and whistling bullets, some real education is going on.

"America's Army" is a "serious game," part of a new wave of computer simulations that provide entertaining lessons about real-world activities. There are plenty more such serious games in the works, ranging from software that lets players control the Massachusetts state budget, to a program that shows how a small town might react to a terrorist attack.

"There's a lot of stuff going on, not only in the US, but globally," said David Rejeski, director of the foresight and governance project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan think tank, which is sponsoring the first Serious Games Day conference in Washington today.

The games offer a solution to one of democracy's most persistent problems: How to inform the public about the complex and sometimes tedious business of governing. Citizens who'd never sit through a boring lecture on civics might stick around to play an amusing but informative game that teaches the same lessons.

Consider the political and fiscal complexities of balancing the Massachusetts state budget. It's a process that leaves most taxpayers mystified. Last January, State Senator Richard T. Moore, a Democrat from Uxbridge, decided to do something about it. He'd heard of a website developed by a Seattle newspaper that let readers draw up their own state budget.

"It sounded like a pretty good way to try to educate the public about the, at the time, $3.5 billion deficit we were facing in Massachusetts," Moore said.

Moore mentioned the website at a meeting of Worcester-area college presidents. Afterward, some students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute contacted him and agreed to create the budget simulator. The result was "MassBalance," a state budget simulator that's available free to the public at www.playmassbalance.com.

"The players' goal is to balance the budget with the minimum number of negative events in the state," said Worcester Polytechnic senior Michael Gesner, lead developer of "MassBalance." "You want to be able to solve the budget problem by really understanding what each of the budget items was about, and realize that it's a series of trade-offs."

Moore said the site got about a million hits in its first few weeks, but took some criticism because the software lets users raise taxes but not lower them. He said the oversight will be repaired in a revision set for next year.

Breakaway Games Ltd. of Hunt Valley, Md. isn't interested in giving away its work. The company, best known for commercial games like "Emperor -- Rise of the Middle Kingdom," hopes to turn a nice profit on "Incident Commander," a new urban disaster simulator set for release this summer.

Breakaway already makes a variety of games for the military. But the US Department of Justice wanted something for the thousands of smaller cities and towns that can't afford to hold large-scale disaster relief drills. Instead, city officials will be able to play "Incident Commander" to "game out" the right response to a hazardous waste spill, a warehouse fire, or even a biological warfare attack.

The Justice Department provided $200,000 in development funding; the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided lots of know-how. When the basic game is completed this summer, 30,000 copies will be mailed out to cities and towns at no charge. But cities that want customized versions, with accurate maps of the local geography, will have to pay several thousand dollars extra. And at some point -- possibly in time for Christmas of 2004 -- Breakaway plans to offer a retail version of "Incident Commander" to the public.

Another Maryland company, Gentle Revolution Software, of Towson, is creating a serious game that's considerably more upbeat. "Space Station: SIM," due for release in about a year, will put players in charge of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The gamer's mission will be to operate the International Space Station, in the face of technical difficulties, budget cuts, and turf disputes with such partner nations as Russia and France. NASA is helping Gentle Revolution develop the game.

Gentle Revolution president Bill Mueller leaves no doubt where his sympathies lie. "One of our missions with this game is to raise awareness with a whole generation of young people about NASA and its mission," he said. "We believe the people at NASA are heroes."

Still, Mueller insists "Space Station: SIM" won't be just a digital ad for more NASA funding. "Making it a propaganda piece for NASA probably wouldn't make it good gameplay," he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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