A Nobel Prize for Donkey Kong?

Game designers vie to save the world.

Thousands of industry professionals have descended on Silicon Valley to ogle the latest physics engines and graphics cards, hear panel discussions like “C++ on Next-Gen Consoles: Effective Code for New Architectures,” and thrill at being in the same room with the guy who made Marble Madness. But the highlight of the annual Game Developers Conference is an epic battle known as the Game Design Challenge.

The challenge is the brainchild of Eric Zimmerman, the CEO of gameLaband the author of several scholarly books on video games. Each year, Zimmerman asks three pre-eminent designers to build a game around some ridiculously ambitious theme. This year, he tasked them with dreaming up something that could win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Zimmerman takes games very seriously, and his contest encourages his colleagues to do so as well. But the loftiness of this challenge is also a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the burgeoning field of didactic interactive software for schools, government, and the military. These new titles are known collectively as “serious games,” a sobriquet that reveals a lot about what game developers think of themselves. They’re quick to defend their medium against the opportunists, windbags, and senators who dismiss games as “murder simulators.” They also feel a bit guilty that their product—unlike movies or books or music—is only expected to deliver mindless fun.

All three of this year’s competitors look like, well, game designers: stubbly, 30-ish guys in T-shirts and hoodies. They all look surprisingly calm, considering that the future of their medium, and maybe the fate of the world, is at stake. The winner also gets a plastic tiara.

The contest’s reigning champ is Will Wright, the ingenious creator of The Sims. Wright has retired from the design challenge after trouncing all comers for two years running. In 2004, he conjured an elegantly simple game built around romance instead of violence, and last year he came up with a fun idea centered on the life and works of Emily Dickinson. After you pull that off, there’s nothing left to prove.

Our first contender this year is Harvey Smith, aka Witchboy. Smith has designed some of the most sophisticated and open-ended games ever made, including the brilliant Deus Ex, which players can beat either by being a coldblooded killer or a pacifist who doesn’t fire a single shot.

After briefly discussing some abandoned concepts—such as Bono’s Africa, a celebrity humanitarian sim—Smith turns his attention to flash mobs. Flash mobs are ad hoc gatherings of people who are summoned to a certain place at a certain time and then melt away just as quickly as they appeared. Noteworthy flash mobs of the recent past have included an impromptu pillow fight in San Francisco and a swarm of people dressed as zombies  in Toronto.(I wonder, though, if Smith heard that the fad’s originator just revealed that the whole thing was a put-on to make hipsters look stupid.)

He proposes a game called PeaceBomb that could harness the fun of flash mobs for good. Players armed with Wi-Fi-enabled Nintendo DS hand-helds would use the game to network and share mob ideas. The game would reward creativity with some sort of point system and help spread the word about real-world actions. Smith envisions PeaceBombinspiring players to gather and perform random acts of charity, petition drives, and Habitat for Humanity-style projects. There’s one thing he admits that he hasn’t quite worked out: how to make the game fun.

Next on the mike is Cliff Bleszinski, the blond, goateed lead designer on the incredibly popular (and fun) Unreal franchise. “Cliffy B” comes into the competition as a dark horse, as he hasn’t shown much of a penchant for inspiring peaceful behavior—in Unreal, players race around an arena trying to “gib” opponents (i.e., blast them into tiny giblets). He also quickly concedes that he’s not a systematic thinker like Will Wright: “I know guns, monsters, bad-ass dudes, and wrecked cars.”

Bleszinski sounds plenty erudite when he cites research into mirror neurons to claim that games can foster a strong sense of identification with on-screen characters. Hence his game Empathy, in which players must assume the role of their enemies. Cliffy B’s target audience members are the dictators and military officials of countries preparing to go to war. They would play as the patriarch of a family that lives in the nation that’s about to be attacked. While struggling to keep their in-game family intact and safe, the despots would learn the human cost of their decisions. Bleszinski is a bit vague on how exactly we could compel people to Empathy. If we could compel bloodthirsty dictators to play a game, couldn’t we just compel them not to be bloodthirsty dictators?

Last up is Japan’s Keita Takahashi. He doesn’t have a cool nickname but doesn’t really need one. It’s enough that he created the otherworldly Katamari Damacy, a game whose protagonist rolls around a sticky ball that gloms up like-sized objects like paper clips, spoons, and thimbles. Your ball gradually expands until you’re snagging cruise ships, football stadiums, and skyscrapers. The premise is radically simple and doesn’t involve punching, stabbing, or gibbing. If Vegas took bets on this contest, Takahashi would be the early-line favorite.

Takahashi says that the key to peace is love, and what his industry can offer is the love of video games. He illustrates this “naive, pure, wonderful and silly love” with photos of his fans, who are fond of dressing up like the characters in his game. Takahashi’s response to the design challenge is more prescriptive than descriptive. He exhorts his fellow designers to make products that can overcome the barriers of language and culture. We should strive to remove impediments that halt the spread of gaming, he says—pesky problems like poverty, starvation, and disease. One of Takahashi’s slides explains that he wants to bring “everyone in the world the luxury of playing games using natural power.” It’s accompanied by an image of black, red, green, and blue children gathered around a wind-powered television and a solar-powered game console.

The results are determined by audience acclaim: Smith’s PeaceBombwins, Takahashi’s nameless meanderings place, and Bleszinski’s Empathy shows. Will Wright hands off the plastic tiara. Zimmerman ends the event as he does every year, with the inspirational phrase: “There’s no reason why any of these game designs could not be realized.”

I bought that takeaway in previous years. When Will Wright delivered his ingenious ideas, the brilliance of the concept and the excitement of the crowd made the game designs seem workable and even fun. But these Nobel projects just don’t seem plausible.

I don’t blame the developers—after all, no movie or album has won the Peace Prize either. A serious-minded film can be “good for you” even if it’s not entertaining, but a serious-minded video game has to be fun enough to get people excited about playing it. The most credible “serious game” to date is A Force More Powerful, which incorporates techniques used in events like the Serbian resistance movement to teach players how to engage in nonviolent conflict. But developers must contend with the fact that it’s a lot more fun to wield a gun than to practice nonviolence.

To get a sense of what the gaming industry is up against, simply check out the official Web site of the Nobel Prize, which actually features video games. I loaded up The Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and clicked “Start Disarmament Mission.” After a few minutes guiding a squad of rocket-propelled peace doves and answering trivia questions about the Limited Test Ban Treaty, I quit out of frustration. This peace game didn’t make me want to save the world. It made me want to gib somebody.