A new research lab at the Parsons design school aims to develop video games with a conscience and study whether playing so-called serious games can be a force for social good.
PETLab, launched Wednesday, is said to be the first such lab in the United States.
Serious games, which aim to educate, are used to train public officials, students and professionals in various fields. The U.S. military uses games that model terrorist attacks, school hostage crises and natural disasters. Other games teach nonviolent ways of fighting dictators and military occupiers.
PETLab has partnered with Games for Change, a nonprofit group that supports serious game designers.
"We're planting seeds for the next generation of game makers," said Suzanne Seggerman, founder of Games for Change. "How amazing would it be to have 'Fast Food Nation' or 'An Inconvenient Truth' as a video game, where players can actually learn how to make their environment better through the game?"
PETLab director Colleen Macklin said she hopes lab research will make serious games more mainstream.
Lab researchers hope to create more games like the popular "Ayiti: The Cost of Life," developed by the nonprofit Global Kids and tech company GameLab, in which players manage a rural family of five in Haiti. The aim of the game is to keep the family healthy, and players make decisions on whether to save money or spend it on a party or at the store. The family benefits or suffers based on the decisions.
So far, the lab is already working with Microsoft, using the computer company's tool for teaching college students how to create Xbox games.
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The lab also is working with the social arm of MTV's Web site, think.MTV.com, which offers information on the environment, sexual health and immigration, to create games that would be part of the site.
The lab is funded by a $450,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation as part of its initiative to look into how digital technologies are changing the way people learn and socialize.