What if we used the technology behind videogames for purposes other than to play? Why isn't this happening more?
Ultimately, gaming engines are a medium. Just like the printed word and pictures, moving images, or audio. Videogame technology in fact, is arguably the only completely new medium to have emerged in the past twenty years, if you're in the camp that believes that the internet is only a mashup of other existing media such as print, video and audio, with added navigational and participative functionality.
A videogame environment, on the other hand, is a virtual, three dimensional navigable space that responds in a number of ways to multiple simultaneous inputs from the user. A videogame creates a wholly unique experience where information is continually exchanged between the system and the user in a way quite unlike any other medium. Playing Call of Duty gives you a completely different way to experience World War 2 from watching films about it or reading books or comics or web sites. It's a genuinely different and credible medium of communication that offers many experiential aspects that other traditional media simply cannot.
The question is, then, why do we use it only for play?
The printed word is used for innumerable applications – to entertain, educate, inform. We have novels, biographies, advertisements, instruction manuals, textbooks, newspapers, comics and porn. Ditto the moving picture. We can choose between watching Governor Schwarzenegger battle aliens, some guy explaining the right way to use fertilizers, or vicariously explore the jungles of the Amazon. We have documentaries, blockbusters, cartoons, and abominable horrors such as corporate motivational-videos!
But the games medium (for lack of a better word) has just games, with a few notable exceptions. Underutilized potential? Perhaps.
Flight trainers use game technology to train pilots. Some armed forces and police units are using videogames to train their personnel in tactics and combat techniques. And educational institutions are finally waking up to the potential of using games as effective teaching tools in a variety of ways.
But these are exceptions, novelties, news-items. These applications for videogame technology are hardly as mainstream as documentary films or educational publications which enjoy far greater parity with their entertainment counterparts.
There is a need for the industry as a whole to separate the medium from the message, and wake up to the potential of using gaming technology and techniques to impart new kinds of experiences, apart from purely fun-oriented products that are now the norm.
With so many experts shouting from the rooftops about how experiential learning is superior to a classroom environment in so many ways, it's a great opportunity for game developers. With gaming technology so sophisticated today that it can deliver so many unique interactive experiences and virtual simulations, there is no reason why it cannot be used to deliver experiential learning solutions of many kinds.
Just think – a virtual survival experience for geography students where they have to use tools available in the wilderness to survive harsh conditions and fierce beasts. A retail management simulation where a store manager has to efficiently manage a very large supermarket. Fire drills for workers in large buildings where they have to memorize escape routes and procedures in a virtual replica of their own building. The possibilities are endless, and the techbology is already here and affordable.
In breaking out of the 'game' mindset, we can take our industry places that it deserves to be in – proudly sitting beside print, audio-visual and hypermedia as an important medium that has many crucial uses.