Video games, once the domain of teens and Gen X-ers, have come of age, and so has their fan base. Deloitte’s 2009 report, "State of Media Democracy," shows that nearly half of all baby boomers own console videogames, up from under one-third in 2006.
The games have changed dramatically over the decades. Today they’re designed to be played anytime, almost anywhere — and they’re far less likely to feature ultraviolence than emotionally gripping story lines.
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Some games go even further, however, abandoning the “lone hero trying to save a virtual world’’ theme and inspiring gamers to collaborate — if not to actually save the real world, then perhaps to do something to improve it. These videogames are ideal for mature players who enjoy gaming but don't want to "waste" their time on mindless activities.
The following 10 video games, mostly free downloads, can raise your awareness of key political and economic situations, build civic pride and personal resilience, and even help scientists solve problems. Some are created by highly distinguished people, including one former Supreme Court justice. Even if you don’t save any lives, you can at least enjoy some “enlightened entertainment."
1. Darfur Is Dying: Released in April 2006, this first “game for good" raised awareness of the crisis in Sudan and galvanized international support. Users assume the role of a family trying to survive in a Sudanese refugee camp, and their decisions affect their fate. This game, which is available online on almost any web browser, was played more than a million times in its first half-year alone. 1 player; any computer that runs Adobe Flash Player; free.
2. Food Force: The U.N.'s World Food Program funded and commissioned this browser-based game with the goal of educating children about international food shortages and raising everyone’s awareness of disaster relief initiatives. Since its release in 2005, it's been downloaded more than 6 million times. As the head of the emergency relief team, you are involved in six different scenarios. How you manage crop failure, find safe distribution of food, avoid war, and so on, determines how many people will survive or die from famine. The 2006 Indian Ocean tsunami was the basis for one mission, Sudan another. 1 player; PC/Mac; free.
3. PeaceMaker: This was originally designed to foster greater understanding between Palestinian and Israeli communities, but now it has a much wider user base. In the game, players assume the role of the Israeli or Palestinian president and then read the news, listen to advisers, and make key decisions toward the game's winning situation: a peaceful, two-state solution. Then you switch roles and do the same from the other perspective. 1 player; PC/Mac; $20.
4. SuperBetter: This game was created by Jane McGonigal, a TED 2010 speaker, author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World, and a speaker at the 2012 Davos World Economic Forum. After McGonigal suffered a serious neck injury, she was inspired to create a videogame that would boost patients’ post-operative recovery times. Now the game is aimed at anyone who needs a little motivation to build personal resilience.
To play on any browser-based computer, you join a website that’s essentially a social network of players. The “game” involves battling "bad guys" and using "power-ups" (objects that confer extra abilities or other advantages to a player's character) and completing personal "quests," all of which serve as personal motivation for your healing. Where this high-minded game differs from more conventional games is that missions aren’t images that dance around the screen — they’re ideas and concepts that you input yourself. For instance, a "power up" might be "I went jogging for 10 minutes," and a "bad guy" might be "I get tempted to eat sweets." Each is unique to you and your emotional, mental and physical post-surgical needs. Every time that you resist temptation, you click "I beat the bad guy," and the site rewards you with more quests to unlock or stuff to do. Players interact to give or receive help. 1 player; PC/Mac; free.
5. iCivics: This series of games based on real-life issues in governance and policy is the brainchild of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who founded the company iCivics. She came up with the idea in 2009 to instill civic pride and a sense of duty in younger generations. Games include Argument Wars, in which you make key decisions about arguing a Supreme Court case; Win the White House, in which you manage your own presidential campaign; and Immigration Nation, to guide new immigrants along the path to citizenship. 1 player; PC/Mac; free.
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6. Fold.it: This puzzle game lets players mess around with protein shapes and help real scientists, who submit these actual problems and then use successful players' results. Sound far-fetched? Consider this: In 2011, Fold.it players solved the mystery of an enzyme involved in the reproduction of the AIDS virus — an issue scientists had been grappling with for a decade. Gamers landed on the solution in three weeks, leading to the publication of an article in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology and, more important, to the identification of drugs for treatment. 1 player; PC/Mac/Linux; free.
7. Evoke: A collaboration between the World Bank Institute and Jane McGonigal (see SuperBetter), Evoke is a structured series of games played over two and a half months. Each week, based on how well they did the previous week, players get new missions that require solving critical global problems like hunger, poverty and drought. The idea is to empower players to get involved in finding solutions for their chosen country's challenges. Gamers who complete the "season" get an educational credential certified by the World Bank. 1 player; PC/Mac; free.
8. Climate Challenge/Fate of the World: In Climate Challenge, which was created for the BBC, players make decisions about taxation, energy policy, transportation, etc., as part of a European contingent facing other global leaders in negotiations. How well you do is defined by whether you manage to bring down carbon emissions sufficiently to avoid catastrophe — and consequently stay in power (a simulated vote is built into the game).
The game teaches players that, for example, more than 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or more than 2º of temperature rise can lead to disastrous climate change. Fate of the World, the developers’ follow-up, is also based on environmental problems and global leadership; you make key decisions in real time as the game keeps playing. Climate Change: 1 player; any browser-based computer; free. Fate of the World: 1 player; PC only; $10.
9. America's Army: In this game, originally conceived as a recruitment and PR tool for the U.S. Army, players run around in a virtual battlefield with other player/soldiers, and support one another and fight enemy players. The game takes place in the "first person" — i.e., you see through your character's eyes (so if you tilt down on the mouse, your character looks down). In a modified form, the game is also used to train and educate real soldiers for confidential scenarios. In addition to being an actual training tool, America's Army gives a semi-realistic view of the modern army and battlefield. 1–26 players; PC/Mac; free.
10. Ambassador: Though this award-winning game is available only to new employees of Suez Environnement, anyone can watch the Ambassador YouTube video. (And it demonstrates to other companies how "games for good" can be used in the corporate arena.) The game, whose mission is to educate workers about the water- and waste-management company’s priorities, won the Best Game-Based Learning Award 2012 at e-Learning News; was a Best Serious Game finalist at I/TSEC 2011, and won Best Serious Game at the Serious Game Expo 2011. 1 player; PC/Mac; free.
Simon Munk writes on consumer technology, videogames and outdoors products. He's tested everything from snowstorm survival gear to the world's most expensive speakers and has won a GamesMediaAward twice.