Aside from jokes about overheating Xbox 360s, Microsoft's popular gaming console isn't often associated with global warming. But earlier this month, the tech giant and a small group dedicated to making video games that improve the world teamed up to change that. The two organizations are launching a yearlong contest that challenges college students to make an Xbox 360 game about global warming.
The Xbox 360 Games for Change Challenge will kick off in August and encourage university students to use the Microsoft programming toolset to make games about climate change. Microsoft hopes to draw 100,000 students from 100 countries into the program. Students will have the entire school year to compete.
"Hopefully the very best games will encourage the participant to explore different points of view and the consequences and be fully informed and engaged and able to be a better citizen and participant in general society," Microsoft Corporate Video President of Global Marketing Jeff Bell told GameFile.
The contest came about thanks to a mutual friend Bell shares with Suzanne Seggerman, the head of the New York nonprofit group Games for Change. Seggerman was eager to get a big gaming company to back her group's desire for socially significant games; Bell's company was interested in a socially noble cause. Both thought XNA was a tool that could empower amateur game designers.
The topic of global warming seemed like a good motivator. "We had debated, should we develop an opportunity, a challenge, a contest that was relatively open-ended?" Bell said. "Should we just say, 'Hey, it could be on social conflict or on hunger or on poverty or climate change?' And we thought for the first year it might be best to focus the attention on a single issue."
"I think it's really a unifier," Seggerman added. "Every country in the world can get behind the cause. And I think it's the most serious issue facing us as a global community."
What kind of games are expected? A global-warming strategy game à la "Sim City" or "Civilization"? How about a global-warming fighting game? Or a global-warming racing game, in which the more exhaust the player's car spits out, the hotter the planet gets? "I think we would like to see the most innovation," Seggerman said. "[From] people playing with it in a silly way ... to people really digging deep."
The games are expected to be fairly small-scale. By the end of the coming school year three student development teams will be invited to present their games to Microsoft and G4C officials, with scholarship prizes awarded to all three and internships at Microsoft Games Studios offered to the top team. The three finalists will also have their games considered for release on Xbox Live Arcade.
"I think this whole approach is not to politicize but to democratize," Bell said, expressing his hope that the new challenge would allow more voices in game design. He added that the contest would not censor content and, if someone submits a game that denies that humans influence global warming, it would be considered — with one caveat that applies to any game in the contest: "It has to be great gameplay."
Global warming may seem like an exotic topic for video games, but a few efforts are already under way. The BBC and Starbucks have both sponsored online climate change games. (The BBC's is playable here; the Starbucks one is here.)
Game developer Kent Quirk blogs about his ongoing attempt to craft a global-warming computer game of his own called "Melting Point." He noted earlier this month that: "I've been implementing the prototypes, my BORING alert has been going off." He's paring the game down to improve it. His progress can be tracked right here.
For all the hype about serious globally conscious games, a persistent criticism is that not enough of them are fun, that they are mired in the very seriousness that sets them apart from everyday video games. Bell and Seggerman hope a project that enlists college students can inject fresh thinking into the scene.
Respected game designer and scholar Ian Bogost, whose Persuasive Games company was recently tapped to provide serious games for The New York Times, applauded the Microsoft-G4C team-up but also expressed a reservation.
"Conceptually, I think it's fantastic," he told GameFile in an e-mail. "Having Microsoft's endorsement of the very idea of a game about global warming serves as an endorsement of the very idea of games about social issues. I think that's a milestone worth celebrating. That said, I'm getting a bit tired of college-student contests. And I say this as a university professor, no less! I think contests are a risky proposition. They give Microsoft or any other sponsor the rhetorical benefit of the sponsorship, and they automatically apologize for either the success or failure of the outcome, without requiring the sponsor to invest any actual money or time. For this sort of thing to work as more than a promotional play, Microsoft will have to provide a lot of support to would-be entrants."
For now, Microsoft can at least maintain that it has put more of a foot forward than its corporate peers. Neither Sony nor Nintendo have announced similar contests. The closest corporate approach is actually that of mtvU, which has sponsored college contests to create games that raise awareness about Darfur and HIV.
Bell was hopeful that such contests will open a new chapter for gaming. "I do not believe this is going to replace 'Halo 3' or 'The Sims' or 'World of Warcraft,' but I do think that we're seeing a radical, new and exciting phase for the gaming industry, and we're hoping that we see some innovation and even some new genres being developed as part of this first step."
More from the world of video games:
Sonic the Hedgehog has been signed for another surprising role. Just months after being announced as the partner of his formal rival for this fall's "Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games," he's now been pegged for what may be an even stranger assignment for 2008. Sonic maker Sega announced late last week that the character will star in an unnamed 2008 role-playing game on the DS. The strange part? The game will be developed by BioWare, the RPG powerhouse known for deep, dialogue-heavy, character-driven, story-based games. Expect BioWare's Sonic game to make the character talk more than he ever has before. ...
Game developer Blizzard has announced that the highly anticipated "StarCraft II" will be playable at the company's Blizzcon public-gaming expo on August 3-4. While the expo is sold out, the company is promising that the event will be broadcast at Blizzcon.com. ...
Who's the most famous person to ever appear in a video game commercial? It might be Nicole Kidman, who was just tapped by Nintendo to advertise the company's DS in Europe. See a picture of her playing DS right here.
Recent gaming stories from MTV News: