Serious games to help find missing kids

UK university project to be launched this week will allow people to use their cell phones to help track down abducted children.

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NEWPORT, Wales--PlayStation 3 users who sign up for Folding@home are helping to cure cancer, and now mobile phone owners will be able to use their gadgets to help locate missing children.

Professor Lizbeth Goodman, director of Smartlab Digital Media Institute at the University of East London, has been working on the technology for a serious game project called Lost & Found for "many years." The project was announced as part of the Women in Games 2007 event this week at the University of Wales.

Lost & Found--described as "a portable system to track missing and exploited children (and adults)"--works by using GPS and mapping technology within mobile phones. For example, users can sign up for alerts when someone goes missing in their area, and if they see someone who resembles a missing child, they take a photo, which will alert authorities to the possibility that an abducted child is nearby. The game will also present people with a series of objectives and mobilise groups to block roads and search fields.

Approximately 800,000 children go missing in the US each year, as well as 77,000 in the UK. Current efforts to trace those missing children (as well as adults) are a good start, believes Goodman, but also ultimately forgettable. She said, "When you're drinking your milk in the morning, there's always a picture of someone who is missing. But who can remember what the person on your milk carton looks like at the end of a busy day?"

When asked why the project is being classified as a game, Goodman said, "If it's a project that sounds worthy, or that there are cops involved, or that you have to hand over personal data, people aren't interested. But if we let them use an avatar, they're OK with that." The Web site adds, "Participants can see their own input...achieving success in finding lost community members, and [it will] change the nature of play, and the sense of responsibility it entails."

Partners for the Lost & Found project currently include the BBC R&D, Microsoft Research, The UK Serious Crimes Unit, and The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (US).

When asked about the possibility of privacy concerns and the "Big Brother" issues raised by this kind of technology, Goodman told GameSpot, "Obviously we are very concerned about these issues as well, which is why it's taken so long. Lost & Found is all based on existing technologies. These technologies are already out there, so the way I see it, we may as well use them for good."

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