GDC 06: Giving peace a chance

This year's Game Design Challenge saw designers Cliff Bleszinksi, Harvey Smith, and Keita Takahashi try to win the Nobel Peace Prize with a game.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--On Thursday, GDC hosted its third annual Game Design Challenge. The idea is simple: Grab three of the most noted game designers and hand them the task of pitching a game around an unusual theme. In 2004, Will Wright, Warren Spector, and Raph Koster got cozy with the idea of building a game around a love story. In 2005, Wright defended his crown against Ubisoft's Clint Hocking and Lionhead's Peter Molyneux in a challenge to use the license of Emily Dickinson's works. Once again, the challenge this year was playfully eccentric: Design a game that could win the Nobel Peace Prize.

This year, however, the challengers were all Design Challenge newbies: Cliff Bleszinski (Unreal, Gears of War), Harvey Smith (Deux Ex, System Shock), and Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy). All three challengers were given several months to develop a design, and then 10 minutes each to present their ideas.

The contest is decided by audience applause and was closer than it had been in previous years. In the end, it was Smith who emerged as the new champion.

Smith's winning idea, Peace Bomb!, was presented as a Nintendo DS game in which players create flash mobs--"crowds of people who assemble suddenly in a public place to do something notable and then disperse." Peace Bomb!, Smith explained, would be "aimed at engendering constructive projects."

Specifically, Smith envisioned that the game would have a "subversive feeling to it" and promote peaceful insurgency projects. Smith cited two politically-charged independent games, Escape from Woomera and Beyond Manzanar, as some of his inspirations.

Smith, who believes that flash mobs represent a kind of "social gaming," stated that his design was motivated by a desire to "engender that spirit of 'let's get together to do something cool.'" He further explained that by spilling into the real world, the game world would "afford players a higher sense of purpose."

Smith described his design as a "minimal graphics social network game." Smith also suggested that players could use the stylus to collect petitions, practicing a kind of activism.

Bleszinski spoke next, presenting his idea for a first-person "empathy game" that places the player in the role of a father. The goal is to keep your family alive and intact, and to "stay physically and emotionally close to your family." Bleszinski claimed, "Our medium has the power to make people think twice about anything."

Bleszinski further proposed that the UN could require world leaders to spend time on the simulation, in order to prevent leaders from detaching themselves from the full implications of their decisions. He imagined that there could be different versions for specific regions and races, and even suggested that the leaders publish their "scores" for accountability.

Contrasting his design with existing police and army simulations, Bleszinski pointed out players of his game would be "meant to sympathize with the civilians" rather than the soldiers, and thereby "put a very human face on civilians caught in war."

Takahashi, who presented last, gave his lecture in a heavy accent, playfully suggesting the title "My English Challenge 2006." Accompanied by humorous videos of fans enacting Katamari Damacy, as well as colorful, animated slides, Takahashi's presentation embodied his lighthearted idealism.

Rather than any one specific design, Takahashi touted the "joy of games" in general. In fact, Takahashi later remarked (through a translator) that he "would give the Nobel Prize to all games."

Takahashi explained that it is "almost a crime" if we fail to let others outside of our circle of friends know about the "simple but silly goal of living for the joy of games." He advocated that we create the necessary conditions to allow the less fortunate to enjoy luxuries such as games, music, and sports. "All we have to do is to spread games all over the world," Takahashi stated, asserting that peace can result from the luxury of playing games.

Eric Zimmerman, CEO of gameLab, moderated the panel for the third year in a row and explained that this year's Design Challenge was "both an homage and an over-the-top spoof" to the GDC 2006 focus on serious games. "Games are another medium we don't tend to think about in the same breath as 'peace,'" Zimmerman prefaced.

Throughout their talks, both Smith and Bleszinski reflected on the ideation process behind the designs. Both designers enumerated a slate of ideas they ultimately rejected. One such idea, Smith's "Empathy Meme," seemed to resonate with Bleszinski's final design. Like Bleszinski, Smith wondered whether games could "humanize the downtrodden by turning them into game avatars." Two more humorous designs included Smith's "Subvert the Nobel Game," in which the player works in PR for an evil corporation, and Bleszinski's proposed puzzle game "that is so addictive that no one goes to war any more."

Will Wright (SimCity, The Sims), the reigning two-time Design Challenge champion, was present in the audience to quite literally crown Smith with a toy tiara.

Wrapping up the ceremonies and the session, Zimmerman urged the audience, "There is no reason why any of the game designs presented today could not be realized. Let them inspire you!"

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