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GDC: Making games to prevent violence against children

The highlight of yesterday's GDC Serious Game Summit panels focused on an appropriately consequential topic: How games can help protect children from the commonplace dangers they face from predators, both online and off. The panel was led by Child Safety Research and Innovation Center president Allan McCullough -- a man who's strived to develop games which teach young people how to identify and avoid dangerous situations.

The two Flash-based games which represent the fruits of McCullough's two decades of labor look deceptively simple on the surface. They are, after all, hand-illustrated, poorly animated educational games geared towards children, with budgets too small to allow the hiring of professional voice actors and experienced gaming professionals. However, beneath the crude surface of these games lie clever methods of imparting crucial information to their young players which could ostensibly help them avoid encounters with people who mean them harm.

McCullough's interest in developing games which help teach children methods of avoiding predators spawned from two completely unrelated events. In the early 1980s, McCullough was training to become a maritime navigator, using sophisticated simulation technology to learn how to, well, not crash big, expensive boats. A newcomer to this type of software, McCullough found the simulator to be effective at teaching valuable information with little cost from the user.

The second event was the conviction of Clifford Olson, a Canadian serial killer who murdered eleven young people in the early 80s.

McCullough began to wonder if the same simulation technology which had helped him learn the complexities of watercraft piloting could be used to help children learn how to avoid real-life monsters like Olson. This thought inspired the development of the two games demoed during today's panel, and initiated a fairly radical career shift for McCullough, the nautical navigator turned educational game developer.

The creation of these games was sidetracked by hardships at every turn. Most of these, unsurprisingly, came in the form of financial issues. Even after cashing in the retirement funds he'd stockpiled during his time in the marine industry, and selling his house, McCullough struggled to find the funds required to purchase supplies or pay the salaries of his employees.

Eventually, companies, charities and government agencies began to take notice of McCullough's work. The project caught a major break when the Ronald McDonald House Charity Foundation promised a $6 million grant to aid in developing and distributing the game. The title was set to be demoed in front of a number of interested executives from the FBI, the U.S. Task Force for Missing Children and a number of other government agencies in Washington D.C..

Unfortunately, this presentation was held during the morning of September 11, 2001.

McCullough was encouraged to continue the presentation as the events of the morning unfolded. When the final plane hit the Pentagon, however, the proceedings were brought to an immediate halt. It took four confusing days for McCullough to finally make his way out of Washington. Two months later, the funds which had been promised to them by the Ronald McDonald House were allocated to 9/11 relief efforts. Once again, the project was sidelined.

Years later, McCullough brought in an internet privacy and security lawyer named Parry Aftab to consult on another project his small studio was working on. With Aftab's help, the company was able to finish its pair of projects while earning publicity thanks to a partnership with Marvel Comics. Shortly following the games' completion, McCullough and Aftab were married.

Two games resulted from McCullough's twenty-some years of work. The first is a puzzle-adventure game titled Sydney Safe-Seeker and the Incredible Journey Home. The game places its young players in the shoes of Sydney, who's tasked with finding "warpstones" to activate a portal capable of returning her home.

While locating these warpstones, Sydney must collect toys and gather information from "Info-Seekers" to aid in her quest. Occasionally, however, the player will encounter "Trouble-Seekers" who attempt to lure the player into helping them using ploys which McCullough's organization, the CSRIC, identified as tactics commonly employed by real-life child predators. If the player fails to recognize and avoid these ploys, the Trouble-Seeker will steal an important item from them.

The game strives to educate its players regardless of the actions Sydney takes. If the player is swindled by a Trouble-Seeker, they're able to phone the police, and help get back their items by describing the characteristics of their attacker.

The game is capable of extrapolating an impressive amount of information based on the player's actions. Since each Trouble-Seeker uses a different strategy to lure children in, the game can chart out how susceptible the player is to these ploys, helping parents understand how to tailor the information they impart to the game's younger players.

The second game, Alex Wonder: Kids Cyberdetective, attempts to instill safe online socializing habits through similar means. This title focuses more on how to avoid predators and bullies in online games and social networking circles. Less of this game was demoed at the panel, though it supports the same data mining protocol as Sydney Safe-Seeker.

It's impossible to know how effective these game will actually be in educating children to avoid child predators -- but McCullough's goal was only to create a regimen for imparting these precautions to kids in a more sophisticated manner than the ever-popular "Stranger Danger" mantra could allow.

With the title "Violence Prevention: Playing a Video Game Can Make a Difference," we wholly expected McCullough's presentation to focus on the perception of many that video games are only capable of having a detrimental effect on the attitudes and safety of young people. Instead, it focused on the tumultuous history of these two projects -- though McCullough wrapped up the panel by addressing video gaming's negative perception.

"Over the years the industry has been demonized by promoting youth violence," McCullough said. "I see games not as problem but a solution -- the best solution for the dangers presented to young people today."

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