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4. Worlds Disappearing

Video: Game designer Jane McGonigal speaks at TED 2010. Reality is broken, she says. Can games fix it? If so, is gamification really the path to get there?

After working all week at LITE , the big day finally arrived for the young collaborative game design teams. At the beginning of the week, many of the participants expressed terror at the thought of speaking publicly to professionals flown in to critique their work. Each team would take the stage one at a time to present the games they’d designed around various social issues including unemployment, police brutality, obesity, environmental concerns and other local issues of importance.

The auditorium was packed with parents, students, educators, administrators and even legislators looking to understand what the participants had accomplished during their week together. A panel of game designers sat together in a row, themselves a simulation of the future, when the fledgling game designers would face real job interviews.

The Louisiana students responded like champions to their grueling critique. Questions ran the gamut from highly technical to extremely detail-oriented. The students professionally and eloquently explained their research, showing slides of their art and design on the big screen behind the podium and sharing what they’d learned about the serious issues facing Louisiana.

A student named Charlie Flanders, 14, spoke about his team’s game, “War of the Wetlands,” which centered on preventing coastal erosion through educating people in an immersive environment. One aspect of the game, Whack-a-Nutria, caused one of the critics to ask how the team might respond to copyright trouble related to Whack-a-Mole. Flanders calmly laid out a stellar six-point argument about how the game doesn’t violate copyright law. Another student later shared similar views when asked about the Beethoven soundtrack for her team’s game.

Spencer Zuzolo, president of 3D Squared, said during the event that the program shows the natural affinity young people have for 21st century workforce skills.

“They need academic programs that help them more formally transform their creativity and interest in games and immersive virtual environments into realistic career and education paths,” Zuzolo said.

Garrett Guillotte was a content intern for 3D Squared during the event at LITE. He said that the skills he gained during the Digital Workforce Initiative translated immediately to the job market.

“My experience provided invaluable, credible experience in communications and technology that helped lead me to a job with a high-profile tech firm,” Guillotte, who now lives and works in Boston, said. ”Working with Joe Castille and Spencer Zuzolo gave me valuable insight into the workings of a tech-sector start-up, an educational non-profit and a game development company all at once. 3D Squared also helped give kids opportunities in programming and game development that I had desperately sought and never found as a child. Being a part of a group that helped fulfill these dreams was a personally fulfilling experience.”

Guillotte said he was surprised at how quickly the kids were willing to adapt socially to the environment. They formed working relationships, and often friendships, with each other under high-stress deadline pressure.

During the live event at LITE, virtual participants in Metaplace were shown on the stage screen. The platform’s creator, Raph Koster, typed his live comments from Metaplace in the form of a tiny avatar. The comments appeared on the screen as the audience watched.

“I think the thing that most strikes me about an event like this,” Koster typed as Castille, leading the event from the real-world podium, read aloud, “is the fact that citizenship is the same whether it exists in the real world or a digital framework.”

Citizenship in Metaplace, however, would soon be a figment of the digital past. Within months, Koster would announce the shuttering of his world. Many saw this as a sign that virtual platforms were just a passing fancy, not popular enough to warrant continuation, despite a reported billion global participants, mostly under the age of 16.

When Metaplace closed, Koster blogged:

“The reason? Well, [Metaplace] just hasn’t gotten traction. I have many thoughts on why, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t go into all of them right now. It is a sad day for us here, and I know many users are going to be very disappointed by this turn of events.”

Many people don’t realize just how lucrative virtual worlds, particularly those catering to kids, have become. An ever-expanding billion dollar virtual goods market demonstrates a robust nascent sea change in the global marketplace.

It isn’t as if Metaplace failed completely, even if Koster’s journey ended with a measure of disappointment. In June of 2010, Metaplace sold to Playdom. The next month, Playdom was acquired by Disney for 763 million dollars.

Many of the educational projects using Metaplace at the time, however, were left in limbo and received no further funding.

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