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The Intersection of GIS and Gaming

Video games have moved beyond the stereotype of simple entertainment and are now a serious technological and cultural force to be reckoned with.  Millions of people spend many hours each week immersed in the rich virtual environments of today’s sophisticated games.  And the multibillion dollar market for games has moved beyond teen males, with adults and women now more engaged than ever.
Most games today have a spatial component, and these virtual worlds are becoming more complex and sophisticated.  There is no doubt that video games have a high potential for effective education, with individuals often learning valuable skills and gaining experience from within a simulated environment.  But beyond education, where else do GIS and gaming intersect?

[iframe width=”480″ height=”270″ src= http://video.esri.com/iframe/114/000000/width/480/0/00:00:00 frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no””] Ola Ahlqvist discusses how massive multiplayer online gaming is finding its way into education and training environments.

As the virtual worlds in video games become increasingly difficult to design and manage, it’s easy to see the benefits of using proven geospatial tools to manage, model, and design this virtual geography.  And making virtual worlds more realistic is key to leveraging them for geospatial research and analysis.  In fact, some game designers and even players are already exporting rich spatial datasets from GIS to create new realistic levels or worlds within video games.  But can we do more?  How can the geospatial community leverage the talent and infrastructure of the gaming community? Can we use these virtual worlds as testing or prototype environments to help improve conditions in the real world?
Online, cooperative citizen science platforms such as PlanetHunters.org and eBird are becoming increasingly popular and successful.  The next logical step would be to leverage existing online environments—specifically, online gaming environments—as platforms for research, analysis, and design.  By testing alternative designs in the virtual world of a video game, people simply “playing games” could actually be playing a valuable role in designing future buildings, roads, cities, and parks.  If this was done to be both representative of the real world and entertaining at the level expected in a video game, participants could make potentially important societal contributions while still having fun playing their games.
Leveraging online gaming environments as a resource could add a whole new dimension to geospatial research and analysis.  But merging elements of “work” and “play” is a delicate balance and needs to be done without disrupting the gaming experience.  Because once you remove the entertainment from a game, it’s just work.

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