A Nobel Prize for Donkey Kong?

The art of play.
March 28 2006 5:50 PM

A Nobel Prize for Donkey Kong?

Game designers vie to save the world.

(Continued from Page 1)

Last up is Japan's Keita Takahashi. He doesn't have a cool nickname but doesn't really need one. It's enough that he created the otherworldly Katamari Damacy, a game whose protagonist rolls around a sticky ball that gloms up like-sized objects like paper clips, spoons, and thimbles. Your ball gradually expands until you're snagging cruise ships, football stadiums, and skyscrapers. The premise is radically simple and doesn't involve punching, stabbing, or gibbing. If Vegas took bets on this contest, Takahashi would be the early-line favorite.

Takahashi says that the key to peace is love, and what his industry can offer is the love of video games. He illustrates this "naive, pure, wonderful and silly love" with photos of his fans, who are fond of dressing up like the characters in his game. Takahashi's response to the design challenge is more prescriptive than descriptive. He exhorts his fellow designers to make products that can overcome the barriers of language and culture. We should strive to remove impediments that halt the spread of gaming, he says—pesky problems like poverty, starvation, and disease. One of Takahashi's slides explains that he wants to bring "everyone in the world the luxury of playing games using natural power." It's accompanied by an image of black, red, green, and blue children gathered around a wind-powered television and a solar-powered game console.

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The results are determined by audience acclaim: Smith's PeaceBombwins, Takahashi's nameless meanderings place, and Bleszinski's Empathy shows. Will Wright hands off the plastic tiara. Zimmerman ends the event as he does every year, with the inspirational phrase: "There's no reason why any of these game designs could not be realized."

I bought that takeaway in previous years. When Will Wright delivered his ingenious ideas, the brilliance of the concept and the excitement of the crowd made the game designs seem workable and even fun. But these Nobel projects just don't seem plausible.

I don't blame the developers—after all, no movie or album has won the Peace Prize either. A serious-minded film can be "good for you" even if it's not entertaining, but a serious-minded video game has to be fun enough to get people excited about playing it. The most credible "serious game" to date is A Force More Powerful, which incorporates techniques used in events like the Serbian resistance movement to teach players how to engage in nonviolent conflict. But developers must contend with the fact that it's a lot more fun to wield a gun than to practice nonviolence.

To get a sense of what the gaming industry is up against, simply check out the official Web site of the Nobel Prize, which actually features video games. I loaded up The Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and clicked "Start Disarmament Mission." After a few minutes guiding a squad of rocket-propelled peace doves and answering trivia questions about the Limited Test Ban Treaty, I quit out of frustration. This peace game didn't make me want to save the world. It made me want to gib somebody.

Chris Baker is a writer and editor in San Francisco.

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