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Former Teacher Brings Real Lives to Video Games

Many parents have bemoaned the time their children spend playing video games. However, there is light at the end of the screen with some of the latest recreational software, which actually have the ability to entertain, as well as <gasp!> teach valuable information to keyboarding kids.

Falling into the category of “simulations” as opposed to “games,” these programs provide relatively realistic scenarios designed to give players a small taste of what it’s like to be (to name only a few) a pilot, an amusement park operator, a zoo manager, or a railway executive.

One of the most intriguing concepts I’ve stumbled across is a life simulator. Apparently this initiative is the natural consequence of a sleepless night for a former high school social studies and computer science teacher.

At 2AM, Bob Runyan began to think about the classic Life board game. He liked the notion of giving students an opportunity to experience different life situations. But what he didn’t appreciate about the original was all the players started out with the same circumstances, because in reality that’s not true.

Having traveled some of the world during his tenure with the Peace Corps, Runyan knew from first hand observations that where we are born can be the greatest factor in determining opportunities for our entire lives. Somehow, he wanted teachers to be able to pass on this insight to classroom-bound students.

“I wanted to develop a simulation that gave people—particularly kids—an idea of what life is like in other countries,” says Runyan. “It continues to amaze me how little people know about the world outside of their own little niche.”

His brainchild looks deceptively simple on the outside, yet inside it’s a monstrous statistical machine.

When you initiate the game, you are born. You may select where you will live, or you can leave it up to the odds based on real population and demographic profiles.

I found myself entering this virtual world as a girl in China. With a few mouse clicks, the years pass by, and I’m presented with a variety of choices, challenges, and consequences. I soon learned the “new” China has many opportunities for employment, but making ends meet is very difficult. My rural childhood lifestyle didn’t allow me to receive a great education, which limited my possibilities to mostly service jobs.

By making choices like not smoking, and carefully saving my money to feed myself reasonably well, I lived to the ripe age of 101.

However, reaching that age meant making some difficult decisions that compromised my ethics. I toed the party line, and refused to help neighbors and friends who were being threatened by the Communist regime, lest I become a marked woman. I also chose to give up two babies for adoption. My other options were to have the children or seek an abortion. Having more children would interrupt my meager wage, and my ill husband wasn’t able to contribute as much as I to the family coffers.

Runyan, a Northern California father of three boys, admits such dilemmas were an important goal for his project, “Another motivation behind the software was to create a game that appealed to people’s more noble instincts-- rather than their base instincts.”

What Real Lives isn’t about is 3D graphics and dazzling sound effects. In fact, the only visual excitement offered is a satellite photograph of the area of the world in which you live. Still, I found the game highly engaging—as did my at-first-cynical 16-year-old son, who has played through about a dozen scenarios now.

Such is the response Runyan is hoping for from schools across North America and, eventually, around the world. (So far, individuals from over 100 countries have downloaded the software.)

“What will often happen is, kids using this in a high school will run through a life and will die of malaria at 4. Or not be able to go to school. Or get work. Those types of things are likely completely foreign for people who grow up in the U.S.,” explains Runyan.

After playing for close to an hour, I was acutely aware of how different existence is for others on this planet. Diseases and issues that are mere inconveniences in the United States are major problems in other countries—and often lead to “game over” in someone’s real life.

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