A tiny futuristic figure strolls around a sleek graphic city, dodging bad guys and recruiting others to do battle with the enemies of mankind. Players triumph, or watch a city die. They're playing "Wildfire," a game created "to change the world."
"Wildfire" won Microsoft's 2010 Imagine Cup competition -- one of a new genre of "serious games" that aim to apply the magnetic power of the computer game to the less-glamorous world of vaccinations, malnutrition, clean water and disease.
Created by students, the game is meant to be fun and challenging, and can be played over and over again, each time teaching gamers about global health problems that affect millions. Watch video about the game here.
And that's the point: The more they learn, the more they might be motivated to help solve them.
The college students who designed "Wildfire" are from the Philippines, and call themselves By Implication. Philip Cheang, Wilhansen Li, Rodrick Tan, Levi Tan Ong and Kenneth Yu have known one another since high school. Some have already graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines, and joined the working world, while others are still working toward their degrees.
"We love games, and love the idea that games and technology can be used to improve things in the real world," said co-creator Cheang. Instead of fighting "zombies, aliens, monsters and robots," Cheang believes games can "tap into the very human tendency to come together and prevail in very difficult situations."
It was Typhoon Ketsana, in September 2009, that opened the students' eyes. In one day it dropped a month's worth of rain onto Manila and killed more than 700 people. "Ketsana was devastating. Thousands of people were displaced, 90 percent of the roads were submerged underwater," co-designer Kenneth Yu said.
"It seemed like there was nothing that anyone could do to help," Cheang added. "Then there was an amazing wave of volunteers who got together through social media -- Twitter, Facebook, text messaging -- that rallied everyone. It was so moving. We thought to ourselves, maybe this is how the world actually does get saved."
That was the germ that inspired "Wildfire," which the students designed on a budget of about, well, zero.
The game drives home the point that alone, a player is powerless. But while navigating through the streets and avenues of a city, players can, with a few clicks of the keys, use "inspiration points" to get those around them to volunteer, while "bad guys" try to knock them down.
Along the way, players can click an information button to get a few quick facts about poverty, water quality or infant health. But the facts don't take away from the fun of the game.
If players and their volunteers defeat the problems -- and beat the clock -- their city will thrive. Fail to find enough volunteers, and there's little that can be done.
"The idea that "Wildfire" demonstrates is that people can do amazing things if they work together," Cheang said. "This is something we've always believed about games: They're legitimate forms of art just as much as novels or films are."
"Serious games" -- games that use the fun of play to educate and motivate -- are the focus of the Imagine Cup Game Design contest but just one of the categories in the Microsoft competition. According to Microsoft, more than 300,000 students from more than 100 countries took part in last year's competition, using technology to try to solve some of the world's toughest problems. Microsoft has another contest set for 2011.
The By Implication website offers "Wildfire" for free. It's Twitter-connected, so players can tweet from within the game, and pass the game on to friends, helping the spirit of volunteerism to "catch like wildfire," which is, the designers say, the point and part of the fun of this "serious game."