Soccer e-game to debut at World Cup

June 8, 2010 • PMC in the News

The following article from The Burlington Free Press, features PMC’s electronic game project.

A student-designed electronic soccer game that will make its debut in two weeks, during the World Cup, is a “Breakaway” in more ways than one.

For starters, that’s the title of the game, more than two years in development at Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center and heavily promoted by the United Nations for its persuasive subtext: preventing violence against women. The target audience: soccer-minded boys age 8-15 throughout the world.

But the game exemplifies its name in other ways: It’s an episodic, tactical Web-based diversion that features not only soccer moves, but also more than a dozen characters and a running narrative that’s based on the Sabido method — a technique for influencing behavior that’s been perfected by the Population Media Center of Shelburne, a key adviser in the project. The method has infused TV serial dramas used to promote public-awareness campaigns in Third World countries around such issues as AIDS and birth control.

“Breakaway” even has a new celebrity spokesman — Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, a world-famous striker who plays in Italy’s top league. A Champlain College delegation interviewed Eto’o in Milan last month to lay the groundwork for a promotional campaign that will begin after the game’s Chapter One goes live on the Web, June 20, and is distributed in CD form to hundreds of youth soccer organizations, two days later.

Chapter One includes three episodes. Five more chapters will follow, with nine more episodes in a developing, intensifying story that has the player experiencing peer pressure, bullying, competition and teamwork.

“Breakaway” gives the player choices that allow them to make decisions, face consequences, reflect, and practice behaviors in a game and story format,” said Ann DeMarle, director of the college’s Emergent Media Center. “The goal is to show young males that they should show respect on and off the field, not only to teammates, but to other people in their life and community.”

Two of the game’s major characters are female, and one of them is identified as the sister of the player who logs on. All of the major characters, including both the positive and negative role models, are of the same ethnicity, so there’s no racial stereotyping — and the player gets to choose that ethnicity at the game’s outset.

Releasing the game during the World Cup in South Africa “is an important part of the marketing strategy,” DeMarle said. The month-long soccer tournament will draw massive media attention and huge TV audiences from around the world.

Initially, the new e-game will have versions in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The term “Breakaway” — a maneuver akin to a fast break in basketball, where an attacker gets behind defenders and approaches the goal — is familiar to non-English-speaking soccer fans worldwide, DeMarle said.

The U.N. Population Fund underwrote the game’s development, as part of its worldwide campaign to discourage violence against women, to the tune of $750,000 — much of which was used to pay students working on the project. More than 70 students have collaborated in all phases — from research, writing and graphics to game design, programming and marketing. Private donations have kept the project moving between the larger grants.

Another big grant will be needed to carry through the next major phase, which could take another couple of years — making the game playable on cell phones, the most common medium of communication around the world.

Thursday morning, two students, both Champlain College juniors — Connor Norman, a game designer, and Austin Brkish, a user-interface artist — were polishing a match in Chapter Two before it’s recorded for CD distribution.

“You pretty much have to program every possible outcome,” Norman said. On his screen, he pulled up a scene showing team members in a locker room — a key setting for teammate interaction off the field.

“Based on your relationship with team members,” he said, “they’ll be able to tell you different things.”

So far, people from 47 countries have logged on to the website for “Breakaway” to check out a pilot episode, DeMarle said. One of the major remaining tasks is to evaluate the game after it’s released worldwide, based in part on feedback from questions built into the program.

The designers have already made modifications based on comments from youths in St. Lucia, where an early version of the game was tested last winter, and from students in the Winooski Middle School.

As in any compelling serial drama, the third episode ends with a provocative question that’s likely to lure the player back for more: One of the team’s key members is moving away, so who will replace him — could it be a girl?

“It’s really exciting to see it all come together,” said Lauren Nishikawa, who graduated from Champlain in game design last year and is now the project’s creative director.

United Nations connections gave “Breakaway” staffers an entree to Eto’o, a first-rate player and a household name, according to DeMarle, almost anywhere except the United States.

“I’ve never met such a polite, generous young man,” DeMarle said, “considering he’s so famous.”

Eto’o is expected to play in the World Cup for the Cameroon team, but he’ll also make another debut this month — as a character in Breakaway’s Chapter Three.

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