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Strolling Along the Drive, Virtually

Videogames have come of age. A whole generation has grown up since Pong and Pac-Man first entered the public consciousness. And as game players have matured, so have games themselves. Today, videogames are used to teach children how to count and adults to type, to train firefighters to navigate through smoke-filled rooms, to raise awareness about climate change, to sell hamburgers and even to recruit people into the U.S. Army.

Vancouver has long been known as a centre for videogame development and innovation, and, not surprisingly, local game designers and researchers are at the forefront of the serious game movement. Over the next several weeks, Terry Lavender, a videogame researcher at Simon Fraser University, will look at some of the local game designers who are using videogames to change the world.

by Terry Lavender
Andrew Park is walking along Commercial Drive. Cyclists and skateboarders whizz past him, along with an occasional car. The entrance to an Italian deli beckons invitingly, but even if he wanted to, Park couldn’t enter the store and certainly couldn’t buy anything. For this isn’t really the Drive. It’s a virtual rendition of the well-known East Van street and Park is using a Nintendo Wii controller for his morning stroll.

The scene on Park’s large screen monitor would look familiar to players of such urban adventure games as Grand Theft Auto, but you can’t use Park’s virtual world to rise through the ranks of a criminal gang. Park is using videogame technology for a more benign purpose -- to study how urban geography affects people’s perception of safety and security.

Park is a research associate at Simon Fraser University’s Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies, where he works with criminologists Patricia and Paul Brantingham. He says virtual environments are useful for studying social issues, such as homelessness, fear of crime and senior citizen mobility.

He creates his virtual environments by taking digital photos, manipulating them in PhotoShop and then mapping them onto 3-dimensional models created in DarkBasic Professional, an inexpensive game development program. Research participants navigate through the virtual environment using a Nintendo Wii controller and balance board.

He developed the technique while a PhD student at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology. For his research, Park tested the Downtown Eastside environment with 60 volunteers, who described their perceptions and feelings about crime and safety while navigating the virtual environment. He has since applied the tools to other environments. For example, after a rash of vandalism attacks at the Grandview-Woodland Community Policing Centre, Park created a model of the three blocks in the area to see how local people reacted to the vandalism and the presence of the somewhat contentious policing centre.

“One of the advantages of a virtual environment is that we can modify it easily,” he says. “So we developed a second model of the neighbourhood that had more broken windows and more graffiti. You can’t do that with the real environment, but it’s easy to do in a virtual environment.”

More recently, SFU’s Gerontology Research Centre has asked Park to re-create Vancouver’s Chinatown to help them understand how to design neighbourhoods so that they’re easier for older people to walk in.

Park and his colleagues hope to make the experience even more realistic. Currently, participants can’t interact with characters on screen or enter any of the buildings. “For our future studies, it would be great if people could actually go into the shops and buildings and talk to people.”

He’d also like to interest local groups and governments in the research. I’d like this research to be used further. I want to see a positive impact of my research on the society where I live.”

To see a video of Park’s virtual world technology in action, go to

Photo by Terry Lavender: Mengting Sun and Andrew Park use a Nintendo Wii controller to navigate through a virtual representation of Commercial Drive.
Screenshot of Commercial Drive ModelScreenshot of game

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