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Digital projects target, emulate Charleston

Virtual Charleston

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Interactive computer games are a lot like Dungeons and Dragons, good acting, or that "emotional affair" Madonna had with A-Rod. It's all escapist — a chance to get out of a routine and be somebody else.

But, the further we get from the heyday of the 20-sided dice, the more these efforts at escapism make way for virtual ventures based on reality instead of fantasy.

A new study is going to test the will of local alcoholics to ditch the drink as they practice rehabilitation, while an internet startup is hoping to challenge EA Sports this summer for a share of the golf gaming market — with a picturesque Kiawah course as the first offering.

Passion for pixilated interaction likely began when developers of the successful SimCity games, where players designed and managed their own cities, went to an even more basic level with The Sims — offering players a chance to design and manage a life. Other interactive games followed, with World of Warcraft and Second Life — with varying levels of action. Second Life basically involves talking, sitting, and dancing, while World of Warcraft involves talking, sitting, and smashing things.

The tentatively titled Guardian Angel clocks in somewhere in the middle. In development by researchers at the University of Central Florida, the game is envisioned as a virtual world for alcoholics that presents the day-to-day challenges they'll face after they step out of detox. The Ralph A. Johnson Veteran Affairs Medical Center will house the first pilot test for the game next year, with about 20 members in an intensive rehabilitation program.

"I knew they did a lot of addiction research, so it was a natural partnership," says Marcia Verduin, an associate professor at UCF and a former assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Gamers will create a character and then make decisions about where they work, what they do on their down time, and who they hang out with, as they try to steer clear of alluring, dangerous alternatives.

"The idea is for them to practice their relapse prevention skills in a safe environment," Verduin says. "If they relapse, the game shows them going out of control, and they see what the consequences are without having to really experience them."

The game might offer temptations like having the character running by their favorite bar. Players might have to send the character home to get rid of their alcohol and find all the other triggers — cough syrup that might have alcohol in it or a matchbook from their favorite bar.

"It's one thing to talk about getting rid of all the alcohol when you get home, it's another thing to actually begin to think about how you'd do that and to think about all the hiding places and the triggers," Verduin says. "Our hope is that this is a chance for them to practice and use the skills they've learned in therapy."

A meter will measure cravings. When the character's cravings get too high, they'll have to do something to manage it.

"They may have to manage societal triggers like someone offering them a drink who refuses to take no for an answer," Verduin says. "Money is a trigger, so they'll have to decide what to do when they get money."

As they make decisions, it will affect other variables measured by meters: loneliness, boredom, stress.

"If they decide they're too tired to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting after work, they'll see how that decision affects those levels," Verduin says.

The study is funded through a $200,000 grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. If successful, it could lead to similar games for other addictions. Games like WiiFit offer new ways to exercise, but a game similar to Guardian Angel could also look at some of the emotional or societal problems tied to other issues, like obesity.

"Helping people practice what they would do in situations — making healthy choices," Verduin says. "I think there is a lot of potential."

Tee Time

Later this summer, YuChiang Cheng and his partners will launch an innovative — and free — internet golf game, with their first course being the prized, picturesque Ocean Course at Kiawah.

"It's an unbelievable course. I'm really looking forward to playing it," Cheng says of the actual Lowcountry greens.

In a way, Cheng has already played it — a lot. Like other games, the developers of World Golf Tour used laser-scanning technology to map the course's water hazards, sandtraps, greenways, and every other contour of the course. Other games take this blueprint and draw grass and trees over it, but World Golf fills every pixel with photographs of the course. Trees aren't drawn; they're trees from the course. Water hazards aren't an artificial blue mass; they're the waters from the course. The game's developers then worked with the photos so that the ball rolls through the picture, not just over it.

"If your ball rolls into the water, it'll splash," Cheng says.

The value for most gamers will be the extra $49.99 in their wallet.

"The biggest difference for players will be that it's free," Cheng says. Advertisements on the site, www.worldgolftour.com, will cover the cost of the game.

For local golfers and interested tourists hoping to get a handle on the course, Cheng says the game will give them practice you can't put a price on.

"The game is a very efficient way to help them learn to manage the course," he says. "You can explore the course and try different clubs and hitting different distances."

Kiawah club spokesman Mike Vegis says the allure of being part of the new game goes beyond finding interest in the actual course.

"It could help our sales team," he says. "When they're selling a convention, they can say, 'Why don't you go online and take a look at the course?'"

A practice game is now available online. The Kiawah course will be available later this summer.

World Golf Tour tries to capture Kiawah on the internet. But aloft, a high-end hotel opening its North Charleston location this week, was first launched in the digital realm of Second Life more than a year before breaking ground in the real world. The buzz-worthy branding opportunity gave Second Life users an opportunity to offer feedback on the hotel's layout and the amenities so designers could apply those notes when the chain broke ground earlier this year.

And, while pictures of Kiawah may soon draw interest online, Charleston's peninsula is still only available through fuzzy satellite images on Google Maps. The massive search engine has begun providing 360-degree, street-level pictures for major metropolitan areas — essentially letting users walk the streets of places like Greenville, Columbia, and Rock Hill — but not Charleston. Here's hoping they get it downtown before Berkeley County gets the street level treatment at the Google server farm.

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