We’re slowly catching up to the fact that video games are not only games but a new medium on par with newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and the Internet. Columbia College Chicago now offers a four-year undergraduate major in game design. Their FAQ starts with, “Can I really get a degree in Game Design? Is this a ‘real’ degree?” Yes and yes.

Now the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists makes a pitch for the public-radio crowd by highlighting how “serious games” are being used to train soldiers and firefighters.

Hazmat: Hotzone, writes Josh Schollmeyer, puts firefighters “on the scene, forcing quick decisions and testing their assumptions in a safe, virtual environment.” One gaming test featured a sarin attack in a shopping mall:

“Almost immediately, a cyber firefighter collapsed. ‘I thought if I could see, it was safe to go in,’ the firefighter controlling the character told his instructor. ‘Not when you have suspicion of a hazmat,’ the instructor responded.”

Which medium is more likely to produce a knowledgeable professional? A text medium like this one, or the game?

Things get more interesting as games move into less cut-and-dried subject matter. A Force More Powerful–the Game of Nonviolent Strategy is described on its Web site as “the first and only interactive teaching tool in the field of nonviolent conflict.” Interactive media are on the verge of teaching things that others really can’t.

In the market, however, serious games are still what one advocate calls a “rounding error.” Schollmeyer: “A Force More Powerful will ship 4,000 copies in its first six months of release. . . . Halo 2 . . . sold 2.4 million copies within the first 24 hours it hit retail shelves in 2004.”