CRUISING down Pratt Street in Baltimore along an eerily empty Inner Harbor, Ed Fletcher suddenly yanked his Humvee to the right and barreled into the lobby of the 40-story Legg Mason Inc. building - just in the nick of time as an oncoming dune buggy fired a barrage of bullets at him.
Fortunately for everyone, the ensuing gun battle and anarchy weren't real. It was just Trex, a video game Fletcher helped design for his employer, BreakAway Games in Hunt Valley.
But Trex isn't aspiring to be the next big hit among gamers eager to shoot up a virtual city. Trex is targeting the military - among the latest in game technology being employed for more businesslike pursuits.
"We take this very seriously," said Douglas Whatley, chief executive and chief technology officer for BreakAway, which he started six years ago to develop sports games. "People are making major decisions based on what they learn from our software. People's lives could depend on what we're doing."
In about a year, if all goes according to plans, soldiers flying to an overseas mission will play Trex on the Microsoft video-game system Xbox to familiarize themselves with actual streets, buildings and terrain before setting foot on foreign soil. Instead of Baltimore, the game will use satellite data to digitally replicate 3-D images of cities such as Kabul, Mogadishu or Baghdad.
"It's become more acceptable for people to turn to a gaming company to help solve their problems or re-create lifelike simulations for training purposes," Whatley said. "We've got the technology to do it faster and cheaper, and the know-how to make it fun."
Video games are about more than entertainment these days.
The technology that produces brilliant graphics, stereo-quality sound and virtual interactive realities is also increasingly attractive to groups ranging from the military to peace protesters, from educators to health practitioners.
The reach of the $10.4 billion video game industry is already enormous. Last year, more than 221 million computer and video games were sold. That's almost two games for every household in America, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
But with the number of games produced every year by gamers, competition grows more stiff to come up with the next Grand Theft Auto sensation. Industry experts say gaming companies are more open to exploring other avenues of work in which their expertise can be applied.
While it's not clear how much of the industry's revenue comes from work of a more serious nature, evidence of it is growing. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington has launched a "Serious Games Initiative" to encourage the development of games that address policy and management issues.
"Game companies have a lot of talent," said David Cole, president of DFC Intelligence, a market research and consulting firm. "It's very difficult to make it as a pure gaming company. A lot of them are looking for work. For years and years, the government and military have developed their own training simulations, but they found that these commercial game developers can do a much better job."
"These days, you're just as likely to see the next big video game booth at a game developers conference as you would a booth on how to get a government contract," Cole said. "This is a new trend we're going to see more of in the future."
The future, for some, is already here.
Visitors to the U.S. Army's recruitment Web page can take on the persona of a squad leader who guides his Rangers through basic combat training. Those interested in parachuting off a 250-foot tower can sign their virtual soldier up for Airborne School. While it's unknown how successful the game has been at recruitment, millions have rushed to download America's Army.
Los Angeles-based Starbright Foundation joined leaders from the world of technology, medicine and entertainment to create video games to help youngsters manage illnesses such as diabetes and asthma.
Instead of using coloring books or more traditional explanatory videos, diabetic children can help Xylo, a small alien whose spaceship has crashed on Earth, get home by using sugar molecule "blasters" to feed cells or dodging surprise obstacles with tools such as insulin, glucose tablets and blood sugar readings.
"What we're learning is that we have a generation of people out there who have grown up with computers and technology," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association. "For them, these video games and technology are as natural as radios were to my parents."
Video games have come a long way from the days of black and white blips.
A 29-year-old TV engineer named Ralph Baer, searching for a way to make TV more interactive, is credited with inventing video games in 1951. A year later, A.S. Douglas at the University of Cambridge created the first graphical computer game, a version of Tic Tac Toe.