Surprisingly, the answer could well be yes. At least if a bunch of computer science researchers at Durham University have anything to do with it. The group have taken the 3D game engine that powers the immersive Half Life 2 game and used it to develop a realistic virtual simulation of the university computer science department. More to the point, they have created a realistic fire drill simulator which might just help save a life or two.

The idea being that the 'game' can be used to determine how real people behave when confronted by a virtual fire within a realistic environment. Indeed, although the first sim uses the university department it could be anywhere at all. A few modifications and pretty much any environment can be mapped in convincing detail. Once you know how people are likely to behave in the event of a fire by running them through the simulation, you can better prepare them on how they should behave should the real thing strike.

The Half Life engine was chosen over and above complex bespoke 3D modelling software for many reasons, including cost, speed and even special effects capability. Indeed, it only took a few weeks to model the building instead of a few months and all without having to learn new programming skills. From the user perspective, it also means that there is an inherent familiarity because most of us have played games of this type at some time or another.

Not everything went as expected, though, when users were put to the test in the virtual fire simulation. Whereas the non-gaming guinea pigs tended approach everything with a degree of seriousness, seasoned gamers could not resist heading into danger.

Still, it is nice to see continued evidence of computer games being used to help people rather than the same old stories being rolled out by the mainstream media trying to convince us that all games developers are evil.