University of Utah
Screenshot from the PC game, "Cyber Heist.” The game, which has players portray college students sneaking into a building to erase their student debt from the Department of Education computers, won Best Student Game in the Serious Games Showcase and Challenge in Orlando.

SALT LAKE CITY — Though video games might be better known for narratives about battling bad guys and stealing cars, they're also taking on weightier topics like the growing burden of student debt, say designers at the University of Utah.

A group from the school's graduate program took first-place honors this month for "Cyber Heist," a game about student debt, at the Serious Games Showcase in Orlando.

"I think people are kind of waking up to really wanting an experience that leaves them thinking, not just entertained," said lead designer Jake Muehle.

He and a 13-person team of students brought some "Mission Impossible"-style flair to the issue with a narrative about two people breaking into the Department of Education to erase their student debt.

Brain scans show video game play activates the brain's reward center, said Robert Kessler, executive director of the university's Entertainment Arts and Engineering program. He also pointed to games about managing diabetes and navigating health care reform.

"You can actually use games to cause change," Kessler said.

The interactive nature of video games also let people put themselves in someone else's shoes in a unique way, said Muehle.

"You can simulate how life would be in different environments without any consequences," he said.

They're also fun. In "Cyber Heist," players have to break into the Department of Education in the year 2114 to erase their student debt from the agency's computers. The two players work together, but from different perspectives: While one is trying to break into the building, the other player is outside giving direction.

Though it's not exactly a debt-repayment plan, it draws attention to an important issue, Muehle said. More than half of students who earned a bachelor's degree in 2012-2013 graduated with debt, borrowing an average of more than $27,000, according to a report released earlier this year by the College Board.

Muehle and his wife owe a combined $130,000, and when the "Cyber Heist" team added up their academic tab, it totaled about three-quarters of a million dollars.

"It's serious business," he said.