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Something's Missing From Games for Change
Eleanor Lang, 2 Nov 07
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I believe in games, in their power to entertain, to engage, to inform, and ultimately to effect change. And yet, when it comes to games for change -- which encompass a wide variety of games of a political, environmental, socially conscious and educational nature -- I find I'm getting depressed.

Games can teach, and can make players aware of an infinite variety of things and people; it's one thing to read about how to manipulate the vote in a democracy, quite another to gain understand by doing these things, however briefly and virtually.

I also believe that while games are frequently more effective teaching tools than textbooks, they need to be more engaging than textbooks, and they are most effective when they don't lecture.

But sometimes it seems that rather than playing a game, I'm getting an unending barrage of lectures telling me about so many ills in the world that I can barely get up off the sofa. The cumulative effect, day after day, week after week, of personally exploring things that range from the worst horrors of humanity to the most complex issues of our time, is that I feel overwhelmed, rather than inspired to make change.

I realized why lately after observing my teenage daughter: no matter how serious the issue, no one likes to be lectured. My daughter is unimpressed by the hoopla surrounding the recently released vaccine Gardasil. Sure, it's worth getting three shots for what might be a lower lifetime risk of cervical cancer -- but all the commercials, literature and parental lectures (including mine) make it sound like her death is imminent if she doesn’t get the shots, preferably yesterday. And that's too big to deal with.

No one likes being lectured; guilt is seldom a good incentive for anything; on the other hand, altruism feels good, whether it's helping an old lady across the street or making a microloan to a struggling entrepreneur half a world away. I rather doubt that guilt was the incentive behind the life work of Mother Teresa, or that Bill and Melinda Gates were motivated by guilt when they established the Gates Foundation.

Games for change -- a few, anyway -- ought to create the feeling of joy people feel in helping to create a better world. The problem may be that the people who make them tend to be very sincere and earnest. I'm sure that in many arenas these attitudes can be an advantage, but essentially they are about the cause, and ought to be kept in tight check when you craft and deliver the message -- as in interaction and game design, where it becomes a liability when designers forget their audience.

Evolutionary linguistics like Steven Pinker believes the history of games is linked to the history of human development. (Senet, one of the earliest recorded games, dates from at least 3000 BC.) Games differ from play at least partly by having formalized and codified rules. It's the rules of primitive games that allowed information to be passed on to other members of the group. It's the rules that allowed early behaviors and learning (like counting and trade) to be passed on, and it's the rules that still allow for a safe social interaction. Imagine Monopoly ( if every player assigned a completely different and arbitrary value to every property, or a bridge game if every bid could result in a brawl.

But, you're thinking, animals play games. Well, not exactly: they play, and in general, the greater the intelligence, the more abstract the play is likely to be. Some animals "play" as a matter of survival: when a cat "plays" with a mouse, it is attempting to asses the mouse's ability to inflict injury, and to weaken the creature before the kill. Other animal appear to be out for fun: this recent video of sled dogs and polar bears playing seems to have no other purpose than having a good time. (You'd think that the polar bear would have been more interested in fresh canine sushi.) But these activities do not have codified, formalized rules.

How can games -- which are creative works on par with film, painting, photography, music and other arts in both the expressive heights they can rise to and their potential to be real stinkers -- spark and sustain that altruistic impluse? Perhaps by creating scenarios that explore what happens when we change the rules.

Right now many games that I've covered on Worldchanging present reality in the finite: the inexorable toll of poverty on the rural poor in Haiti, the mortal consequences of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the tragic environmental costs of thoughtlessly depleting resources. And these are things and people that we we should know about. But I wonder what these games would move players to do, after turning off the computer, if they included explorations of what to do to change these situations for the better.

Image: "Screenshot of the Second Life view of the mixed-reality 'virtual activism' panel at Games for Change." Credit: flickr/rikomatic

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I have to agree - a lot of these games unfortunately aren't very good as games because they have no replay value. They're more like brochures for worthy cause X wrapped around some shallow interactivity.

Take the WFP food force game. This appealed to me, and downloaded it and gave it a whirl. But so much time has been put into making six or seven shiny games with cutscenes the actual interactive part isn't very engaging, or is over almost before it's started. As it is it's probably appeals to school students a little more than a normal lesson, but is not interesting and worthwhile in its own right. Which is undermining the purpose - I saw no reason to tell unengaged people about this game. A smaller number of relatively engaging, replayable games in the WFP setting would spread the message far more effectively.

And this is certainly possible. Look at some classic games on pedagogical subjects: Oregon Trail, SimCity or Sun Tzu's Art of War. In WFP FoodForce I kept expecting a game like "Refugee Camp Sanitation Engineer" - which could be an incredibly challenging and thoughtful little sim game about town design. Even just making more content for the minigames they created would help! The survey game also had potential but no real replay.

Posted by: Adam Burke on 2 Nov 07

Funny to see my avatar here on WorldChanging; I've been a WC blogger in the past as an interactive media creative searching for better examples of engaging civic media (I'm the tall green fairy on the stage in the photo). We spoke at the Games for Change event last summer on the uses of Second Life and other interactive/virtual worlds for awareness-building, outreach and growth in new movements. Second Life has proven to be a very fertile place to bring together new campaigns and build new alliances in the nonprofit sector; educational groups have found that platform also productive for research. I am encouraged by a handful of games coming out of the Serious Games movement, but most will not gain traction in a world where shootemups reign supreme. The viral opportunities of OpenSocial and Facebook gaming apps gives me hope that aware and motivated game designers will find new ways to connect gaming and action.

My favorite game of the month is -- it has practical tips embedded and feels empowering, even when you lose.

Posted by: evonne on 6 Nov 07

Something is missing and that is the element of fun.

Let's be honest here, few adults play games that intuitively change their world perspective, much less, motivate them to change their life habits and current professions to in order to create a better world. I agree with the comments above, the games for social change that I have played, although wonderful in theory, to the credit of their creators, do not entice the right audience. I like them because they are better than the violent and degrading video games that I see played most often, on the subway, in the classroom and in internet gaming centers all over New York City. Yet, I wouldn't try to substitute any one of those games with

Granted, most would say that the comparison is unfair or even impossible and I would agree. However, the audience, is, should be, the same.

Kids grow up to be adults based on their capacity to adapt and survive. Unlike adults, they are open to change. They are also un-bashful in their interest in having fun, fitting in and generally falling in love with whatever life has to offer.

We need to get out of our heads and have fun with the technology and innovation. Teaching institutions will preside over traditional education in the classroom, and groundbreaking, attitude changing, revolutionary education will continue to come from the streets, where, people participate because it makes them feel good, more powerful and in control.

That is the avenue that games have always traveled down successfully, and its where teachers look to for ideas on how to make an impact in the classroom, and it is where the games for social change community needs to focus. Leave C-span alone and watch the young people of our world. Let human psychology and the reality of how we got to this point drive the creativity that is supposed to entice people to play, and understand where the most potential for change exists in each target society.

I would love to see a game that explores what happens when we change the rules, as Ms. Lang mentioned above. Only don't state the rules, let the player define them, test them, and then trusting the natural order, let the player see the results of their imagination.

Let them define their consequences for going out of bounds and them define their rewards, whether it be super mode of transportation or a big chunk of bling and cut the propaganda, regardless of its good intentions. Young people don't want to hear what someone else thinks, they are trying to do something that rarely exists in reality and that is think for themselves.

In doing this, we could have a game with "re-play" value for social change that works to promote individual thought amongst the most crucial demographic group in the world: our children.

Posted by: Tonia Lovejoy on 13 Nov 07



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