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Event Wrap Up: Second Annual Games for Change Conference

Held at the City University of New York from October 21 to 22, a group composed of game designers, academic researchers, educators, students, funding agents and like-minded people gathered at the Second Annual Games for Change Conference, to discuss ways that games can convey social messages and facilitate learning.

Rusel DeMaria, Blogger

October 28, 2005

24 Min Read

Held at the City University of New York from October 21 to 22, a group composed of game designers, academic researchers, educators, students, funding agents and like-minded people gathered to discuss what are being called “games for change” at the Second Annual Games for Change Conference. The premise is that games – the technology and the design expertise – can be used to convey social messages and to facilitate learning.

Ben Sawyer of Digital Mill, and one of the organizers of the event, kicked it off. He talked about mimicking other forms of media, such as the Ad Council and groups in television and film who advocate for social change and for independent media. He also suggested that the future of games may move from one-off games to open engines, mentioning also that modding is currently the predominant source of derivative content.

Sawyer also noted that the game industry “arguably makes more of an investment in virtual humans than any other.”

He mentioned the online video, “My Trip to Liberty City” which is an intriguing look at Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas from a player's perspective, then moved into the idea of play spaces and thought spaces – “all the data floating around with the thinker in the middle.”

Other topics covered included:

  • Learning across media – the wide social networks and ancillary activities of games, such as guilds, IRC communication, walkthroughs, FAQs, logs, etc.

  • The work of people like Constance Steinkuehler in how people form teams and collaborations in game spaces.

  • The realm of pedagogy and games including mentions of the work of David Schaefer and Jim Gee. “The situational literacy models that we put in games are the same mental models we wish you could learn.”

  • Assessment of skills using games, referring to flight simulators and “the world's most amazing medical simulation” for heart stem surgery. He asserts that we can come up with baseline standards for predicting someone's real-world competence based on their performance in simulations.

  • Learning to get more user-centric with more malleable interfaces for characters, skins, rules and so forth. He mentioned Civilization IV, saying “You can redo the entire AI if you know what you're doing. Rules become silly putty when the user reconfigures the interface.” He posed the questions: Do people learn better when they can reconfigure the rules? How much can we do and learn at one time?

  • Collecting lots of data and constructing lots of data, mentioning NASA' s project to digitize the world down to 10 centimeters. He also mentioned Brenda Laurel's observation that people like to drive by their house – or in general to enter into these huge worlds in order to find the landmarks with which they are familiar.


Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program and tech consultant, began the keynote by talking about the real value of games often being outside the game content. His first example was to talk about two games – the Antiwargame and a game called Killer. He criticized the Antiwargame from FutureFarmers, stating that it tended toward a stable and therefore uninteresting state if you simply cranked up the business/military budgets and sat back. He talked about the various parameters available to the player in the way it was set up. In contrast, he talked about Killer, “a very simple game where you have the option to increase your own point score or decrease the point score of the person in the lead by use of coalitions.” Shirky talks about the utter simplicity of the game and how it is far superior in his opinion, at stimulating interest and ad hoc coalition building. Since each player knows that he or she can be a target at any time, he called them “shifting coalitions.” “The formation of coalitions is not formal to the rules, but is implicit in the play.” In contrast, the Antiwargame offers a larger range of options, but nothing as interesting as Killer with almost no content, but a form that leads to collaboration.

Shirky then talked about the importance of distinguishing form from content. “What a game says is not what it means. What it does is what it means.” He mentioned attempts at games with normative goals that fail because they are boring. Worse, when they fail they make the subject of the goal – say, racial tolerance – seem boring as well. He suggested taking the normative goal you wish to include in your game and making a game with almost no content – such as a card game or dice game. Make it almost content free. In essence, a game has to be a game first and the content must fit good design principles.

He continued his talk with a lengthy discussion of the Prisoner's Dilemma and showed how cooperation in game situations can be improved through iteration. Iteration, he stated, creates a framework for trust and innovation. “For game design, it's better to design a game that you can play four times in an hour, particularly with social implications.” He later agreed that one game that took 60 hours to play would solve the problem of iteration if the player continued to return to it and was exposed to the iterative content again and again in the course of play within one instance of the game over multiple sessions.

Shirky also brought up the concept that before playability comes the desire to play. “People have to first want to play a game before playability becomes a factor. I look at this as intention before action.” He explained that you'll get different results with a random group of people if you set out five games and let them choose which to play instead of just presenting one game and getting their feedback. You find out more not only about what they think of the games they play, but what games attracted them in the first place.

After further discussion of iteration and its importance in learning and absorbing information in which he contends that real change takes place at a deeper level in which the mind is literally rewired to alter opinions or beliefs, he moved to a discussion of the game of Monopoly.

To Shirky, one of the most compelling aspects of Monopoly is the arguments that take place over the rules, and the discussion and ultimate agreement over which rule sets to use, along with the aspect of watching for infractions of the rules during play. He noted that this sort of plasticity in rules is often missing in computer games.

He went on to say that games imply an agreement to be bound by a local set of rules, but that it's not enough to have the right normative goals… you have to have a game that's fun to play and to replay. It's about building an expertise through repetitive play.

“The content of the game is in the game, but the content of the play is in the player,” said Shirky. Watching what they do, argue about, play over and over – the game can't offer change, but the platform encodes the offer of change, even if not the value of it. “Ultimately,” he said, “the hope for games for change is to offer the opportunity for players to change their worldview rather than to impart mere information.”

Open Independence : New Models for Indie and Activist Game Development
Panelists: Celia Pearce, Mark Holly, Bill Tomlinson, Katie Salen, Clay Shirky

Celia Pearce, an author, game designer, and teacher/researcher at the University of California Irvine moderated this panel and began by speaking about the tendency of game designers to fall into a very didactic approach to games for change. They often make the games a test environment to see if the user learned what they designer wanted them to learn. But in games, much learning takes place on the fly. You don't have to know anything to start the task. You learn by doing it, and when you need more information, you go and get it.

Pearce mentioned her current project called Spaceship Earth, which she described as a MMOS (Massive Multiplayer Online Simulation), which she's working on in conjunction with the Buckminster Fuller Institute. The concept of the game can be summed up as “think globally and act locally.” Fundamentally, each player will have a specific zone of influence in the game world and each person's contribution will affect the overall state of the simulation. She said that often in games, we look at the whole system as if we had control over the whole system… that only part of the game involves letting players “work on the ground and think of the whole.”

Mar k Holly from UC Irvine's synthetic character group discussed his EcoRaft project next. In his demonstration he described the project as a simple simulation of ecosystem restoration. He outlined three general principles that inspired the game concept:

  • Ecosystem depletion is easy and restoration is hard.

  • Restoration is a stepwise process – some species are necessary before others can take hold.

  • Cooperation helps.

The game is designed to involve children and their parents. The children work with tablet PCs, each of which “carries” a specific species. They are given a time limit and told that they must take the species to the “island,” which is represented on another PC, and deliver them in the proper order to successfully restore the environment on the island. Meanwhile, the parents can press a button that undoes all the children's progress. Kids not only had to cooperate by assigning specific species to certain kids, but also by assigning a kid whose responsibility it was to prevent the parents from hitting the dreaded button. Kids and parents enjoyed the experience, and the kids in particular showed a desire to play the game more than once – both to improve their performance and also because some kids would want to play different roles – such as carrying the species or guarding against the parents.

Katie Salen from The New School and co-author (with Eric Zimmerman ) of Rules of Play, began by asking a number of questions including:

  • What role does education play in teaching kids how to develop game for change?

  • Is this a question of literacy?

  • Are games for change a kind of radical text?

  • What guidelines are there for games for change?

She called education the “practice of freedom” and challenged whether game designers should tackle social issues or embrace the status quo. She warned about separating games for change from “regular” games… and expressed that it was important to talk about game design and take the position that all games can take part in that agenda. She contended that it takes a fierce commitment and will to accomplish these goals.

Clay Shirky then talked about the idea of openness and the issue of “who cares?” He contended that it takes considerable intention and desire to create to maintain an open project, using the Wikipedia as an example. “The Wikipedia looks like an object, but it is a source of low-level disagreement. It is maintained by a small group who cares enormously, who are constantly staving off hostile edits. Without that small group of dedicated individuals, the hostile edits could destroy the Wikipedia in a matter or days.”

He continued that the vast majority of open source projects never get off the ground, and of those that do, most fail. Openness creates a phenomenal bonus to community, especially by getting that community to care and spur a communal effort. There is a productive argument about what could and should happen. But the issue of who cares is central. If nobody cares, it will fail. He mentions an experiment by the Los Angeles Times to create a “wikitorial” in which people could edit other people's editorials. It was pulled within two days because nobody cared enough what happened to the edits, not even the original writers who had made their point and didn't seem to want to follow up. You must have motivation for open source projects to work.

Katie Salen talked briefly about the game mechanics – that designers should look for what will work best for the type of subject you are tackling, and to look at meta game opportunities, as well.

Celia Pearce talked about the fact that, in more passive media, such as the novel, the experience is about empathy. In contrast, games are about agency. It's about what decisions you make.

Social Issues Games Overview
Ian Bogost – Persuasive Games, watercoolergames.com and Georgia Tech

Bogost began with a somewhat ontological look at the word “serious,” coming up with a wide variety of meaning, such as solemn, consequential, grave, highbrow, reflective, structural (as in “that's a serious cheesecake). He also mentioned that serious games are often considered as productive toward supporting or reinforcing structures – in various areas such as education, military, public policy, business, etc. He mentioned the game A Force More Powerful (not yet released), which attempts to model nonviolent regime change. He suggested that there is a bias inherent in the model for the game that assumes democracy as the desirable end. “What does this game tell us about the assumptions we make?” he asked.

In another example, he talked about BiochemFX, a model for simulating the dispersion of chemical agents in cities intended for first responders. But, he tells us, this simulation has no model for our association with the value of life. This is a physical simulation as opposed to a social simulation.

He then talked about how games with an agenda reconstruct and suggest new agendas, after which he began a discussion of Alain Badiou's Transfinite Set Theory.

Elements of the Transfinite Set Theory Bogost discussed:

  • A specific constituted set is a “situation.”

  • A situation's logic is a “structure.”

  • An event is a restructuring of a situation – a rupture that initiates a process called “faithfulness to an event (rupture), such as a political revolution, falling in love, etc.

  • A subject is an agent acting in fidelity with an event, not necessarily related to an immediate action.

After defining terms, Bogost asserted that games with an agenda are procedural representations of a system in a situation that disrupts the current order – that it forms a crisis or simulation fever.

Next, he discussed the implicit message about food in the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, noting that, although food was a component of game play, the only food available in the game was fast food. Did the designers have an agenda in mind? Probably not, but it brings up the value of game criticism, in seeing what the effects – conscious or unconscious – of games can be, as well as the messages that are intentionally or unintentionally delivered. This is useful information – how we “unpack existing games as social artifacts.”

He went on to state that even in so-called serious games, there's room to effect social change. He gave the example of a retail training game that could go beyond the mechanics of the job to model something about micro-economies.

Like many at this conference, he stressed that it isn't enough simply to send a message, but also to generate action. He talked about the political game from the Republican National Committee called John Kerry Tax Invaders – a crudely implemented version of Space Invaders in which the invaders are supposed to be John Kerry's tax plans, and the user controls George Bush's head which shoots down these plans.

Bogost contended that, despite the apparent crudeness of the game, it was very sophisticated vehicle for propaganda. Its imagery of Kerry's policies swooping down in an attack and the image of shooting them down both work visually and kinesthetically. But then, looked at another way, he proposed that this same bit of work could be used as a brain-shifting tool for the left.

He briefly talked about his mobile game, Airport Insecurity, which is designed mainly to be played in long lines at airports and involves a sort of simulation of the way we follow orders in such situations and also a game involving the attempt to smuggle various items through the security checkpoints. He admitted that it was likely to be controversial and had no idea what kind of responses it would get – both official reactions and those of the public.

Bogost went on to contend that people developing these games should consider that there is a business in it. They must do more than be distributed free online and supported by an invested organization. That part of the role of the pioneers at the conference was to identify, challenge and change the foundations of our understanding of the world – “procedurality to dismantle ideology.” He talked of events of subjects designed to encourage fidelity – participating in the way that reconfiguration can take place.

Finally, he suggested that games are expressive in the way that art is expressive. Just because a game or form of media wears its agenda on its sleeve, doesn't necessarily make it marketing.

Funding Perspectives
Panelists: Connie Yowell (MacArthur Foundation), Chinwe Onyekere (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), Franklin Madison (ITAC) and moderated by Suzanne Seggerman (Games for Change, Web Lab)

This panel consisted of representatives of funding groups discussing their insights, discoveries and concerns about games as a medium for social change. It kicked off with Connie Yowell who contended that there hasn't been a new approach to pedagogy since Dewey. “We need a new approach,” she said. After a short recap of the history of education from its old model – the transmission model – to the adoption of more cognitive models, she told us that the world has shifted and conceptions of the mind shifting – creating associations and pattern recognition are more relevant. Games allow people to organize, to orient and to frame ideas, and function as externalizations of the mind. She suggested that this translated into a new kind of thinking about curriculum.

She described games as a way for kids to hold themselves accountable. The agency is up to them. So what do we want kids to be empowered to do? It has to do with cultural capital – how do you participate in normative culture to be successful. Yowell mentions Diner Dash as an example of a game that represents something along these lines.

In concluding, Yowell warned that while funding and resources are available, developers need to be wary of flooding the field with unsuccessful products. She noted that we need ways for independent games to be funded, especially with alternative economic models. Finally, she expressed concern over an industry dominated by only a few companies.

Next, Chinwe Onyekere spoke of her work with the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation in the area of health initiatives and mentioned two projects as examples of games for change:

  • A hospital simulation that trained people to do a better job of overseeing hospitals and correctly identifying problems within hospital operations.

  • A Nintendo platform product for keeping personal health records.

Frank Madison then picked up with a story about playing Star Wars: Galaxies online and picking on a particular player, in his words, "basically shooting him and waxing him with weapons of choice," only to discover while chatting with the victim that he was actually Madison's superior in their organization and in a position to implement funding for games with social purpose. The man was a respected surgeon and nobody knew he was also a gamer. The moral, according to Madison is "be careful who you massacre online; that person might be your boss!"

Madison also said there was a need for metrics around creativity and critical thinking – field testing to see what works. He said there are two forces in education today – No Child Left Behind and digital media clearing expressing a preference for the latter.

Madison went on to talk about the need to research what is happening inside games – to connect to it – and also how to demonstrate scale. He left off advocating partnerships with education programs at universities and with centers for advanced technology.

Funding Perspectives: New Initiatives
Panelists: Stephen Friedman (MTV), Brad Lewis (Learn & Serve America), Jean Miller (Center for Public Diplomacy/USC), Cathy Fischer (ITVS) and moderated by Benjamin Stokes of NetAid

The last panel of the day was moderated by Ben Stokes who spoke briefly about NetAid's commitment to addressing poverty and how games were the way to go to scale and give useful perspectives, before yielding the floor to Stephen Friedman of MTV.

Friedman introduced his affiliation with mtvU – a specific version of MTV aimed at college campuses. He then spoke of MTV's commitment to activism, working through the college network. He mentioned two contests – the first, dubbed the “Digital Incubator,” is co-sponsored by Cisco and offers ten $25K grants to students or groups of students who can create a game, movie short or any other broadband content that's new and never before seen. In this case, there is no social purpose or guiding principle, however. (http://www.mtvu.com/on_mtvu/digital_incubator/)

The second, which ends November 1, 2005 and carries a more social slant, is a contest for an interactive project to end the crisis in Darfur with a donation of $50,000 toward the development of the winning project. (http://www.mtvu.com/on_mtvu/activism/)

“Activist games,” he said, “are the new kind of megaphone.”

Next, Jean Miller introduced her project – a graduate thesis at the University of Southern California entitled, “Can Space Invaders Bring World Peace? A Study of Political Communications and Video Games.”

Her work comprises two parts – the basic research, which includes empirical work on global issues using MMOs as the vehicle; and a contest to engage the public.

The contest is open to anyone and it's designed to provoke thinking about public policy. The submission is a game prototype incorporating elements of public diplomacy, by which she means intercultural communication, negotiation, nonviolent conflict resolution, international relations… and definitely NOT propaganda.

The prize includes $5000 (which she admits is not a whole lot) and a trip to Los Angeles including dinner and the screening of the winning entry with the contest judges, who include John Seely Brown, Bing Gordon, T.L. Taylor, Cory Ondrejka and other industry leaders. For more information, see http://www.uscpublicdiplomacy.com/index.php/projects/contest/.

Cathy Fischer then took the floor to talk about the state of independent films 15 years ago and ITVS's role in funding indie films. “We are now getting into interactive media – starting with our Electric Shadows project, which came from PBS five years ago.” Although not quite games, she mentioned four electric shadows web-based documentaries which can be found at http://www.itvs.org/electricshadows/eShadowsF.html.

Fischer then went on to talk about a call to game developers for new interactive media, which is currently in its final stages with a winner selected and only awaiting a letter of intent. Although this last call for content marks the end of their current funding cycle, she expressed the intent to do more of such projects in the future.

Lastly, Brad Lewis talked about his group's mission – to promote equity, social justice and core values with the following four main goals to engage:

  • Disadvantaged youth

  • Baby boomers

  • Volunteer generation

  • Youth in their communities

The Learn & Serve America project will be investing $40 million over the next three years in projects to promote their mission.

Featured Game: The UN's Food Force

The second day of the conference began with a brief presentation by Zach Abraham of the World Food Programme, a UN frontline agency to combat global hunger. Abraham spoke of the surprising success of the Food Force game, which more or less accurately depicts the challenges faced by the WFP in planning and delivery of food to starving people in the third world and in disaster areas. The English version of the game has already had more than two million downloads and a Japanese version had, within days of its release, had 140,000 downloads. The game has been downloaded by people all over the world.

Food Force was designed with kids 8-13 in mind, and it's structured as a race against time, with six missions designed to teach what the WFP does in real life. Among the missions are air surveillance, food formulation, buying and selling food, air drops and ground missions, and a future farming mission to help the people in starving nations grow their own food. The game was created in Macromedia Director and programming and development were carried out by an Italian company, Deepend.

Theories of Change Panel
Panelists: Medard Gabel (BigPictureSmallWorld) and Bob Runyan (Real Lives)

This panel began with the quote: “You can't teach anything. You can only learn.” It then launched into a discussion of the nature of change and how it takes place. Gabel used the phrase “facilitator of learning” and talked about his time working with Buckminster Fuller, including the Networldgame.

Game Design for Change
Eric Zimmerman and Nick Fortugno (both of GameLab)

In this hands-on workshop, Zimmerman and Fortugno address the question: “Can game designers treat ‘social change' as just another constraint?”

What followed was a demonstration of a word game in which the rules were changed after each round:

Round 1: Two participants must alternate saying a word and not repeating any word said by the other.

Round 2: The word must be about food.

Round 3: The word must begin with the last letter of the previous player's word and still be about food.

It was clear that the final round, with the added rule was more interesting as a game than the previous two. The audience was more engaged and the challenge was greater, creating more tension with each iteration.

Another participatory game took place in the workshop involving several conference-goers in a demonstration of a game of power, social dynamics, collaboration and betrayal. It had much in common with Diplomacy, but with some different twists. It demonstrated the power of rules and how simple rules can dramatically change the nature of gameplay.


Right now it seems that many brilliant and motivated researchers and designers are engaged in an exploration of game space as it relates to social change. As the day ended, there was a brief period in which any participant could rant about whatever issue they felt passionate about. I was particularly struck by one young man who said, essentially, “Forget all the big companies and research and universities. Go to any high school and empower the kids to create games and you'll be swimming in great games with social content and relevance.” Those weren't his exact words, but essentially he was calling upon us as a group to recognize the untapped genius and resources of the youth of this country.



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About the Author(s)

Rusel DeMaria


Rusel DeMaria has been a participant and observer in the electronic gaming industry since its inception. He has written nearly 60 strategy guides and is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of that book genre. DeMaria has been a senior editor and columnist for several national magazines, a speaker at the prestigious Computer Game Developer’s Conference as well as other industry events.

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