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The first of a two part posting explores the 8th annual Games For Change Festival as it tackles game development as a craft, expands the effort into transmedia, and engages the public sector.

Alan Arias, Blogger

June 23, 2011

4 Min Read

This past Monday marked the opening summit for the 8th annual Games for Change Festival at NYU's Skirball and Kimmel Center. Game developers, designers, educators, investors and Vice President Al Gore came together to present ideas on the increasing use of gaming for social impact. I had the opportunity of volunteering and attending, and to make some observations as well.

The Pre-Festival Summit, composed of game design seminars for educators and case studies on social impact games, focused on reemphasizing the "game" in serious games and expanding their field of play beyond the screen. In the morning, representatives from Filament games discussed iCivics, while Developer Kognito introduced At-Risk, which helps families deal with psychological disorders such as PTSD through simulated role play, and Swedish based Derk de Gues discussed the power of fuel based city building game Enercities.

After the initial round of Case Studies, the focus shifted to Al Gore's keynote in NYU's Skirball Auditorium. There was Al Gore, a joke about an injured cow and the global economy, and a lot about climate change. There wasn't too much about games, but we did have the privilege of a former Vice President supporting gaming, so no harm, no foul.

During lunch, I had a chance to talk with game developer and friend Kawsi Mensah, who shared some frustrations with serious games' tendency to overemphasize the serious at the cost of the game. "It has to be a good game first before it can teach anything." Thankfully, the afternoon session delivered an answer with near-telepathic readiness as presenters shifted their focus to the power of game design as a form. Nick Fortugno discussed basketball as a successful serious game, Uncle Tom's Cabin as a model sentimentalist novel, and the necessity of understanding the ability of games as a medium in order for successful educational content to be possible. Other shiners included the Knight Foundation's Macon Money project, and a Case Study of the serious hit EVOKE.

The tone of the day was focus on the form, and emphasis on play beyond the screen. Throughout the day, conversation centered around the the unique capacities games possess as a medium, and using those qualities to reconnect a broken reality.

Day 2: The Public Sector, and Questions of Scale

The first official day of the festival focused on games for social impact, and their relationship to various government organizations and initiatives, but not before organizers launched the Knight Foundation sponsored conference game, Stakehold'em. The game provided attendees a way to meet each other by combining a single card they received at registration with those of other attendees to form hands and win prizes. It started with the opening ceremonies and would run until 4:00PM the next day, effectively bringing gamification to the networking sphere.

Following the opening ceremonies, talks and panels originated from various government officials, including Chief Digital Officer of NYC Rachel Sterne, the NEA's Alyce Myatt, and Department of Education Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement, James Shelton. Talks focused on the rapid integration of digital media into government services as well as the question of the public sphere's challenges in developing content within gaming, a predominantly commercial medium. Funding opportunities were discussed, budgets as well; James Shelton used the phrase, improve on the status quo, then move it to scale, to emphasize the importance nationally scalable innovation in improving American public education.

In personal conversations during the break, the power of games to motivate social change came into question. One person in particular highlighted the absence of poverty and racial issues from presentations. A question from one attendee clarified the problem: in developing games through new technologies, are we actually increasing the gap between underserved communities and their privileged counterparts?

More panels, then demo spotlights of games. Frank Lantz, Connie Yowell and Ken Perlin passed judgement on a slew of games as their designers presented on stage. Critiques focused on anchoring these games in what Tracy Fullerton would describe as the message in the mechanic, which seemed to be a challenge for the designers on stage. The best presenters achieved this goal at least in concept, while others were told to re-embed their messages in new forms and bring marketing strategies in hand for the next iteration.

The day closed with a reception at Amnesia on 29th St. and 10th Ave, where conversations continued into the night. Questions over funding and the public sphere turned over in people's minds while others around accessibility were left still in the air. The night brought relaxation and the promise of more talk of games and change.

Next: Day 3--Gaming for Immediate Change, and Schell's Take on Violence.

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