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G4C Reflections Pt 2:The Return of the Commercial Sphere and--Racism?

This post reports on the entrance of commercial designers into the conversation on the last day of Games For Change, where they challenged assumptions about the space and asked hard questions of the medium as a whole.

Any day in which a world class designer can walk into a hall packed with developers, educators, industry professionals, funders, and policy makers, and pose the question: "What if humans are inherently racist?"--is an excellent day. Welcome to Day 2 of Games for Change 2011

The last day of the festival was full of surprises as presentations took on an increasingly international and commercial tone. Zynga's Laura Pincus Hartman discussed the power of social gaming giant Farmville, which raised one million US dollars for food in Haiti through play and a partnership with the World Food Programme. She described "virtual high energy biscuits" which were rewarded to players for their efforts, and mimicked physical biscuits given to Hatians in the wake of the 2009 earthquake. She described these efforts as part of Zynga mission to bring the world together through social gaming.

In the NYU Law School, the Games for Learning Institute which officially hosts the festival, made its first stage appearance. Talks focused on advances in the use of educational games, but perhaps some of the day's most pronounced comments came from Gabe Newell, Managing Director of Valve, when he ascribed the failure of educational games to lazy game design, in a room potentially full of said lazy designers, then received their thunderous applause. Other highlights from Newell's talk included the idea of Portal 2 as a physics learning game, some well awaited standardized test bashing, and a system which successfully fights poverty by letting 3rd world farmers use Valve software to create and sell products online.

The games most provocative statements came at the end however, as Jesse Schell abandoned gamification to struggle with violence in a presentation titled, "Make Games, Not War". The talk described the designer's insecurity about the medium, some analogies between gaming and Valhalla, and an analysis of their ability to promote war and peace. Then, he asked the question about whether or not we're all inherently racist, violent creatures, and--as the air reentered the room--he began to posit on gaming's ability to break down barriers rather than reinforce them. Some comments garnered more reaction than others, but it was refreshing to see Schell examining what are pretty radical ideas for the gaming industry.

The festival closed with an awards ceremony for 15 games across 4 categories, where games such as Participatory Chinatown and The Curfew received awards in Direct Impact and Learning and Education respectively. Co-Presidents Michelle Byrd and Asi Burak drew the festival to a close, and, just as quickly as it had begun, the 8th Annual Games for Change Conference shuttled to an end.

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