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Michael John: Games are a great way to explore complex social issues

In his GDC talk, Michael John observed that video games are fundamentally similar to activism. "Games are about verbs acting on a system," he said. "That's also what it means to be an activist."

In his Thursday GDC talk, Michael John observed that video games are fundamentally similar to activism. "Games are about verbs acting on a system," he said. "That's also what it means to be an activist."

John spent 25 years working in the commercial industry on franchises like Spyro and Daxter. He's now program director at the UC Santa Cruz Games & Playable Media program, and has been creating and consulting on serious game projects for the last four years.

At GDC, he described his experience with serious games, and he had a message for developers: you are both needed and wanted.

John says he's met with (and brainstormed with) people from outfits like the Carnegie Corporation, the MacArthur Foundation, N Square, Ploughshares Fund. The caricature in the past is that these companies were willing to fund serious games, but that they were clueless about what games are and what they can do. That's not John's impression. His main takeaway for GDC attendees: "Smart people are learning that who they want to talk to is you."

John suggested that stories and linear narratives can be a powerful way to highlight social issues, such as the documentary Blackfish. But he points out that An Inconvenient Truth--the book and the documentary--have not had a similar impact. In fact, polling shows that more people don't believe in global warming now than when the book was release.

"Sometimes linear media fails," he says. "It has a fundamental problem--it can only show one aspect of a complex situation, only one of many potential outcomes. Stories are effective but reductive; they're the most efficient form of data compression in world."

John suggests that interactivity may be a better way to convey messages about complex systems. , "Global warming is complicated--maybe a game could do it better,' he says. "The complexity of games is what makes them special. A game with lots of marginal win states...is a good game."

There are lots of other issues out there. For example, the growth in antibiotic resistance, which is worsened by over prescription and people failing to take the full course of antibiotics once they've been prescribed. "The only way you can really understand this problem is if you know how evolution works, and that's a complicated thing," he says.

John pointed out that there are more and more financial incentives to explore serious games--for instance, Games For Change is running $10K challenges for games that encourage savings or educate about climate issues. He invited developers interested in learning more to subscribe to the Level Up Report newsletter, and join the Games Make Good Facebook group.

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