[This article was originally published on my personal blog, Possibility Space. To see the original post, please visit http://8bitphoenix.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/on-games-and-change/ ]
The 8th Annual Games for Change Festival has come and gone, leaving in its wake some hopes and successes, but more challenges, and surpsring illprompted questions as the annual showcase fades quietly into the distance. I was in a crowded room last Tuesday following the panel on Public Media, when a conversation with a woman named Rachel sparked a terrible question: is the work sponsored at Games for Change equalizing our socio-economically stratified society, or is it in danger of actually increasing the achievement gap between underserved communities and their privileged counterparts? It was emerging, the seeming contradiction of using advanced and expensive technologies to improve the lives of people who most likely live without easy access to them, as the question of whether it was surmountable.
Capitalism in America is a complicated beast. On one end, it promotes free competition, which in turn motivates the development of industries and technologies that move society forward and offer the potential for improving standards of living globally. Unfortunately, the system is a double edged sword, as it also places an inherent focus on the acquisition of wealth, which left unchecked leads to the development of economic hierarchy and social stratification, easily observable for anyone who has visited and compared, for example, the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the South Bronx. Wealth, and all the access that comes with it (healthcare, education, technology), tends to clump in watersheds and accumulate, leaving the unlucky souls who do not have it summarily behind. Gaming as an industry has been thriving off and feeling the side effects of our brand of capitalism for decades now, as skyrocketing production costs have necessitated that only the larger studios with the suitable budgets can make blockbuster games, exercise broader research projects, and reach a wider array of audiences with extensive marketing campaigns, while the smaller indie developers have to go on much intuition and hope they know their medium and audience well enough to make the connection. The success of one person or group unfortunately seems to come at the expense of others.
Games at G4C this year focused mainly on generating awareness for social issues and the decisions that affect them. The Fate of the World engages players in making decisions that combat the Global Warming crisis, ultimately having to deal with issues that global policy makers experience on a daily basis. The Garbage Dreams Game helps players through making garbage policy decisions, contextualizing them within the sanitation system of Cairo Egypt, and manages to be fun in its emphasis on resource management and manic garbage sorting. Each of these projects demonstrated the increasing promise of games as classroom educational tools, and one day could be a vital force in teaching students the skills they need to be effective thinkers. The questions about access, however, still hang in the air. As James Shelton commented during his session, the problem transcends innovation, it demands scale.
I did find some hope, however, from two unexpected sources, the first being Macon Money by the Knight Foundation. Designed as part of a wider community development effort in Macon, Georgia, Macon Money gives players bills of value that they can only activate by discovering a paired match in a different area code. On a community building level, the game brought people together across different socio-economic classes who otherwise would not have met, all in service of fun. People made friends, and boundaries were broken. Economically, the game also had the effect of shifting the spending patterns of its players, effectively redistributing the wealth of Macon by creating new spending traffic patterns. Breaking down barriers within the community, Macon Money has been able to leave access economic opportunity and social networks closer to balance than when the game began. It is an impressive feat that shows how play can overcome socio-economic stratification.
Then, there was Gabe Newell, and his talk on the power of games for social change. Newell actually spent time playing a game called 3rd World Farmer, which forced him to ponder the plights of poor farmers by modeling their struggles, but mostly made him feel bad about himself. In response, Newell decided to use Valve’s resources and attack the problem directly, partnering with the Gates Foundation to release some of the company’s proprietary software to anyone with a computer, internet connection, and willingness to make virtual goods. Farmer’s used the software to build goods online and sell them at a profit, and the move was so successful that PayPal actually hesitated in transferring money to these farmers, because the numbers were so large. Within this system, farmers make enough to buy necessary tools, avoid expensive trips, and ultimately survive. By releasing proprietary technology to these underserved communities, Newell and Valve gave them the tools to help them feed themselves on a daily basis. As Newell noted, because the movement of electrons in a computer costs less energy than moving anything with mass, virtual industries will always offer a lower economic barrier of entry than their physical counterparts, providing a concrete tool for the democratization of wealth across the world.
An event like the Games for Change Festival walks a fine line in trying to promote social change through new technologies. The trick is sometimes putting tech into the hands of the people that need it the most. Farmers across the planet need resources to offset startup costs; stratified communities can use games to bridge gaps through play; and students in the inner cities of our country can use games that foster community, assist education, and generate access to the physical and social resources that are increasingly crucial and out of reach. At it best, participants of Games For Change can use the power of play and technology to generate access to resources and equalize the flow of wealth, knowledge, and culture between communities, thereby subverting a system that works for some, but not most.