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Serious Gaming For The Greater Good: The 2007 Games For Change Conference

Gamasutra attended this week's fourth annual Games For Change festival in New York, and presents the most comprehensive coverage of keynotes and panel reports on the burgeoning sector of games with a social agenda, including insight from Microsoft exec Jeff Bell.

The fourth annual Games For Change festival, held on June 11th and 12th, 2007, was hosted in New York City by Parsons The New School for Design. During the two-day event, non-profit activists and academics converged with independent game designers to discuss the use of gaming to promote social agendas, and the event’s Expo Night, held on June 11th and sponsored by Microsoft, featured a showcase of this year’s games, the most notable of which were honored with Games for Change “Ga-Cha” Awards.

Following is Gamasutra’s full coverage of the Games for Change festival, including keynotes, a variety of panel reports, an interview with Jeff Bell, Corporate Vice President of Global Marketing for the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft Corp. and a roundup of the games showcased at Expo Night.

Community Partners

Games for Change identifies itself as a community partner, guided by the needs and activities of its membership. Its roots lie in the idea that games influence social and cultural mores for better or worse, and encourages developer responsibility for design choices that focus on the goals of impacting the world in a positive way—which need not be at odds with a fun experience.

Susan Seggerman, President of G4C, said that to continue reaching their core audience—and to engage a new one—nonprofits need to emphasize process over product in the “field-building” stages, weighing heavily the value of what’s learned in collaborations like those between GlobalKids and GameLab. In that vein, Seggerman also announced that G4C will partner in a major long-term, multi-year initiative with Xbox and Windows, possibly including the Boys and Girls Clubs and Club Tech.

“We are having, in this partnership with Microsoft, an impact on how this giant is thinking about socially responsible gaming,” Seggerman said. “That’s really an amazing thing that this community has done.

“At the same time, we are learning from Microsoft how important it is that our games are viable in the open market.”

Seggerman also announced a number of other developments new to G4C over previous years—this year, the MacArthur foundation bestowed the organization with a community-building grant, to be used in initiatives both on and off-line. G4C will also continue its partnership with MTV, and plans to announce later this year the launch of a major site, which will include some of the festival’s games.

Additionally, G4C will partner with MoveOn.org on the issue of net neutrality, its first public policy initiative announced this year.

Seggerman recognizes that while the idea exchange between the nonprofit and the technology world requires an engagement that pushes traditional comfort zones, the collaborative process is of primary value to the organization. “What’s important,,” Seggerman says, “is that these groups are all very different and divergent, and they have different strengths. The productive tensions and conflicts that happen when these groups come together is the greatest thing that this community has going for us. We need to have these in order to do what we’re trying to do.”


Challenges in Socially Conscious Gaming

Much was made at the Games for Change festival of the potential in the idea of using games to spread a message and motivate an audience to action. But the movement has more to do before their initiatives—and, concretely, their games—can actually be called successful.

Most notably, activists and academics are not game designers; when polled, only about half the conference attendees identified themselves as active gamers. A major issue raised in discussion was that while the message is essential, the priority still needs to be solid design and engaging gameplay.

“The games that we’re seeing—and I think we all sort of share this frustration—are not really fulfilling on the promise of what brings us to conferences like this, what makes us work on this field,” said Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of GameLab. Zimmerman cautioned against activist designers who, in their eagerness to convey a positive socially-conscious message, judge certain aspects of gaming as “bad”—for example, the conflict, the hyperstimulation or the addictive qualities—and attempt to siphon those elements out of the games they make.

Zimmerman noted that much of games’ pleasurable qualities are actually derived from those elements, and designers of socially-conscious games can make more effective products by embracing the nature of games, rather than combating them.

“We need to understand our medium better,” Zimmerman advised. “Animation and virtual words are fine, but we need to think about games as games—there are very basic issues we should all be thinking about as we try to marry the activist agenda to the work that we’re doing. Is ‘not sucking’ any kind of criteria for thinking about doing cultural work that’s meant to have an effect on the culture at large?”

Blame SimCity

“A persistent problem in serious games is that they always try to be SimCity,” said Clive Thompson, technology features writer for the New York Times and Wired Magazine. Given that all of these serious game designers have neither the budget or the vision of Will Wright, these activist titles arranged as sims are “too earnest-minded,” Thompson said. Will gamers want to play for four hours simply to get “the message”?

Indeed, according to Thompson, the best examples from which socially-conscious game designers might benefit are surprising—games like New York Defender, the exercise in futility wherein the object is to shoot planes attacking the World Trade Center, or The Anti-Bush Game, a bizarre and sophomoric battle game—where victory actually produces engaging and complex interactive cutscenes designed to educate players about the country’s finances, the deficit and tax breaks.

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Popular PC city building game SimCity 3000

 

These sorts of simplistic, viral titles aren’t even made by professional game designers—and yet, they’re swapped frenetically among office inboxes, reaching infectious proportions and millions of audience members per day.

Simplistic, they often state only a single, very basic message, usually something either offensive or amusing about current events. As such, they’re very effective. Could The Paris Hilton Game be a better model for serious game designers to spread a message—and motivate immediate action—than, for example, an elaborate simulation that allows gamers to painstakingly experience Darfur, or re-draw congressional districts by hand?


Can Games Change The World?

How does one earn the title of “Chief Gaming Officer” at an enterprise computing company like Sun Microsystems? For Chris Melissinos—himself a gamer who claims 42 consoles in his home, and a programmer who published his first game at the age of 12, it started 7 years ago when he realized that gaming could be a great way to use Sun’s technology to start connecting individuals across separate systems, and give developers the ability to address a much broader market.

“Do you understand who’s going to be driving tech adoption?” He asked the CEOs, at a time when the company’s stock was only $2.70 a share. Making the case in favor of leveraging games for the greater good, the CEO acquiesced.

Watching the impact games have had on his children, Melissinos is convinced they can change the world. “We have the opportunity to use games have a more open global conversation than at any point in history,” he said.

One advantage for the activist community seeking to foster a climate of change is the certain level of anonymity that gaming provides. “Because of these masks that we can put up, you’re free to say what’s really on your mind. Everyone’s equal in the World of Warcraft; everyone has the ability to have an equal voice. What you get is a very raw communication.”

The idea that a 13-year-old child can broadcast a “message to the planet” from home in the first time in human history affords an opportunity for greater expression, communication, and understanding. “Now we’re at the point where it’s this unfettered broadcast, and finding the right messages is incredibly exciting,” Melissinos said.

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On the topic of content control, Melissinos posited that one of the things that makes an environment like Second Life so powerful is the “feeling of ownership. If you give people the ability to own something, they will police it harder than you ever can.” At the same time, the natural settling of social structure in a virtual world as in the real world, means that inevitably, there will be groups doing work for the greater good.

Open-source in particular has revolutionary potential—but, as Melissinos warned, “to say that as a startup game developer doing a complex game you’ll suddenly build open source is a bit over-reaching. You’ve got to do a bit of homework in that space.” To that end, Sun has created a game server platform called Project Darkstar to be released to GPL.


Many educational institutions, for example, would appreciate access to enterprise-level server technology for multiplayer gaming. In Sun’s case, a group of students from Singapore were able to take stripped-down, early access material from the site and create a mobile-to-PC game.

With all of the potential in new technology just beginning to be realized, the important question remains—how to merge these technologies with the real world? Melissinos noted “we’ve never had a model to build on; we’re trying to see what works.” Caveat? The barrier to entry in game development and design is greater than with other forms of interactive content loosely considered “games”—it’s easier, for example, to upload an image to Flickr or a video to YouTube than it is to create a game. In light of this, the phenomenon of toolset availability for the purpose of building addons becomes increasingly popular.

The fact remains, according to Melissinos, that “Everyone needs to get involved in the political landscape around the industry. Politicians want to enact laws because it’s the cool thing to do... we run the very real risk of having laws enacted that impact freedom of speech, that really can harm a medium that is just coming into its own. It’s vital as an industry that we get involved in that discussion, because someone will make the decision for us if we don’t.”

Most importantly of all, Melissinos reminded—the messages that a nonprofit may have must resonate with the core audience using the technology to begin with. As an example, he described a game called Steer Madness, by Veggie Games of Vancouver, Canada. Calling it “GTA-meets-Chicken Run,” he described gameplay wherein a steer escaping the slaughterhouse gores the offending workers and attempts to free the other animals, in a backdrop peppered with pro-vegetarian and vegan themes.

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“Regardless of whether or not you agree,” Melissinos said, “you had a game that was entertaining enough that you were at least listening. And that’s really the key—bringing the message forward in a non-threatening way will get people actually listening; being in a better position to understand.”

Another plus for nonprofits in the game world is that the technology, at the same time it increases the accessibility of the message to consumers, will also help organizations track metrics in new and increasingly detailed ways, perhaps by judging the actions of the players in-game.

His advice to nonprofits wishing to enter the gaming arena? “Don’t make games because it’s the cool thing of the moment. Make games because you want to make good games, and the message will come.”


Why Make Games?

Ben Sawyer, co-director of the Serious Games Initiative, challenged the audience—do they really need to create a game at all?

Far from attempting to dissuade organizations from using games to spread a message or create change, Sawyer simply advised these groups to examine whether the best way to use games is really to make one—when, in fact, so much under-explored potential to reach new audiences lies in metagaming, or the idea of piggybacking extended resources on games that may already exist.

“Commercializing serious content won’t work by creating a [single] game,” he said. “I think we’ll have to look at ways that we can push, prod, join and collaborate with existing commercial development to think about ways that we can include social messaging and other types of hooks into things we’re already doing, instead of recreating an entire industry from scratch.”

As an example, Sawyer highlighted how groups in favor of the philosophy of Intelligent Design could wage a PR campaign concurrent to the release of Spore, and use the audience’s interest in the game’s mechanic as a way to pitch the idea of Intelligent Design to a new audience. Thereby, doesn’t a game like Spore—ostensibly not created with any overt social agenda—become a game for change, using gaming to foster new loyalty to an idea? “I guarantee you it will happen,” Sawyer promised.

sawyerprofile.jpg Nonprofits as well as activist organizations in the for-profit sector, therefore, are advised to broaden their perspective on serious games; Sawyer’s observed that the definition of the genre often gets limited to the contextual perspective of whoever’s presenting a given title. A military organization who’s developed a training game and an academic organization who’s made a game for child education, for example, would each define the “serious games” concept in different ways. Both are right, but both are also wrong—“we need to get off this kick,” Sawyer says. “We need to talk about how wide and deep this can actually be.”

Sawyer also discussed both Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play charity and Ryan Sharpe’s Get Well Gamers as examples of the most successful marriages of games and social activism, having raised over a million dollars for quality-of-life programs for hospitalized children.

Most notable is that both programs actually motivated donations from a constituency compelled to give simply because of gamer fellowship. It follows, then, that concerns about the number of copies sold, or number of audience members reached, while common to the commercial market, might actually be less important for socially-conscious games. “In terms of changing people’s attitudes about things,” Sawyer noted, “it actually matters who plays the games. Let’s make a game that only ten people need to play—because it’s the right ten people and the right game.”

“We’re really only held back by ourselves,” Sawyer continues. “We’re having these religious discussions over whether people can learn from games—but we’re winning that argument already, and we’ll keep winning it as we keep making better games and better solutions.”

The conference itself serves as the best example of Sawyer’s message; the day’s earlier “Virtual Activism” panel was conducted in mixed-reality; that is, simultaneously in Second Life as in the real-world conference room. Many attendees, laptops open, were literally in both places at once—using a game to exchange serious ideas.


The Microsoft Connection

Not only was Microsoft the exclusive sponsor of the festival’s Expo Night, but Jeff Bell, Global VP of Interactive Marketing at Microsoft, kicked off the evening with the announcement of the Xbox 360 Games for Change Challenge, a competition beginning this August that challenges university students around the world to design a game around the theme of global warming.

Students will design their entries using Microsoft’s XNA Game Studio Express, and the winners, announced next August in Paris, will receive cash prizes and the opportunity to present their games to Microsoft’s games management team for possible inclusion as a download on Xbox Live Arcade. The team or individual that places first will also receive an internship with Microsoft’s Interactive Games business group.

Bell knows a thing or two about games—he’s a Level 14 Master Chief in the Halo 3 Beta, and just crossed 100,000 points in the new championship version of Pac-Man. Formerly involved with “adver-gaming” — games as advertisement—a little over a year ago at Daimler-Chrysler, he’s also got experience with the versatile concept of serious games, and the potential of games as informative tools.


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Coincidentally, Bell and Games for Change president Suzanne Seggerman are former classmates, who were able to reconnect and collaborate on this joint initiative. Following Expo Night, we sat down with Bell for an interview about Microsoft’s involvement with Games for Change:

How did you become involved with the Games for Change project?

The Xbox 360 had a different strategy than the first Xbox; you could see from the marketing tagline, “Jump In”—it’s invitational. It’s trying to increase its approachability.

One of the things in the back of my mind was, ‘what can we do around social gaming and education?’ Because I could see the power of it. We think that the power of Microsoft is beyond the purse; that it’s very deeply ingrained in the fact that we’re a technology company, and we make software that improves people’s lives. So we wanted to use the XNA express, which is a free download, as a slow but steady move towards democratization of our gaming industry. We wanted to focus with Games for Change on something that was dealing with an issue or challenge of the real world, and we chose the environment, because it’s such a large issue in popular culture right now.

You have kids ages 10, 14 and 18—do you use them as a barometer?

Absolutely. And they’re very different; it’s very interesting to me. In fact, I’d say my 18-year-old, in some ways, is starting to move away from playing games as he’s become more engaged in reading, debate and social issues.

So, that tells you that to continue to engage that demographic, you need to make the graduation with him into social issues.

Exactly. My 14-year-old plays quite a bit of World of Warcraft; he’s a level 70 dwarf tank warrior, or something like that. And there, again, the thing that I found very enlightening is that he uses it as a way to communicate for free with his friends back in Detroit. So they all play together, and communicate in their text messaging—and there, again, they’re looking for something a little bit more interesting than just learning how to beat the big boss in each level.


Why does Microsoft care about this idea of socially-conscious gaming?

Well, I’d say that it’s not a new thing. We have been very interested in safety and security in the world of computing for some time. When you have as large a role to play in the operating systems of the world’s computing as we do, then you have to take larger issues very seriously, and we continue to be committed to that with the Xbox. Because we’re such leaders in the world of Xbox Live, we also know that we have a responsibility to the community. We’ve always taken very seriously the safety and security role; I think that now, we’ve moved from putting the tools in place, raising awareness and education for parents and others playing games about ratings and controls—now, we’re moving towards content.

So if you have these positive messages, and these socially-conscious games, it’s good PR for the gaming industry in general.

It is; without any question; there’s a positive ecosystem overall. Age of Empires—my kids love that game. And they’d come tell me that they were learning about Genghis Khan, and the history of his leadership. And they’re learning from [the game]. Lightbulbs are going off.

And when they get excited about learning, discovering this practical application of games, it makes them want to consume more games…

Exactly. It’s a very virtuous cycle.

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The ethic of service is a nice idea. On the other hand, for this kind of vision to actually materialize in reality, these games need to translate to being viable on the commercial market—and there seems to be a general consensus that they’re not there yet. Any of these developers can use XNA to create a game and upload it to Xbox Live—but what do you think these organizations and these game developers need to do to get to the point where they’re actually working for you?

Absolutely, they’re not there yet. But we’re not looking, with this first step, to do anything other than empower and motivate people that love gaming, and love these social issues, to use gaming to try and drive awareness and education and participation. I don’t know if our vision is that different than the ones that came out of file-sharing ideas like Napster, or even YouTube. It’s a democratization of content—and we’re just starting.

I wish I could tell you that I knew for sure that [these games] were all going to be great, but we will make available the Xbox Live Arcade ecosystem to present these games for people to play them—assuming that they’re of a quality that it’s not embarrassing to their creators, or to the community of participants within this challenge.

Will you be establishing standardized quality benchmarks?

Well, I’m interested, in the course of the next year, to explore the notion of a peer review. I think that’s really a strong idea. We have a Creators’ Club now where people are participating with XNA Express—but ultimately, yes. I think both external to Microsoft, as well as Microsoft Games Studio’s experts—we need to have a jury that’s going to make the final decision on who are the best games. And then, I’m confident that these will be engaging and terribly wonderful games that we will be able to put onto Xbox Live Arcade for everyone to enjoy.

What are Microsoft’s plans for continuing involvement in this arena?

We certainly are committed to this conference and through next year, and we’re hoping that from small things, big things grow. We really want it to succeed, and this is just the first of many initiatives promoting the breadth of the game development community. The depth is there—this is no way a criticism of our partners, who are clearly on the vanguard of tech. But we are using this as a way to increase breadth specifically, and explore new genres.


This year, the festival was highlighted by the “Ga-Cha” Awards, where the finalist games were up for recognition in three different categories: Best Awareness-Raising Game, Best Transformation Game, and Best Social Commentary/Art Game. Additionally, attendees submitted ballots to select an “Audience Choice Award” winner, and several honorable mentions were also given.

The 2007 finalists were:

A Force More Powerful - Honorable Mention for Gravitas

Developed by: International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, York Zimmerman Inc. and Breakaway Games

Project Lead: Steve York

Purpose: To teach people about the effectiveness and applicability of nonviolent strategies in struggles for rights and freedom.

Airport Security - Winner: Best Social Commentary/Art Game

Developed by: Persuasive Games

Project Lead: Ian Bogost

Purpose: The game argues that American airport security policy has little to do with security.

Ayiti: The Cost of Life - Winner: Best Awareness-Raising Game

Developed by: GlobalKids and GameLab, co-developed through an after-school program called Playing 4 Keeps

Purpose: To focus on the issue of poverty, using the country of Haiti as a case study, and to study the impact of the development experience on the teens who made it.

Darfur is Dying - Winner: Audience Choice Award

Developed by: Students at the University of Southern California

Purpose: To raise awareness and motivate action on the genocide in Darfur.

Karma Tycoon

Developed by: Do Something, the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, and 9mmedia.

Project Lead: Aria Finger

Purpose: To teach young people about social entrepreneurship and financial responsibility.

Peacemaker - Winner: Best Transformation Game

Developed by: ImpactGames

Project Leads: Eric Brown, Asi Burak

Purpose: The game challenges players to succeed in bringing peace to the Middle East.

Real Lives

Developed by: Educational Simulations

Project Lead: Bob Runyan

Purpose: To develop understanding of and empathy for people in different parts of the world and in different life circumstances.

The Redistricting Game - Honorable Mention for Procedural Correctness

Developed by: USC Game Innovation Lab

Project Lead: Chris Swain

Purpose: To educate voters about congressional redistricting and its abuse, and to motivate reform.

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