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SXSW Panel Talks Gaming With Real World Impact

At the SXSW conference in Austin, academics and game designers including Gamelab's Eric Zimmerman, the MacArthur Foundation's Benjamin Stokes and Games For Change's Susan Seggerman discussed the challenges facing activism games -- and whether philanthropi

March 14, 2008

4 Min Read

Author: by Jessica Maguire, Staff

Games hold potential as a vehicle for change. So says Human Code's Mary Flanagan, Gamelab co-founder Eric Zimmerman, Spiderdance VP Chris Swain and the MacArthur Foundation's program officer Benjamin Stokes, who have been working continually in that area. The group formed a panel at the SXSW conference in Austin to discuss games that explore social issues and "real world" concerns, and Games For Change president Susan Seggerman moderated. The group defined a "game for change" as "a game which engages a contemporary social issue to foster a more just, equitable society." Some examples of these are Ayiti which deals with the issue of poverty in Haiti; Peacemaker, which presents the challenge of the middle-eastern conflict; The Redistricting Game, which educates players about gerrymandering; and Hush, where the player is a Somali woman who must keep a baby quiet under life-threatening circumstances. Cross-Purposes? Gamelab's Zimmerman, himself a designer, says he finds a lot of challenges for the games for change initiatives thus far. "One of the gaps we need to bridge is that typically when someone has an agenda, they're interested in a particular measurable outcome," he noted. "That rubs against what games essentially are." The essential purpose of a game is to be played with, Zimmerman says, which is the opposite of a didactic approach. Through games, a person can explore different points of view. "The notion that games can carry a specific message is more of a marketing idea," he said. Seggerman said she's read that in the games industry, 80 percent of games fail, and asked the panelists if they feel it's accurate. "I think about half of all intellectual properties fail," suggested Zimmerman, defining failure as a lack of profit. "In the games industry, that number is more like 80-90 percent," he said. It's hard enough, then, to find success in the mainstream games industry, let alone with games for change, that are still somewhat niche. "I guess I would say there are other strategies that might be more appropriate for education or intervention," suggested Zimmerman, "I'd like to see games for change take on a broader pile of strategies." Sources Of Inspiration Agreed Spiderdance's Swain, "We could borrow from journalism. Despite the tenet of objectivity, it's hard to write something that has no slant. Still, it is wise to attempt that. People can see through anything that is obviously skewed." Swain contrasted Michael Moore's film work -- which sometimes creates sympathy for his opposition because of his tactics -- with An Inconvenient Truth. "Why can't we use some of the principles that were used in that film?" he asked. "If we are smart designers, I think we can overcome the challenges." "My background is as an artist, and I've done a lot of games for girls," Flanagan said. "The thing I'm working on now with students, collaborators, and peers realizes there are a lot of games for social change, but they're not fun. So what is this?" Se continued, "My niche is to look at the design process. How are designers working? How can we think about the political and social issues embedded in making the game?" Effective Strategies Stokes explained how the MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest funding agencies in the U.S, has recently begun focusing on the digital media that seems to be most effective at reaching young people. "We think games are a really good learning medium," said Stokes. "Games are increasingly social things, and they are becoming a mainstream form of media. If you make a game too hard, no one buys it. If it's too easy, no one buys it. Looking at schools, we see the same thing. Games are forced to solve that problem constantly. Rather than try and invent games for the classroom, we are researching where young people already are." Seggerman asked Stokes about some of the effective ways MacArthur grantees have created impact through social games. "You normally can't measure all the way down," he said. "It's a classically challenging problem. For us, it is about people who thinking intelligently and in a systematic way. It's much like funding other education programs." Seggerman noted that The Redistricting Game won an award for how well it matched the mechanics to the procedural rhetoric. Noted Swain, "Often people are really ignorant about assessment and are not used to affecting change. One of the next evolutions needs to be about mixing groups. It needs to be cross-disciplinary. We need experts who can make sure the approach taken is right. So there's an opportunity for lots of people in this field." On the other hand, Zimmerman says qualified teams are actually the exception, not the rule. "Many people don't play games and don't make them, yet they think they can do this on their own," he said. Said Stokes, "Commercial software development often asks, 'how can we make things more efficient?' Games for change need to ask how can we make things more effective? Particularly activism. We need to develop people's civic skills. Games can teach this kind of experiential knowledge. Is it fun? We don't really want to fund it if it's not sufficiently fun. We need to have a captive audience." Agreed Seggerman, "Hopefully these pieces will lay the groundwork for many more games to come."

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