[Gamasutra talks with Games For Change president and co-founder Suzanne Seggerman about last week's New York-based event about 'games for social good', reflecting on major trends and essential takeaways.]
Every year, the Games For Change event in New York brings together academics, activists, researchers, educators and nonprofits for a common goal: to explore ways to use games for social good.
It's always been a vibrant community, but in prior years has struggled against a major stumbling block: none of these folks really knew all that much about video games.
This year, though -- the event's sixth -- there's an observable convergence of these formerly disparate groups, and clearly much more dialogue between social change games groups and the traditional mainstream development community.
"When we started Games For Change, we were coming together based on personal experiences," G4C co-founder and president Suzanne Seggerman tells Gamasutra.
Seggerman and colleagues like GlobalKids' Barry Joseph and current MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning program director Ben Stokes "had all been convinced that games had this powerful potential," she says. "It was basically a huge collective hunch."
"Now here we are six years later and it turns out that we were right -- there's actually starting to be evidence." Seggerman says a new MacArthur and Pew study shows that 97 percent of teens are playing games of some kind.
Talk at the conference in sessions and in dialogue among attendees may once have been somewhat insular, struggling to make it past the plodding, dreaded "educational simulator" game, but there's now a much greater willingness to embrace, rather than dismiss, lessons from the commercial games space.
This year, discussions paid much more attention to things like the way BioShock
encouraged an entire community of gamers to discuss Rand-ian objectivism; the way the Resident Evil 5
controversy encouraged plenty of debate, much of it healthy, on race and games, and the way the Six Days In Fallujah
controversy really caused many people to discuss and examine what the role of games could and should be in relation to the real world.
"There's a noteworthy correlation between what people do inside gameplay and how that might predict the kinds of things they do outside gameplay," Seggerman says.
For example, Gamasutra covered an "Ethics in Game Design" panel that discussed how games should confront, rather than avoid
, moments of making the player unhappy or uncomfortable -- these kinds of experiences are essential to teaching players empathy.
Getting "screwed over" on loot distribution in World of Warcraft, one panelist claimed, can help players relate to others who've been treated unfairly, if the parallels are presented in the right context.
franchise was also frequently raised as an example of the profound effect open worlds and communities can have on their players. That was a focal point of a conversation between Henry Jenkins and Jim Gee
, who agreed that by creating community, a game can be a gateway to action and inspiration, rather than a be-all and end-all on its own.
Gamasutra also spoke to EA Maxis head Lucy Bradshaw
about how the design philosophies in The Sims
focus on creating open environments that encourage player learning, communication, collaboration and community-minded action.
"We're going way outside the classroom context now," says Seggerman. "We're interested in making popular media that exists and competes with and that is as good as any of the other titles that are out there."
Still, she concedes, many of the socially-focused games developed from these lessons that have gained attention to date are "not so perfect."
"But when I think about it, the mainstream industry has been around for 40 years," she says. "The military has been using games in simulations for probably more than that. We're here at five, eight years -- just at the beginning of this thing. These little games might not be 'great games,' but there's a kernel of something brilliant, something that's to come."
She cites games like Peacemaker
-- now being played by children in Israel and Palestine to help them better understand their region's conflicts -- Darfur is Dying, Food Force
and Ayiti: The Cost of Life
as strong games for change that have had an impact.
Seggerman says she's attended the Game Developers Conference every year since 1996, hoping to see games like Hidden Agenda
and others that inspired her work. "I thought there'd be plenty, but... nobody was really that interested," she recalls.
"This year at GDC there were three separate panels on positive social impact games -- and not even on the Serious Games track... These are the top top folks, and they're interested in this space," she says. "They may not be working on a game for change, but it's on their radar and they're recognizing that there are new audiences out there."
The relatively new wider mainstream audience for games is comprised of people who've enjoyed the music of Bob Dylan and environmental films like An Inconvenient Truth, she points out, not to mention parents looking for positive activities for their kids. To fully serve their audiences, game developers will have to think socially.