The world of non-profit activism has long feared becoming so flat-footed and earnest that they become inconsequential. Academics worry about being removed from the reality of the everyday— thus, with the aim of engaging a brand new audience, the Games For Change organization was created in 2004 to advance social change through the use of games.
Games For Change is a collaborative comprised of several representatives from organizations including Global Kids, an after-school program for undeserved youths in conjunction with GameLab and UNICEF; MTV, and Serious Games, whose One Laptop per Child Initiative seeks to bring global gaming to a new generation of children around the world.
The fourth annual Games For Change festival, held on July 11th and 12th, 2007, is hosted in New York City by Parsons The New School for Design and sponsored by Microsoft. The festival brought together leading innovators and field-builders in activism and game development alike, to share expertise, engage across traditional boundaries, discuss the advantages and challenges of using gaming to promote activism for the greater good, and to showcase and recognize this year’s slate of independently-developed, socially-conscious games.
Alan Gershenfeld is CEO and co-founder of Netomat, a project which it says strives to "enable people to be connected to the information and people they care about regardless of network, device or location," offering a service to "mobilize content" and deploy it across a number of mobile and web networks.
Gershenfeld formerly ran Activision’s Studios; he’s also an author and filmmaker, and a member of the board for FilmAid International, Fab Foundation and Games for Change. In his opening remarks, Gershenfeld presented both sides of the coin in the collaboration between developers, academics and nonprofit organizations.
Potential, Gershenfeld said, lies in the enormity of the installed target base—even more remarkable when the demographics are closely examined. The Entertainment Software Association recently noted that the average gamer is 33 years of age, while largest demographic for online gaming is women over the age of 35. Moreover, 94% of gamers follow news and current events regularly, and 78% vote. With those numbers, connecting games to online civic activism is simple good sense.
“The game industry is much different than the general perception,” Gershenfeld said. “Now, for the first time, you can reach multiple generations in the living room at the same time.” Adults and children can now have a dialogue based on shared digital media simply by playing games together, thereby making games a way to teach kids about the world.
Additionally, Gershenfeld noted the ways in which gaming is no longer an isolated experience; phones, consoles and the online game space are now so well-connected that developers, through clever game design, can seamlessly create a bridge from an engaging entertainment experience to online activism, whether it involves text messages, fundraising or even online civil disobedience. “You just need the right idea and the right team,” Gershenfeld said.
The democratization of tools also adds to the potential in this arena—as opposed to the early ‘90s, when developers had to build proprietary engines for every platform. Gershenfeld highlights how new, “incredible” tools reduce risk in terms of making games.
The new possibilities—and the fact that they’re being discussed—“it’s huge,” Gershenfeld enthused. “Social entrepreneurship is reinventing philanthropy.”
On the flip side, making an entertaining game is by itself an enormous challenge. Separately, activism in general is also difficult. A social game, therefore, is a challenge to do well. “Lean-forward interactive experience is still a very young, complex medium,” Gershenfeld noted. “The most successful games of all time were created from the interactive space out. If you think you’re just going to repurpose your content, make a game and reach all these people—you’re not.”
Gershenfeld advised non-profit organizations considering branching out into games is to play them, to understand the genre, and reduce risk by finding developers with experience, perhaps a finished code release engine, for the appropriate platform.
“You don’t have to know how to make the game,” Gershenfeld said, “but you need to have people who know how to manage people who make the games—because software can get away from you.” By combining diligent homework, plus resources, plus solid teams, Gershenfeld said, “you can change the world.”