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Analysis: The State Of Games For Social Good In 2011

Following Games For Change, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks at key takeaways, opportunities and challenges facing social change games in 2011 -- plus this year's event winners.
This year's Games For Change festival seemed more broadly attended than in past years. With three days of microtalks, workshops and some impressive keynotes, it would seem the event's intended audience -- those interested in the field of applying game design to support real-world activism -- had plenty to chew on. The annual event is often a reminder of an unfortunate paradox: Organizations and developers want to learn more about gaming so they can apply it to their causes, but that means many don't yet know enough about universal game design principles to develop games that are, to be blunt, actually any good. The result tends to be well-intentioned interactive experiences that present or speak to issues, but with limited ability to achieve measurable impact or motivate players to action. As Jesse Schell noted in his stirring closing keynote, games are unique weapons in the war for information in that they have a singular ability to engage people with complex systems that no other media can match. To use his example, Peacemaker, a game about the Israel-Palestine conflict, is oddly most useful to those who already understand the issues at the heart of the conflict quite well . This is because Peacemaker's strength is not in educating those players, but in the fact that it allows them to play from the position opposite theirs, and its complex systems are an inimitable way to help people see why solutions are so difficult. With that experience, the common tendency to reduce conflicts to "if only the other guy would..." can be ameliorated once players can see just how difficult the circumstances are. Games like this are also useful education tools in the classroom, but in general change games have had to be applied prescriptively to specific audiences. Making them impactful, inviting or accessible to audiences that would not otherwise take an interest in a global issue has been an ongoing challenge for those working in the space. This year, though, the tone of the event held promise: Wider issues rapidly buoying the commercial game industry have the ability to create success for the change games space as well. When Vice President Al Gore, a global advocate for climate change awareness who has devoted much of his career to world issue education and charity work, stood before the event's audience this week and placed his vote of confidence in games as the 21st century's most important mass medium, it was a moment of major significance. The growth and refinement of the social media and gamification spaces will also be of no small importance to change games. A sector that is looking for ways to create engagement and impact -- often around issues that are community- or location-specific -- can benefit from the gamification of social media and the lessons on how those engagement tools can be most valuable. Not long ago, the common approach to developing a change game was simply to make a strategy or simulation title. Although this remains a popular format, change games designers are also learning better ways to use game design to engage their specific communities, just as social game designers are quickly learning that shoehorning game-like reward systems, lists and badges onto existing platforms does not a game make. This year's event brought nominees who aimed to use Facebook, Twitter and online connectivity to enhance the experiences they had developed. In Schell's keynote, he talked about how meaningful it is that games allow people to connect to others in a purer way. Free of the bounds of race, gender, language and nationality, players can use games to express themselves as they feel they really are, not as they're seen. That's more and more the case as games and connected media culture increasingly merge, and there's enormous potential for the change games space to leverage this. The biggest takeaway from this year's event was that promise of breadth: Games for social good no longer must be limited to a niche field solely comprised of educators developing resource management simulations or interactive textbooks for use in individual classrooms. Games have become such a big part of the world that they can speak to the world's issues almost intuitively. Consider the role Twitter and Faccebook played in Egypt's revolution -- games for social good have the now-undeniable strength and relevance of the game industry, as well as social media's critical mass, to leverage as they evolve. Here are the winners of the 2011 Games For Change Festival: Learning & Education: The Curfew Knight News Game: Runner up: The Cat and the Coup Winner: Fate of the World Transmedia: Inside the Haiti Earthquake Direct Impact: TIE: Evoke and Participatory Chinatown

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