Games for Change do more than just entertain

Video games with a purpose, from peacemaking to teaching empathy to treating social problems such as discrimination, are growing in number and sophistication.

Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters/File
Systems programmer Juan Pico works on the video game 'Adios a las Armas' (Farewell to Arms) in Bogota, Colombia, in September 2014. The video game mirrors complex real life talks under way to restore peace to the country. Games for Change is a nonprofit group that advocates the development and use of video games to educate and to address social problems.

“This War of Mine” has many of the hallmarks of a typical video game: breathtaking graphics, haunting violence, and, of course, explosions.

But this game has a very different objective from those found in most war-themed games. Instead of storming cities and eliminating the enemy, players are tasked with the daunting challenge of keeping civilians alive amid the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.
This unique approach to a war game is just one of a growing number of video games designed with a greater purpose than simply entertainment. Some, like “This War of Mine,” seek to promote empathy and cooperation. Others strive to make learning fun by camouflaging history and math as game play. Still others aim to transform stereotypes by portraying minorities as protagonists.

“What you can do with entertainment is incredible, you can touch people and you can change the world,” documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock told an auditorium full of video game enthusiasts attending the 12th annual Games for Change Festival in New York in late April.

The gamers and developers in attendance nodded enthusiastically as Mr. Spurlock spoke, and spent much of their time during the three-day event discussing how video games can address a range of social problems such as depression, obesity, and discrimination. Others focused on how to create educational games that kids actually want to play.

When Lauri Jarvilehto, a Finnish philosopher and representative of the entertainment media company Rovio Fun Learning, heard about a new video game that taught quantum physics, he was skeptical that young kids could learn such complex theories through a game.

“But then I saw my three-year-old playing a game with his eyes lit up, completely mesmerized, cracking equations with four or five parameters in them. And he doesn’t even realize that he’s learning algebra, for crying out loud,” Mr. Jarvilehto says. “He was just having fun. That’s when I realized it’s not such an exaggeration after all.”

Educational video games have been in schools since computers first entered classrooms in the 1980s. Students were eager to take a break from their desks to play on the computer, but not many kids were so interested in bringing “Oregon Trail” or “Math Munchers” home.

The runaway success of “Minecraft” shows that there is some appetite for cognitively challenging video games. The open-ended “sandbox” game – think Sim City built entirely with digital Legos – incorporates math, geometry, and physics into game play. Despite simple block-style graphics, “Minecraft” has become one of the most successful games of all time, selling more than 50 million copies worldwide.

The success of Meg Jayanth’s “80 days” is evidence of a growing appetite for alternative gaming options with characters from less-traditional backgrounds. The 2014 Time magazine best game of the year is a reimagining of Jules Verne’s classic  “Around the World in Eighty Days” featuring prominent gay, female, and even disabled characters.

“Getting to re-write the stories so that marginalized people would be in the narrative, where people like me are heroes, that’s really powerful,” says Ms. Jayanth, writer of the game 80 days, which was Time magazine’s best game of the year for 2014.

But there has been backlash within the gaming community against the decision to include more diverse characters, such as people of color, and gay, lesbian, and transgender characters.

“The default is invisible, no one ever thinks about why a straight, white guy is there,” notes David Gaider, writer of the game Dragon Age. “I look forward to the day when we can have these characters [diverse characters] and it won’t be a big deal.”

Questions remain about whether more than a select few positive games can compete with commercial games in the marketplace, and whether learning games and games for change will really chip into the time kids spend at home playing traditional games that are often full of violence.

“I think kids are more inclined to buy into something that looks like a game, and designers with better budgets are going to be more successful. When kids play games they want to play for leisure. Their goal isn’t to be educated,” says Fran Blumberg, a Fordham University professor and editor of the book “Learning by Playing: Video Gaming in Education.” “Right now, the types of games people are playing are still commercial, off-the-shelf games.”

Still, given the size of the market, progressive gaming advocates see ample room for educational and pro-social titles.

More than two thirds of American households, or 67 percent, play video games on a weekly basis. And far from the stereotype of pre-teen and teenage males, the average player is 31 years old, according to data from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), while 48 percent of video-game users are female. Moreover, the video-game industry was a $90 billion industry worldwide in 2013, and is expected to be a $110 billion industry in 2015.

This wide reach provides an important opportunity to expose a captive audience to different ways of thinking, and to promote positive behaviors, advocates say.

One way to tap into that market is to cater to the increasingly large percentage of gamers who do not fit the stereotypical gamer profile of a young, antisocial, male.

Games like “Never Alone,” which features a Alaskan Iñupiat characters, is one example of developers seeking to broaden diversity in game titles. The game’s writers say that when young people see characters that look like them and are representative of their culture, it can make a big difference to their self-esteem and sense of identity, thus preventing suicide and depression.

A growing number of parents – 68 percent, according to the ESA  – see video games as a potentially positive influence on children. And research is starting to back that up.

“Considering these potential benefits is important, in part, because the nature of these games has changed dramatically in the last decade, becoming increasingly
complex, diverse, realistic, and social in nature,” researchers Isabela Granic, Adam Lobel, and Rutger Engels wrote in a research paper "The Benefits of Playing Video Games."

“This industry has been growing so exponentially, we need to recognize the impact that it can have and what we can do to make change happen.” Mr. Spurlock says.

In order to help game developers promote their work, the nonprofit organization Games for Change was founded in 2004 as a platform to facilitate the creation and distribution of social impact games.

Games for Change "is a platform for others to shine," says Asi Burak, president of Games for Change and an award-winning game designer. "We have an event where people can pitch ideas to funders, we encourage matchmaking, networking, public arcades for people to test out games.

"We also have an advisory service. Different projects are touched in different ways. I want to help others because I know how difficult it is.”

Games for Change currently has 133 games on its site.

As games for social change become more common, their quality is improving and their creators are becoming more business savvy, making the games more competitive in the marketplace, advocates say.

“When we first did Peace Maker, an award-winning game that allows players to take a lead role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it wasn’t sustainable, there was no means to publish, distribution was limited,"  Mr. Burak says.

"In the last one or two years, these games have become sustainable in the marketplace. The games are higher quality, distribution is more straightforward. They get good traction in the market.”

“Peace Maker was one of the few games that had the potential to make people think differently about social issues,” Professor Blumberg says. “If you’re trying to teach something, it should be integral to the mode of delivery, to the storyline of the game, and to the game mechanics. Too often in these games you have the social component as an add-on.”

Still, Burak confirms that the majority of his organization’s revenue does not come from games sales, but instead comes from ticket sales for festivals, grants, and sponsors. Some attendees noted that it’s rare for social good game designers to receive venture capital funding.

Nevertheless, games for social change proponents say they will continue to work together until they revolutionize the video game industry.

“We’re at a really pivotal point where these games are going to hit the mainstream big time,” Mr. Jarvilehto says.

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