Learning Games to Change the World

Congratulations to an amazing festival at Games 4 Change (G4C) in NYC!!

The opportunity to design socially responsible games has arrived with serious excitement. The mission is to actively contribute to the development of game simulations and play experiences that have ideological and activist agendas. The destination is experimental learning and investigation into social and global issues.

I’d like to share some highlights from G4C, beginning with an all-day workshop teaching how to use games to fulfill social issues missions titled, “Let the Games Begin: A 101 Workshop on Making Social Issue Games.” The next two days investigated the best practices of social issue game design while increasing collaboration amongst educators, game scholars, journalists, non-profit leaders, philanthropic entities, and industry experts.

Throughout the festival, panels addressed hot topics such as games and journalism, funding challenges, public media initiatives, gaming in the classroom, and impact assessment. Featured panelists included game designers Chris Crawford and Ken Eklund; Mary Flanagan, director of the Tiltfactor Lab; Tracy Fullerton, director of the USC Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab; and representatives from the MacArthur and Knight Foundations, TVO, PBS, and the United Nations.

James Gee and Eric Zimmerman (in lieu of Henry Jenkins) opened the conference with a keynote conversation focussing on the vision and future of the public interest gaming community. The closing keynote was presented by the Honorable Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who spoke with humor and wisdom about a new interactive civics education project that she is developing with James Gee. A quick google search finds numerous press articles covering Justice O’Connor’s Joysticks for Justice.

The Games Expo Night hosted by Microsoft showcased the latest social issues games in development. Microsoft also presented the games designed by finalists from the Xbox 360 Games for Change Challenge. As part of Microsoft’s Imagine Cup competition, this global, socially responsible game initiative challenged game designers to: “Imagine a world where technology enables a sustainable environment.”

Teams created games using Microsoft’s ground-breaking new XNA Game Studio 2.0 and the six finalists were flown in from around the world to present their games at G4C. I hope that City Rain will win so good luck to this team from Brazil!! City Rain is a single player 3D “Sim City meets Tetris” game where players learn about urbanism, ecology, and maintaining a sustainable environment. As buildings drop from the sky, players need to strategically place them on the grid so the community can grow while still being ecologically mindful. Addicting and meaningful fun!! Overall, the festival was super organized, the diverse panels were well-prepared and intoxicating with ideas, and the social networking was top notch. Delicious food was provided in abundance and sweet wine was free flowing for all. Here are a few more examples of G4C that are freely available to play:

Pos or Not [www.posornot.com] is a viral online game that confronts the HIV/AIDS stigma. People from across the country – some of whom are living with HIV, some who are not – put their personal lives forward to challenge the stereotypes about who is affected by this disease. Based only on their photographs and personal information, players are asked if the individual is “Pos or Not.” By showing that you can’t tell people’s HIV status by the way they look or by their gender, age and interests, the game confronts stereotypes about who is affected by HIV/AIDS while providing information about how to prevent the spread of the disease. Pos or Not harnesses the viral nature of the internet to effect a positive change on the HIV/AIDS issue. What Would You Do is another social change game that explores real life situations with regards to HIV/AIDS. Created by UNICEF Voices of Youth, this game is now available in Swahili.

Play the News [www.playthenews.com] is an engaging, community-driven experience: “imagine fantasy sports meets the evening news.” Play the News is a web-based platform that brings interactive gaming elements to the online news media industry changing the paradigm of news consumption from passive reading to active engagements. Impact Games, the developer of Play the News, also created the PeaceMaker game which simulates the Israeli and Palestinian conflict in the Middle East.

Vinyl Game [www.vinylgame.com] is a socially responsible response by the European PVC industry’s commitment to sustainability. In Vinyl Game you have to manage the PVC life cycle from the production to the waste management. Your objective is to create a profitable and sustainable business by the year 2010. Go for it! Water Alert! is another adventure game of strategy and survival, teaching young people about natural resources, environment, sanitation, and sustainability. The goal is to ensure that the citizens in a drought-challenged village, who are facing the threat of a flood, have water that is safe to drink and a clean and healthy school environment.

Activism NYC [www.comeoutandplay.org] is a street game in which teams race through the history of riots, protests, and activism in New York City testing their puzzle-solving skills in site throughout the city where echoes of the fight for justice and peace still ring. By visiting historic sites and searching for clues to the events that happened there, players will reactivate forgotten histories to engage social issues and struggles that were important then and continue to have resonance today. Activated by text messages from Re:Activism Central, the teams engage in site-specific challenges that reveal the details of each event and the strategies behind organizing street-based actions.

ICED: I Can End Deportation [www.icedgame.com] puts you in the shoes of an immigrant to illustrate how unfair immigration laws deny due process and violate human rights. These laws affect all immigrants: legal residents, those fleeing persecution, students and undocumented people. The game’s purpose is to reframe the immigration debate from a discussion that looks at immigrants as criminals, to one that looks and creates awareness around immigration as an issue that violates human rights and denies due process of all immigrants, legal and undocumented.

Hurricane Katrina Hero [Global Kids Youth] is a flash-based game in which the player assumes the role of a high school girl from New Orleans who has moved out of the city. The game is set in a dream she’s having about being in the Hurricane Katrina disaster trying to rescue her mother. The player moves through five different neighborhoods over the course of the first five days of the disaster. The player must learn about the disaster from residents, help distribute resources from the community, and rescue people trapped in their attics. The purpose of the game is to try and affect public misconceptions about Hurricane Katrina and the stereotypes that the residents were only victims or criminals. Also, the game is trying to renew attention to the disaster, because though the public has moved on to other stories, the struggle to rebuild continues for many New Orleans residents. Additionally, our game highlights tow of the most important actions in any disaster: effective communication and utilization of local resources.

Deliver the Net [www.nothingbutnets.net] is a new game created by the UN to commemorate World Malaria Day (April 25). The challenge is to race against the sun and hand out as many insecticide-treated bed nets as you can to African families. The more nets delivered (before the mosquitoes come out) equals the more lives saved. When you sign up to play the game and confirm your email, a life-saving bed net will be sent on your behalf. The NET-O-METER shows that over 2 million nets have been sent to date.

Free Rice [www.freerice.com] is an online internet game that donates 20 grains of rice to the WFP for every word that is correctly defined. Since the game’s release date, October 2007, the site has raised enough rice to feed over 1.5 million people for a day. The game has been embraced by young and old people, proving to be an excellent tool for teaching both vocabulary and the value of helping others in need. Free Rice has been a viral phenomenon and boasts numerous Facebook fan sites, including one page with over 63,000 members. Sign up, play, and help feed the needy.

Real Lives [www.educationalsimulations.com] is a simulation of life, from birth to death in any country of the world. Through statistically accurate events, Real Lives brings to life different cultures, political systems, economic opportunities, personal decisions, health issues, family issues, schooling, jobs, religions, geography, war, peace, and more. As you make decisions for your character and experience the consequences of those decisions you learn about the world and gain an increased appreciation of your own life cirumstances and those of other people. Real Lives’ purpose is to offer an experience of what life is like for people in other countries. The intended impact is increased understanding of the life circumstances of others.

Food Force [www.food-force.com] one of my favorite games to play with my daughter, is an educational action game that teaches kids about the problem of global hunger and the importance of humanitarian aid work. Developed by the United Nation’s World Food Program, Food Force has been downloaded by over four million players.

There are many more social change games, including: Darfur is Dying (mtvU), World Without Oil, The Cost of Life (Ayati), A Planet Green Game (Starbucks), A Force More Powerful, 3rd World Farmer, and Becoming a World Hero. The future is bright with new developments that seek to harness the power of video games in the service of humanistic principles. Parents and teachers, I hope that you will play some of these meaningful games with your children: for fun and for change.

Credit: Cover image monsters are from http://gameful.org