The crowd at the 10th Anniversary Celebration and Games for Change Awards

In June, I had the pleasure of attending the 10th Anniversary Games for Change Festival, which brings together game designers, nonprofits, academics, students, and technology companies to promote and create games for social change. This was the first time anyone from Idealware has attended this conference, so I was more-or-less charging blindly forth into uncharted waters.

So, what treasures did I bring back from this exotic land? Here are a few takeaways:

  • Games have come a long way from Oregon Trail. Many of the presenters talked about the problems inherent in thinking of “educational games”, or “serious games”, and how that mindset leads to lower-quality or half-hearted games, a point elaborated on by the two speakers on the opening night. The first, Ian Bogost from the Georgia Institute of Technology, talked about how the community should instead focus on creating “earnest games”, that use education, social good, or other big ideas as a way to enrich the game experience—not the other way around. Robin Hunicke from Funomena echoed this sentiment with her assertion that every game, regardless of subject matter, makes a statement. To her, the problem with the video game industry is that the statement made by the mainstream, best-selling games is usually one of violence or wish-fulfillment, but the growing “indie” community allows a place for elegant, expressive, and emotional games a place.
  • Most nonprofits aren’t ready for games. While there were several examples of low-budget, meaningful games at the festival, many games and developers were still prioritizing conventional models of entertainment, or more expensive development processes. Others were clearly pursuing innovative, but largely impractical and cost-prohibitive technologies, like biometric sensors.
  • There is help for nonprofits. There were multiple firms and companies present that specialize in developing games for organizations, or provide customizable game platforms. For example, every download of the Global Gaming Initiative game Sidekick Cycle contributes to providing bikes to children in Africa. Kognito Interactive, also present at the festival, provides a game platform where players assume the role of doctors, therapists, or family members to practice address mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. Other firms providing similar platforms include Amplify Learning and Green Door Labs.
  • Mobile is the past. While mobile devices are still the future of service delivery to many nonprofits, many of the game developers at the festival seem to be leaving mobile behind in favor of web or browser-based platforms. These games don’t have the face the restrictions imposed by mobile app marketplaces, like Apple’s App Store. They also don’t have to deal with the fragmentation of the mobile market, where games and apps must be developed separately for Android, iPhone, and other platforms.
  • Games have the potential to make big changes. When done correctly, video games and even board games give players the chance to learn interactively, or even take control of how they learn. One of the speakers, Jesse Schell of Schell Games, spoke about the differences in learning styles—extrinsically motivated students and intrinsically motived students. Intrinsically motivated students seek out knowledge on their own, and may be passionately curious about some subjects, but completely disinterested in others. Games could make an impact in meeting the educational needs of this type of student, who would want to pursue a topic on their own time, outside of a school setting.There are also games that try to let players view the world from a different perspective. One game on display at the festival, LIM, uses its gameplay to evoke the experiences of being different in a heteronormative society, while another game, Dys4ia, uses a series of mini-games to guide the player through the difficulties of a person going through gender reassignment.

These are all really big goals, and while the ideas and vision of the gaming community aren’t always in line with the day-to-day realities of most nonprofits, they are certainly laying the strategic groundwork for a technology beyond our current cutting-edge.