Video Games for Change

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This year’s “Game of the Year” winner, “WAY,” developed by LA-based Chris Bell, looks like a variation of “Super Mario Bros.,” with players guiding cute, ethnically dressed avatars through worlds filled with various obstacles.

Increasingly, video games are being seen less as brain-numbing exercises in distraction and more as potent tools for positive social, personal and political change.

“We are using a very popular medium to realize a more sustainable, more just global society,” says Michelle Byrd, co-president of Games for Change (a.k.a. G4C), a nonprofit organization whose ninth annual New York Summer Festival recently highlighted the latest trends in gaming for good.

With video games devoted to everything from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake to political deception to “Zombie Yoga,” the 2012 G4C conference brought together some 800 game designers, developers, executives, academics, researchers, and NGO leaders to discover and discuss the potential of software (and reality-based gaming systems) to change our lives for the better. They also blew off some steam playing Dance Central 2 at an opening night party.

While G4C isn’t a game developer’s conference, several industry bigwigs delivered keynote speeches this year, from Atari founder Nolan Bushnell to Lucy Bradshaw, general manager of Maxis, publisher of The Sims and SimCity. For Byrd, this represents a crucial tipping point for social-action games, moving from the free educational space to the mainstream commercial sector. “If you’re trying to educate the masses, you can’t ignore the power of big games,” says Byrd.

One of this year’s most significant announcements, for example, was the launch of Teach with Portals from the Valve Corporation (known for its first-person shooter games Half-Life and Counter-Strike). Based on their popular puzzle game Portal 2, the program is made up of lesson plans created by educators, as well as an interactive component for teachers to exchange ideas.

The educational value of video games is a primary motivator for those in the field. Bushnell, the man behind Pac-Man and Pitfall!, is applying what he’s learned to a new generation of teaching tools. “Passive teaching is ineffectual,” he told attendees. “We are active learners.” The Atari founder’s new company Brainrush claims to teach academic subjects 10 times faster than conventional lesson plans, with over 90 percent retention rates.

Games for change are also about fun. This year’s “Game of the Year” winner, WAY, developed by LA-based Chris Bell, looks like a variation of Super Mario Bros., with players guiding cute, ethnically dressed avatars through worlds filled with various obstacles. But rather than collecting coins, WAY’s characters–operated by different people in different parts of the world–must learn to work together and find ways to communicate to overcome what separates them.

WAY emerged from a feeling of disconnection with people around the world, and the belief that play can be a bond that brings that world together,” says Bell, who feels the game is successfully doing its job. He cites a simple Twitter message as evidence: “Two persons from Russia and Japan are friends now! :)”. “It may seem small,” he adds, “but there is so much potential in that message.”

Humanitarian-minded games were plentiful at the conference: Other favorites included Best Gameplay winner Unmanned, which puts players in the mind of a military drone operator, but replaces violent video game-play with a sense of existential crisis, and Sweatshop, where users take commands from an abusive boss and utilize child labor to complete various textile orders.

Games for change were also about the benefits of game-play on more biological, neurological and spiritual levels. Game guru Jane McConigal, chief designer of a self-empowerment game called SuperBetter, claims that the allure of games isn’t about getting to the next level or killing the next enemy, but about the pursuit of an outcome. “The pleasure of games is tied to self-efficacy,” she said, citing recent neurological research. “The thrill is that we can do something that matters.”

One of the most renown examples is Hope Lab’s Re:Mission, an action-packed game in which players blast cancer-afflicted cells. Scientific studies have shown that young cancer patients who played the game had 16 percent greater adherence to antibiotics and retained 41 percent higher blood levels of oral chemotherapy in their bodies than control groups.

And “that,” said McConigal, “is change that can change the world.”

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