In this post I'm distilling some of the ideas and conversations that emerged from the Games for Change Festival last week. By highlighting them in this way, I hope you'll be able to zero in on the ones that interest you. To avoid overwhelming you (believe me, I was plenty overwhelmed by the end of the festival), I'll spread these out over two posts. Here's part 1:
Keynote Address – Nicholas Kristof, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New York Times
"I spend a lot of my time trying to get Americans to care about issues far away from them. Journalists are very bad at this. Toothpaste advertisers are much more successful than humanitarians at getting their message out and influencing behavior. We make intellectual arguments focusing on data which is mostly about large numbers. This doesn't work."
"These stories must be made personal. The moment you classify victims beyond one, you get diminished results. We are hard-wired to care about the individual. If you ask people to behave based on rational argument, you will succeed less than if you're able to elicit empathy for a single individual. A game can do this very effectively."
"My generation thought the best way to address social issues was to protest. Now we see that it's better to be creative, to make things and do things. Creative entrepreneurship is more effective at solving problems."
- Games create an entry point for people getting involved.
- There is resistance to accepting games as a means of reaching people. Journalism and education are resistant to accepting them because they're not seen as serious. The only way to counter this is to prove what we're doing really works.
- One of the barriers is that these issues are complicated. You need to have nuance, but you also need accessibility. A well designed game can strike this balance.
- Product placement raises awareness of commercial products in film and television. We should focus on "cause placement" in popular commercial games.
- We have a very mixed record of success in making a difference. But we have a nearly perfect record helping ourselves through these efforts. Human happiness is tied to a sense of feeling valuable and connected. Connecting to a cause larger than oneself is a direct road to happiness and fulfillment, and psychological studies prove this.
- G4C is executive producing an unannounced game with Kristof. Eric Zimmerman and Dandelion are developing the game. It's an RPG, but no other details were provided, aside from Kristof's "It takes the far away and makes it local and immediate."
Research hits the Road: Games and Civic Engagement - Joseph Kahne, Mills College
Kahne was a lead investigator on Teens, Video Games, and Civics study, Pew Internet & American Life Project, (2008).
"We see a potential for games to impact young people for good, but the dominant discourse has focused solely on the shortcomings and dangers of video games. Our study aimed to provide data that could speak to this debate. We learned that many of the assumptions people make are wildly wrong."
- 97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games.
- 50% of teens played games “yesterday.”
- 86% of teens play on a console like the Xbox, PlayStation, or Wii.
- 73% play games on a desktop or a laptop computer.
- 60% use a portable gaming device like a Sony PlayStation Portable, a Nintendo DS,
or a Game Boy.
- 48% use a cell phone or handheld organizer to play games.
- Fully 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games.
- Video games are violent. In fact, kids play 14 different genres of games, most of them non-violent.
- Many boys play only violent video games. There is no evidence of this. 80% of boys play at least 5 different genres of games. Very few focus only on one genre.
- Game play isolates youth. The study data refutes this.
- The game defines the experience. In fact the player is much more pivotal in defining how games are played.
- There is a digital divide when it comes to different groups' video game play. While kids in affluent schools have more opportunity for civic and other engagements (big inequities here); with video games there is no evidence of difference among social, economic, racial, or ethnic groups. They all play video games in similar percentages.
"If the question is [which is more influential] parents or video games, I'd choose parents every time. Kids who have parents who nurture their kids' interests succeed. Parents should spend less time worrying about their kids playing games and more time teaching their kids how to be civically engaged. Playing video games has little impact on this either way."
Suzanne Seggerman, founder of Games for Change
Games for positive social change are gaining traction.
- 3 sessions devoted to the subject at this year's GDC, all well attended. Mainstream developers are growing more interested in the topic, as evidenced by their attendance at the festival.
- Growing body of research debunks popular myths about video games and suggests they can have a profoundly positive effect on people.
- Media coverage and public awareness of indie and other non-mainstream games (Flower, Braid, Darfur is Dying, etc.) is growing.
- Despite a tough economy, attendance at the conference remains high. This is the first year speakers were not offered honoraria, and all of them agreed to participate anyway.
I'll return next time with wisdom from the young and old: a teenage gamer with strong opinions about serious games; and a fireside chate with a couple of rascally sages.