Ben Sawyer, co-director of the Serious Games Initiative, challenged the audience—do they really need to create a game at all?
Far from attempting to dissuade organizations from using games to spread a message or create change, Sawyer simply advised these groups to examine whether the best way to use games is really to make one—when, in fact, so much under-explored potential to reach new audiences lies in metagaming, or the idea of piggybacking extended resources on games that may already exist.
“Commercializing serious content won’t work by creating a [single] game,” he said. “I think we’ll have to look at ways that we can push, prod, join and collaborate with existing commercial development to think about ways that we can include social messaging and other types of hooks into things we’re already doing, instead of recreating an entire industry from scratch.”
As an example, Sawyer highlighted how groups in favor of the philosophy of Intelligent Design could wage a PR campaign concurrent to the release of Spore, and use the audience’s interest in the game’s mechanic as a way to pitch the idea of Intelligent Design to a new audience. Thereby, doesn’t a game like Spore—ostensibly not created with any overt social agenda—become a game for change, using gaming to foster new loyalty to an idea? “I guarantee you it will happen,” Sawyer promised.
Nonprofits as well as activist organizations in the for-profit sector, therefore, are advised to broaden their perspective on serious games; Sawyer’s observed that the definition of the genre often gets limited to the contextual perspective of whoever’s presenting a given title. A military organization who’s developed a training game and an academic organization who’s made a game for child education, for example, would each define the “serious games” concept in different ways. Both are right, but both are also wrong—“we need to get off this kick,” Sawyer says. “We need to talk about how wide and deep this can actually be.”
Sawyer also discussed both Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play charity and Ryan Sharpe’s Get Well Gamers as examples of the most successful marriages of games and social activism, having raised over a million dollars for quality-of-life programs for hospitalized children.
Most notable is that both programs actually motivated donations from a constituency compelled to give simply because of gamer fellowship. It follows, then, that concerns about the number of copies sold, or number of audience members reached, while common to the commercial market, might actually be less important for socially-conscious games. “In terms of changing people’s attitudes about things,” Sawyer noted, “it actually matters who plays the games. Let’s make a game that only ten people need to play—because it’s the right ten people and the right game.”
“We’re really only held back by ourselves,” Sawyer continues. “We’re having these religious discussions over whether people can learn from games—but we’re winning that argument already, and we’ll keep winning it as we keep making better games and better solutions.”
The conference itself serves as the best example of Sawyer’s message; the day’s earlier “Virtual Activism” panel was conducted in mixed-reality; that is, simultaneously in Second Life as in the real-world conference room. Many attendees, laptops open, were literally in both places at once—using a game to exchange serious ideas.