Who will be the Michael Moore of serious games?
Games can take a few lessons from growth patterns in film history if they're to evolve how they engage audiences -- particularly in the field of games for social good, says EA Maxis' Lucy Bradshaw.
The rise of social networks and mobile platforms have changed the gamer population and had a profound effect on design and business models because they're "grounded in lifestyle," she says.
"Our audience is living with interactive media pretty much from birth," she told an audience at the 2012 Games For Change festival in New York City on Wednesday.
In her view, it's a time not unlike the advent of the digital 35mm camera, which meant more people could produce quality films and bring them to market. Similarly, the availability of cheaper and more accessible tools like Flash and Unity changed the shape of design, in that the focus shifted to mass appeal and social graph rather than cutting-edge technology.
The mobile and social spaces have matured very fast, but there's plenty of opportunity for discovery, she says, and a small team making a game for social good has the opportunity to leverage the new environment.
But the field is so populated with choices -- according to Bradshaw "70 percent of Americans are already taking part in social networks... that are about earning achievements," with lifestyle apps that attempt to shape behavior among the most popular emerging categories
"Today it can be like trying to whisper in a tornado," she says. "How do we get heard -- how do we make games for change ultimately rise to the surface?"
Knowing your audience through appropriate telemetry and design that leverages reward systems to modify behavior are only part of the solution.
"Movies have been around for as long as we can remember... we've broken down any genre of filmmaking and there's a formula, now," she notes. "But movies and TV are still able to surprise us... while still staying in the groove of a particular genre, and I think our interactive media has even greater opportunity."
She points to recent years' evolution on the documentary format to suggest how games, especially serious ones, can engage and energize audiences, and even become part of popular entertainment.
What was once a direct, even staid way of communicating information changed with the advent of passionate personalities with strong points of view.
"They were about literally getting that point of view out there, and they came with main characters, like Al Gore and Michael Moore," Bradshaw says. Regardless of where one stands on the issues such filmmakers championed, their effect on documentary filmmaking and their ability to drive ideas around their chosen issues are impossible to ignore.
"These guys became brands; they became champions of the kind of content they were going to put forward," she says.
Creators of a game for change can benefit from these examples, in terms of how to make serious content something that is energizing. With the added power of interactivity, perhaps games can go even further than documentary films.
"Interactivity is personal," Bradshaw says. "Play is a transformative experience, and by immersing yourself in something it gives you a tangible, personal relationship with it that can transcend the mechanics themselves."