Much heated discussion in recent weeks has followed the issue of whether games impact real-world behavior. But eight years ago, the Games For Change organization was founded in the belief that they can -- and has since worked on outreach efforts and an annual event based on the idea that games can be a tool to mobilize people for social good.
Games for good, newsgames, serious games -- however you call them, exploring games as tools to inform, educate or promote activism has long been a complex but meaningful niche. It's now led by co-presidents Michelle Byrd, former veteran director of the Independent Filmmaker Project, and Asi Burak, co-founder of Impact Games and creator of Play the News and PeaceMaker.
Burak takes care to differentiate his role on PeaceMaker from his new, holistic leadership role at Games For Change, though the arc of his career has seen the change games landscape evolve over time; when it comes to the G4C organization, he sees the value of Byrd's film world "outsider" insight as a good complement to his background as a development "insider."
It's been five years since Peacemaker, a wide-reaching game that challenged players to experiment with the incredibly complex cocktail of factors that create the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. These days, Burak focuses on working with Byrd on Games for Change efforts; in recent years G4C has attracted notable figures like Al Gore and Sandra Day O'Connor to attend and speak.
In many ways that's a positive endorsement of wider outreach efforts, the idea of change games reaching public figures in policy. Yet in some ways there are still more challenges than ever -- interest in the field remains constrained to nonprofits and academia, and how to attract motivated independent developers remains an elusive challenge.
With that in mind, the organization's announced it would partner with the Global Game Jam to enable designated G4C sites that encourage jammers to focus their effort on games designed for positive social impact.
"Largely speaking, I think there is still a huge gap," Burak tells Gamasutra. "I think that it's something we can bridge. And it will take time, and we should be more focused on it, and at the end of the day if we're not going to bridge that gap we're going to stay only with games that come from the top."
Government organizations, nonprofits and corporations might want to drum up some budget for change games, but the field needs more indies interested in socially-motivated game design if the gap Burak describes is to close, he says.
PeaceMaker was one such passion project; five years ago the native Isreaeli and his Carnegie Mellon team wanted to make a game that could help enable understanding and communication around that volatile conflict. In 2004, that goal was a lot harder for people both inside and outside of games to understand.
The confusion and doubt around his goals back then is something Burak says he'll never forget. Game designers wondered why an entertainment medium was being used to deal with something so heavy and sincere, while those who understood games less worried that "video game" would trivialize the topic.
These days things are different: The idea of a game dealing with factors in the Middle East makes sense to people. "The perception of what we do has changed so much in five years that it's stunning," Burak says. "It's not only because of games for change or serious games, but I think a lot of it is because of what's happened to games, on iPhones, Facebook... whatever you say about Zynga, they brought games to people who never played them, and I think all that really changed things in terms of how people see them."
The intention of a game like PeaceMaker may be easier for people to understand, but the conflict it addresses has gotten more difficult. "The picture is not great," Burak reflects on the politics of his homeland. "When I made it, and when I came to the U.S. eight years ago, hope was in the air... everybody was supportive, and there was a great feeling, working on [PeaceMaker]."
"I talked to more Palestinians in the period I made PeaceMaker than I spoke with for 33 years in Israel," he reflects. Beyond dialogue, working on PeaceMaker become part of a larger and unexpected collaborative process; the game was prototyped and tested with Israelis and Palestinians alike, including a moving experience testing the game with Arab students in Qatar.
PeaceMaker's tech was eventually sold mainly to return money to its investors, but before that, Israel's Peres Center For Peace purchased some 100,000 copies -- 80,000 of which were handed out for free with newspapers in both Israel and Palestine. Burak experienced the feeling of people in both nations understanding and appreciating the objective of PeaceMaker and using that opportunity to further dialog.
"That was then," Burak recalls. "Today, it's a really, really sad situation... many things have been tried since then but are not taking the situation to a good place... in that sense, it's almost the opposite trend to what I saw with the game. It's not really changing."
Yet there's no sense of futility -- for Burak, there's only further illustration of how deeply issue-oriented games are needed. The remaining 20,000 copies obtained by the Peres Center are being used to this day to run workshops in both Israel and the West Bank. Burak visited one of these workshops and met with the students, and saw that PeaceMaker catalyzed discussion and awareness about the conflict that would have been unexamined, even taboo otherwise.
"In a way the game and its program were [the students'] only experience of a dialogue around the conflict," Burak says. Students in the region rarely even understand the basic facts of the conflict before they're asked to take a position -- some of the students he met, whose mandated military service is just one year away, don't know who Hamas is.
"At that point, it was like, 'oh my god, the situation is terrible,'" Burak marvels. "At the same time, it's like, 'wow, we need more PeaceMakers. If that's engaging, and will trigger the discussion that other traditional methods are not doing, we certainly need to do more."
That certainty is what motivates Burak to now co-lead the Games For Change organization: "This medium helps you to connect the dots in a way that a TV news broadcast cannot do," he asserts. "These games can make that kind of message or material so much more accessible and include multiple perspectives."
In his view there are fewer high-impact small games or individual news games now than there were a few years ago, but what he describes as larger "top down" efforts are gaining visibility every year, as more educational and charitable organizations come to appreciate the potential power of games. But a healthy balance of both approaches are crucial -- and since individual efforts are hardly founts of income for their creators and getting distribution can be challenging, that's a roadblock.
"On one hand not enough of these games are created, but there also aren't big enough ways to bring those games to audiences," Burak says. "If I go out and I ask people if they know what documentaries are, or what nonfiction books are, they say yes. I want to go out and ask 10 people 'what is a game for change,' or a newsgame, and I want some of them to say yes."
Co-president Byrd's experience with the independent film community strongly sharpened for Burak the need for that same kind of mission-oriented vision in the game development community if change games are to thrive and attain greater impact. Byrd, he says, came from a place "all driven by creators, people that sell their apartment or mortgage their house to make a movie."
Byrd also aims to put more of the "festival" in the Games For Change's annual G4C Festival, Burak says -- a festival should be a celebration of games that has people out in the streets and inside playing them. The org is starting to bring games further into the public awareness with partnerships such as the one it recently forged with the National History Museum.
That kind of outreach is key, Burak says, because "arguably the public would be more interested in the games created by this community than playing an Xbox game where you need 20 years of 'gamer experience.'"
"One thing will lead to another," hopes Burak, when it comes to increased creatorship, distribution and awareness around games for social good, but it's still relatively early in the field's lifespan, he believes. Working on those frontiers is a crucial part of the G4C organization's work now.
Skepticism and a resistance to get involved from the traditional development community -- those with the expertise and efficiency to make some significant contribution -- may be part of the challenge. "I think it's coming from 'don't mess with my art or culture,' and sometimes, to me, it's upside down," Burak suggests.
"If I love games and play them, why wouldn't I want them to access a wider audience?"