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Event Wrap Up: Second Annual Games for Change Conference
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Event Wrap Up: Second Annual Games for Change Conference

October 28, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Held at the City University of New York from October 21 to 22, a group composed of game designers, academic researchers, educators, students, funding agents and like-minded people gathered to discuss what are being called “games for change” at the Second Annual Games for Change Conference. The premise is that games – the technology and the design expertise – can be used to convey social messages and to facilitate learning.

Ben Sawyer of Digital Mill, and one of the organizers of the event, kicked it off. He talked about mimicking other forms of media, such as the Ad Council and groups in television and film who advocate for social change and for independent media. He also suggested that the future of games may move from one-off games to open engines, mentioning also that modding is currently the predominant source of derivative content.

Sawyer also noted that the game industry “arguably makes more of an investment in virtual humans than any other.”

He mentioned the online video, “My Trip to Liberty City” which is an intriguing look at Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas from a player's perspective, then moved into the idea of play spaces and thought spaces – “all the data floating around with the thinker in the middle.”

Other topics covered included:

  • Learning across media – the wide social networks and ancillary activities of games, such as guilds, IRC communication, walkthroughs, FAQs, logs, etc.
  • The work of people like Constance Steinkuehler in how people form teams and collaborations in game spaces.
  • The realm of pedagogy and games including mentions of the work of David Schaefer and Jim Gee. “The situational literacy models that we put in games are the same mental models we wish you could learn.”
  • Assessment of skills using games, referring to flight simulators and “the world's most amazing medical simulation” for heart stem surgery. He asserts that we can come up with baseline standards for predicting someone's real-world competence based on their performance in simulations.
  • Learning to get more user-centric with more malleable interfaces for characters, skins, rules and so forth. He mentioned Civilization IV, saying “You can redo the entire AI if you know what you're doing. Rules become silly putty when the user reconfigures the interface.” He posed the questions: Do people learn better when they can reconfigure the rules? How much can we do and learn at one time?
  • Collecting lots of data and constructing lots of data, mentioning NASA' s project to digitize the world down to 10 centimeters. He also mentioned Brenda Laurel's observation that people like to drive by their house – or in general to enter into these huge worlds in order to find the landmarks with which they are familiar.

One of the many demos on display at the Second Annual Games for Change Conference.


Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program and tech consultant, began the keynote by talking about the real value of games often being outside the game content. His first example was to talk about two games – the Antiwargame and a game called Killer. He criticized the Antiwargame from FutureFarmers, stating that it tended toward a stable and therefore uninteresting state if you simply cranked up the business/military budgets and sat back. He talked about the various parameters available to the player in the way it was set up. In contrast, he talked about Killer, “a very simple game where you have the option to increase your own point score or decrease the point score of the person in the lead by use of coalitions.” Shirky talks about the utter simplicity of the game and how it is far superior in his opinion, at stimulating interest and ad hoc coalition building. Since each player knows that he or she can be a target at any time, he called them “shifting coalitions.” “The formation of coalitions is not formal to the rules, but is implicit in the play.” In contrast, the Antiwargame offers a larger range of options, but nothing as interesting as Killer with almost no content, but a form that leads to collaboration.

Shirky then talked about the importance of distinguishing form from content. “What a game says is not what it means. What it does is what it means.” He mentioned attempts at games with normative goals that fail because they are boring. Worse, when they fail they make the subject of the goal – say, racial tolerance – seem boring as well. He suggested taking the normative goal you wish to include in your game and making a game with almost no content – such as a card game or dice game. Make it almost content free. In essence, a game has to be a game first and the content must fit good design principles.

He continued his talk with a lengthy discussion of the Prisoner's Dilemma and showed how cooperation in game situations can be improved through iteration. Iteration, he stated, creates a framework for trust and innovation. “For game design, it's better to design a game that you can play four times in an hour, particularly with social implications.” He later agreed that one game that took 60 hours to play would solve the problem of iteration if the player continued to return to it and was exposed to the iterative content again and again in the course of play within one instance of the game over multiple sessions.

Shirky also brought up the concept that before playability comes the desire to play. “People have to first want to play a game before playability becomes a factor. I look at this as intention before action.” He explained that you'll get different results with a random group of people if you set out five games and let them choose which to play instead of just presenting one game and getting their feedback. You find out more not only about what they think of the games they play, but what games attracted them in the first place.

After further discussion of iteration and its importance in learning and absorbing information in which he contends that real change takes place at a deeper level in which the mind is literally rewired to alter opinions or beliefs, he moved to a discussion of the game of Monopoly.

To Shirky, one of the most compelling aspects of Monopoly is the arguments that take place over the rules, and the discussion and ultimate agreement over which rule sets to use, along with the aspect of watching for infractions of the rules during play. He noted that this sort of plasticity in rules is often missing in computer games.

He went on to say that games imply an agreement to be bound by a local set of rules, but that it's not enough to have the right normative goals… you have to have a game that's fun to play and to replay. It's about building an expertise through repetitive play.

“The content of the game is in the game, but the content of the play is in the player,” said Shirky. Watching what they do, argue about, play over and over – the game can't offer change, but the platform encodes the offer of change, even if not the value of it. “Ultimately,” he said, “the hope for games for change is to offer the opportunity for players to change their worldview rather than to impart mere information.”

Open Independence : New Models for Indie and Activist Game Development
Panelists: Celia Pearce, Mark Holly, Bill Tomlinson, Katie Salen, Clay Shirky

Celia Pearce, an author, game designer, and teacher/researcher at the University of California Irvine moderated this panel and began by speaking about the tendency of game designers to fall into a very didactic approach to games for change. They often make the games a test environment to see if the user learned what they designer wanted them to learn. But in games, much learning takes place on the fly. You don't have to know anything to start the task. You learn by doing it, and when you need more information, you go and get it.

Pearce mentioned her current project called Spaceship Earth, which she described as a MMOS (Massive Multiplayer Online Simulation), which she's working on in conjunction with the Buckminster Fuller Institute. The concept of the game can be summed up as “think globally and act locally.” Fundamentally, each player will have a specific zone of influence in the game world and each person's contribution will affect the overall state of the simulation. She said that often in games, we look at the whole system as if we had control over the whole system… that only part of the game involves letting players “work on the ground and think of the whole.”

Mar k Holly from UC Irvine's synthetic character group discussed his EcoRaft project next. In his demonstration he described the project as a simple simulation of ecosystem restoration. He outlined three general principles that inspired the game concept:

  • Ecosystem depletion is easy and restoration is hard.
  • Restoration is a stepwise process – some species are necessary before others can take hold.
  • Cooperation helps.

The game is designed to involve children and their parents. The children work with tablet PCs, each of which “carries” a specific species. They are given a time limit and told that they must take the species to the “island,” which is represented on another PC, and deliver them in the proper order to successfully restore the environment on the island. Meanwhile, the parents can press a button that undoes all the children's progress. Kids not only had to cooperate by assigning specific species to certain kids, but also by assigning a kid whose responsibility it was to prevent the parents from hitting the dreaded button. Kids and parents enjoyed the experience, and the kids in particular showed a desire to play the game more than once – both to improve their performance and also because some kids would want to play different roles – such as carrying the species or guarding against the parents.

Katie Salen from The New School and co-author (with Eric Zimmerman ) of Rules of Play, began by asking a number of questions including:

  • What role does education play in teaching kids how to develop game for change?
  • Is this a question of literacy?
  • Are games for change a kind of radical text?
  • What guidelines are there for games for change?

She called education the “practice of freedom” and challenged whether game designers should tackle social issues or embrace the status quo. She warned about separating games for change from “regular” games… and expressed that it was important to talk about game design and take the position that all games can take part in that agenda. She contended that it takes a fierce commitment and will to accomplish these goals.

Clay Shirky then talked about the idea of openness and the issue of “who cares?” He contended that it takes considerable intention and desire to create to maintain an open project, using the Wikipedia as an example. “The Wikipedia looks like an object, but it is a source of low-level disagreement. It is maintained by a small group who cares enormously, who are constantly staving off hostile edits. Without that small group of dedicated individuals, the hostile edits could destroy the Wikipedia in a matter or days.”

He continued that the vast majority of open source projects never get off the ground, and of those that do, most fail. Openness creates a phenomenal bonus to community, especially by getting that community to care and spur a communal effort. There is a productive argument about what could and should happen. But the issue of who cares is central. If nobody cares, it will fail. He mentions an experiment by the Los Angeles Times to create a “wikitorial” in which people could edit other people's editorials. It was pulled within two days because nobody cared enough what happened to the edits, not even the original writers who had made their point and didn't seem to want to follow up. You must have motivation for open source projects to work.

Katie Salen talked briefly about the game mechanics – that designers should look for what will work best for the type of subject you are tackling, and to look at meta game opportunities, as well.

Celia Pearce talked about the fact that, in more passive media, such as the novel, the experience is about empathy. In contrast, games are about agency. It's about what decisions you make.

Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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