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G4C: Schell On Games' Power For Peace

G4C: Schell On Games' Power For Peace

June 22, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

[In a moving Gamasutra-attended keynote at the 2011 Games for Change event in New York City, Jesse Schell advocated games' power to create peace, and the concept of media as an expression of care for others.]

The idea that games can change the world seems very small, like a steep uphill battle, when one looks at the commercial industry. After all, many of the industry's products focus on war, drawing concerns about desensitization to violence and raising questions across the design community about the meaning of what it creates.

With so much of the industry viewing games as products that don't even require meaning, how can a niche community of change titles "save" anyone?

At the 2011 Games For Change event in New York City, where hundreds gathered to discuss the application of games to global issues, Jesse Schell's closing keynote [video link] aimed to answer just this question.

He recalls growing up in a neighborhood with no ethnic diversity or exposure to people with life experiences different from his -- and how children's television program Sesame Street, which aimed to educate children and show them diversity, opened his mind.

Now, we can go even further than television programming: "The internet creates a world where we can interact with each other, and our appearance matters not at all," Schell says. "All that matters are our ideas and what we have to communicate, and games take this one step farther... how you want to be on the inside is how you have the opportunity to appear in these worlds."

He recalled design pioneer Dani Berry, one of the early employees of Electronic Arts who worked on Seven Cities of Gold, about coming to the new world. It let players decide whether to be a diplomat or a conquistador in an open and free-form way. Her Cartels and Cutthroats, a business simulator, let eight people play simultaneously.

M.U.L.E., one of her most famous games, places players on Irata making strange trading decisions. And the first commercial networked game, Modem Wars, was also Berry's, making her responsible for some of the earliest strides into games where people choose their own roles and tactics.

"Unfortunately Dani died of lung cancer before the whole multiplayer online game explosion happened," says Schell. But Dani, a male to female transgender, may have aimed for more than a contribution to a design trend: "I always suspected some of the reason that Dani's work was so pioneering was the idea of 'a place where I can be who I want to be... and not how people see me,'" says Schell.

Online connectivity and the ability for people to express themselves free of what they look like and where they live could be "a meaningful tool in order to break boundaries and create unity, and create peaceful situations that will raise people in a world where when you interact with people it doesn't matter how you look, it matters how you behave," suggests Schell. "That's a fascinating possibility and potential."

Some might point out that language will always be a barrier -- but technology is even coaxing those to recede, he notes. Schell once played Ultima Online and noticed a fellow player "was talking funny" -- and then he realized that the player was German and invisibly translating both players to one another.

"We're going to get to the point where this is going to become a very normal way to communicate," he says. "A world where we no longer have barriers of race, and barriers of language." One that, combined with increasing trade, encourages countries to be economically invested in one another and decreases the cost of communication could help start the path to a peaceful world.

Are Games Peaceful?

But does that make video games more peaceful than violent? Schell noted that a hunting video game helped two sisters reconcile a dispute about the nature of the sport. "These things are complicated, but the important point here is even something as trivial as a child's game was enough to change an adult's point of view on an important moral issue."

Other games designed to change point of view, such as Peacemaker, have even more potential, as they're aimed at helping teach peace. Peacemaker dealt with the Israel-Palestine conflict and tasked players with developing strategies to address the numerous, complex issues involved. But the most important takeaway from the game wasn't that people needed to understand and practice strategies; it was that the ability to take either role in the conflict helped both sides empathize, and more importantly, it helped them stop trivializing the solutions.

Games are "very good at letting us experience how complex systems work... video games have this huge power to let us see other people's huge point of view," says Schell.

But what really drives real-world violence? The motives are usually viewed as greed or desperation: "some amount of violence comes from a problem-solving methodology, but I don't think that's where most violence comes from," says Schell.

"What people don't often realize is that violence is a form of communication; violence is a way for me to show you how much I'm hurting right now," he suggests. "I think a huge amount of violence... often comes from this root. And if that's true, if games can find ways to help people communicate better? That has huge implications."

So the more technologies facilitate communication, the more the potential for peace, he suggested, pointing out the perspective that something as trivial as Facebook contributed to the Egyptian revolution.

Games Help Model Behavior

He pointed to child safety features for communication in Toontown, on which he worked with Disney, that necessarily forced children to choose general, positive phrases -- "you stink" is the worst insult kids can trade in the game. The goal of the Disney title is to encourage teamwork and cooperation among kids.

Schell heard from a player who was disappointed at first that the game didn't allow the trash talking and arguments as permitted in other MMOs -- but after playing ToonTown, he found himself encouraging, rather than disparaging other players in Dark Ages of Camelot: the player realized that Toontown had had an effect on his behavior, helping him to model and practice positivity.

"When you really care about what your game is going to do to somebody... if you put that in there, people feel it and they acknowledge it," said Schell. "They appreciate it, because nothing feels better than the feeling that 'someone else cares what I've accomplished.'"

One person who knew this better than anyone else is Mister Rogers, says Schell. Fred Rogers entered television because he hated it, and wanted to use its power for good -- and in his work encouraged those who use media platforms to think of themselves as being in the service of the nation.

Rogers, a minister, felt the way he could best serve the world was to make programming that would encourage children to be better people through simple messages, instead of through overt religious teachings. He viewed media as an expression of care for children, and believed that if children could have their feelings taken seriously, they would use their emotions in caring, meaningful ways as adults.

"The 21st century is going to be a war for human attention," says Schell. "And where the attention of a culture goes, defines that culture."

The Peace In Being Children Again

At the age of 10, in the late 1970s -- the middle of the Cold War -- Schell recalls talking to other kids on the playground about their fear of nuclear war. He found that most children were unafraid, having embraced the fact that they would die of a nuclear bomb because of the scare's omnipresence in the media. Schell was surprised to find that all his friends felt the same way he did -- "what's the point of this at all if it's going to get all blown up?"

He describes it as "troubling" and "frustrating" until something changed his mind: Games on television. The Olympic games, to be precise, where all nations' flags were subservient to the Olympic flag of unity.

"For this short period... we forgot all of that stupid grown-up bullshit," Schell says. "We set that aside, and for two weeks the whole world cared about nothing other than being children again, cared about nothing other than who can throw the ball the farthest and who can run the fastest and who can skate the prettiest."

"And I wondered then, as I wonder now, if we were better game designers, couldn't it be the Olympics all the time?"

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