Forty-seventh U.S. Vice President Al Gore has become a passionate advocate for awareness of global climate issues. But in a Gamasutra-attended speech on Monday at New York University, his focus was on how games can spark real-life change.
In the words of the Ford Foundation's Maya Harris, who introduced Gore as the 2011 Games for Change event's keynote speaker, his presence at the event "underscores the importance of this unique global gathering, and the immense potential for the greater public good by bringing together activists, change agents, technologists and content creators under one roof for the purpose of creating and realizing the impact of the 21st century's largest media platform: Games."
Gore took the stage at NYU's Skirball Center to thunderous applause. "I'm very, very happy to be here and to see this gathering," he says. "I have followed the progress of this group. I've been advised by some friends that I saw at the TED conference this year, so when I had the opportunity to come and join you this year, I seized it," he told the packed theater.
Gore sees this as an interesting era for games, and particularly the arena of games for social good -- despite a time when the global economy is, as he says, "dicey." But he's optimistic: "Certainly this is a sector of the economy that justifies that optimism," he says. Gore cited the pleasure of having worked with Will Wright, who has created interactive program Bar Karma for Current TV, a web TV channel Gore co-founded.
"The aficionados of the games were drawn to create storylines around the games, and [Wright] took that and created a unique piece of software that allows people to create 'story genomes' and then vote on the path the plot takes. Each week, the results of the user votes are given to a production team to develop live programs. "It's been very interesting and award-winning, and it's been great to get to know Will," says Gore.
"Games have clearly arrived as a mass medium," says Gore. "This is a very large, extremely significant industry with a wildly diverse and rapidly-growing audience of players on all kinds of platforms. We already know the immense power of popular media to illuminate issues that can seem intractable and overly-complex, but [through games] can be illuminated and presented to general audiences in a way that invites people to become involved in trying to solve the problems that our society has to solve."
Creators working at the intersection of social media and entertainment are "in the best place to leverage collaborations that can create games for change," the Vice President says.
The biggest issue with which activists are now working is how to translate complex content into new formats. "I could tell you that from my own experience, the secret seems to me to be to get some really good partners who know what they're doing... I found [finding partners with technical ability] a fun challenge -- and not a particularly difficult one."
Gore claims no particular facility with games himself, but says he's enjoyed playing and learning about them. He also says he enjoys meeting with teams as an investor to fund new technologies in this space. "It has been very exciting to me to see so many ideas that integrate social good and efforts to make the world a better place into games."
Over the last few years, "there has been an explosion of interest in games," he says, part of which can be credited to the popularity of the iOS and Android platform, along with Facebook -- all of which have built on the roads paved by video games all along. "Now we've arrived at a point where it's safe to say that games are the new norm for hundreds of millions of users every month," Gore says.
"Game interfaces and scoring rules have become standard... the gamification trend is really, extremely powerful, and you see games dominating the top lists of apps on Facebook and iOS," he adds. "And games are becoming increasingly artful; it's now a craft taught in universities and trade schools, and we all know that learning by doing is one of the best ways to learn."
"What we're seeing in games is art at a world-class stage design that is almost unmatched anywhere else," he says.
Now, we have an opportunity to create "FarmVilles for policy," he joked, expressing his support and enthusiasm for the crowd gathered at the event to learn about the "growing movement" for games for social good.
It seems that everyone from entrepreneurs and NGO want to "gamify" these days, but not everyone knows how to go about it. All kinds of software makers are trying to jump in by arbitrarily adding point systems and leaderboards and taking a "mix-and-stir" aproach, the Vice President observes. But it isn't that easy, of course: "It seems obvious, but crucial to design to the gamer's mind," he notes.
Gore cited Bing Gordon's list of features that make games successful: First, first impressions count: "In the first five seconds, a gamer needs to feel, 'ah, I'm smart! I can do this'," he says. First impressions should also meet or beat expectations, and create measurable expectations on the part of the user.
Second: "They need to win, and win fast, and have a reason to come back, and they need an easy way to invite others to participate. Third, the landing screen is crucial: One of the first rules of any visual media is the quality of the visual... the visual needs to match the type of app or site or game that you are about to play."
The ability of game features to enhance storylines and create meaning through quests, characters and experiences is one of its most promising applications. "And it's amazing that by a three to one ratio, cooperation beats out competition," says Gore. "People want the ability to cooperate with clear rules, and the ability to self-police."
This preference for cooperation and community building is heartening for the games space, says Gore: "These social communities say something positive about us and what gamification can do. This industry is sometimes defined by some of the lowest common denominator games... but the cooperation over competition, and the social rules aspect is gaining momentum."
He notes the impact and crucial value of play among all living things, and is especially drawn to the junction of gamification and social media, noting how Zynga allows FarmVille players to support various causes through the purchase of seeds in the game.
For Gore's part, he personally hopes for a game that can support the momentum of his acclaimed work, An Inconvenient Truth. "I've been encouraged by recent developments like Trash Tycoon and Oceanopolis, and both have spurred my thinking in this area. In closing, I want to say that I'd love to work with any teams that are interested in making games that are focused on solutions to the climate crisis. I look forward to getting to know this community better."
During the Q&A session, when asked about the theory of games-as-escapism -- as ways to flee reality rather than change it -- Gore suggested, "you can say the same thing about books, really. You should try to live completely in the present moment all the time, but none of us do."
He adds, "I do think the concern is well-taken. The immersive quality of games can produce more than the medium's share of people who get so caught up that it really does become an escape. But at it's best it is interesting, fun play... lessons and knowledge that are useful in changing reality for the better."
"I have faith in people and in human nature. During the time they are spending in the game, if there are constructive, valuable lessons, I think that's a good thing."
"You give me cause for tremendous hope," he concluded.