Does Games For Change Have a Future? (a reflection on the past and next decade)

Has Games For Change run its course? Has it become a victim of its own successes? And how real were these successes? These are some unsettling questions I found myself contemplating as I left the first of three days at the 10th annual Games For Change Festival.

As it celebrates ten years “catalyzing social impact through digital games,” I was struck by questions asked by those like Limor Schafman to speakers like Ian Bogost and Robin Hunicke. Were they arguing, she wanted to know, if G4C had lived past its time? Ian seemed to be questioning (in his awesomely curmudgeonly way) whether any games bearing the G4C honorific have ever produced measurable change in the world (starting first with one of his own games); Robin’s response to the same question suggested there was little need for such a concept of G4C (if I heard her correctly).

Ian’s critique of a decade’s worth of well-intentioned but perhaps socially-irrelevant games contrasted with Robin’s ebullience over the recent success of the indie gaming movement. This led me to consider the following ideas. It is just a rough idea, and not fully formed (or perhaps even informed), but I share it with you in a process of thinking out loud. Please add your comments below to respond, disagree, confer, or whatever way you think is useful to help us better understand where we are with this Games For Change effort as it enters its second decade.

Ten years ago, in 2004, the 1st Festival was a half day affair that had a hard time filling a room (I seem to recall about three dozen in attendance). It brought together game designers, museum and after-school educators, funders, and more. There was a dynamic energy driving these diverse communities towards one another, and G4C was at the center. I now sense the energy has shifted, with G4C no longer at the center and other forces driving their gaming activities.

In 2011, when Al Gore keynoted the G4C Festival, he said, “Games are the new norm.” At the time, a major political figure apologetically declaring the ubiquity of games was astonishing. Now, the same statement would be holy unremarkable. As G4C and its parent effort, Serious Games, has succeeded in broadening the wide-spread use of games for more than just entertainment, the communities driving the early year of the G4C Festival have deepened their engagement, but in different directions.

For the non-profits and museums in attendance, a Games For Change meant games about genocide (Darfur is Dying) and Poverty (Ayiti: The Cost of Life). Today, the examples I saw were mostly about education (Amplify, HistrionicsMinecraftEdu). We’ve moved from games for social change to games-based learning. I suspect the first doesn’t replace the second, but becomes a more refined version of the original concept, now that it has been iterated a number of times to feed the specific needs of the educational community.

I think the story is somewhat different for the game developers. Their efforts to radically revision the possibilities of game play drove many of the early efforts at Games for Change. Aspiring graduate students seeking to break into the business on their own terms, or small gaming companies, entered contests or pursued their own creative efforts, using serious issues to give weight to their work. Ayiti was a collaboration with GameLab, for example, one of the most important indie game developers of the naughts. But today, with the power games are understood to have within and over popular culture, making a game that is not a AAA big budget shoot ’em up is ITSELF a political statement. The ability of game like Thomas Was Alone to evoke such deep emotions, or games like Gorogoa generating a state of awe, even when devoid of any explicit political content, is itself a political act. Games have become important enough that game designers can express themselves through their medium without needing political content to lend them political weight. As a result, much of the early game developer energy that poured into Games for Change has now been diverted to the success of games like Journey.

So in recent year we have seen less Darfur is Dyings and more MinecraftEdus and Journeys (to pick two stand-out examples). There are of course noteable exceptions, such as Half The Sky. But it stands as just that, an exception, rather than a representation of a class of the next generation of Games For Change. Meanwhile, we are seeing perhaps a third direction (social games?) where the impact is intentional, to get people to connect with each other and/or the space around them, but the efforts are directed through the gameplay itself, and less the content of the game, such as the global reach of Google’s Ingress or the local reach of a Tiny Game.

So what does this means for the Games For Change community? Did the Zeitgeist leave the building? Have the game developers moved on to games as art and, if so, should G4C move with them, following the indie game explosion to encourage games as political art in the same way G4C found early growth pursuing the crowd at the Games Developers Conferences? Have the non-profits and educators moved on to games-based learning and, if so, should G4C make an even deeper play into the educational community? Or has the current game space simply expanded to such vast proportions over the past decade that, while opportunities have increased, and the initial communities have shifted, the opportunities are greater than ever.

At the same time, who else but Games For Change is asking about the role games can play to better society (whether through art, education, or social change) and who else is exploring and expanding entry points for those seeking to get involved? These have always been the core features of G4C; while gaming might be the new norm, these questions are not.

Clearly, the organizers of this year’s festival are aware of current trends – thus, so much discussion today of what I will crudely lump together as examples of indie games and games-based learning. But G4C needs to be a force helping to drive these communities, not just following them, by demonstrating the unique voices, questions and players they can bring to their efforts; at the same time, the communities at the center of G4C will need to expand to include new voices and interests, and be driven by their needs and concerns. I don’t know who those new communities are or where to find them (maybe you do), but I am confident that if G4C is around in ten years (and I see no reason why it won’t) it will be in no small part due to the energies and synergies driven by their engagement and how G4C became the hub they needed to bring them all together.

And this next decade might just be the one where the hard lessons learned through the mistakes and successes of the Darfur-Ayitis, and the MinecraftEdu-Amplifies, and the Journey-Gorogoas combine to produce a game, THE game, that everyone OF COURSE will know when you talk about “that game that changed the world.”

(For more on the topic, please read: How New Definitions of “Games” & “Change” Have Transformed the G4C Festival)

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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2 Responses to Does Games For Change Have a Future? (a reflection on the past and next decade)

  1. Really perceptive and thoughtful piece, Barry. Thank you.

  2. Kevin Miklasz says:

    Great piece. Some thoughts I’ve observed from day 1- I see three groups in this conference. First are those for “changing games,” or as you put it making political statements about the gaming industry by making non traditional indie games that emphasize emotional rather than rational elements. Next are those thinking about games for social change that get players to think about or act on social issues. There is a lot of overlap between these groups to me, in that to create game mechanics that induce social change, we do need to invent new “emotional” games. Third, there is creating games for educational change, and this groups seems very mutually exclusive from the first two. These games should be rational and systems based, and involve remixing current game mechanics for classrooms rather than reinventing new game mechanics. So I see two very different and mutually exclusive conversations going on.

    Just some thoughts to add onto a great piece

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