How New Definitions of “Games” & “Change” Have Transformed the G4C Festival

Yesterday, after the first day of the 10th annual Games For Change Festival, I posted my initial reflections on how the world has changed around the movement during the past decade and how the organization might respond (re: Does Games For Change Have a Future? (a reflection on the past and next decade). I focused on how the communities initially drawn together through the Festival have changed over time. This morning I find myself thinking about how both the words “Games” and “Change” have experienced their own radical broadening of meaning, and wondering what that means for the next decade of the Festival.

Let’s start with “games.” Ten years ago, a model “Games For Change” was usually, but not exclusively, a web-based casual game about a particular social or political issue (genocide, poverty, fast food, etc.). That changed somewhat over time, with bigger budget games like A Force More Powerful, but they were rare. Ten years on, those games continue to get made, but we have broadened the possibility space as well. Games can be transmedia properties, existing through more than one media, such as Half the Sky, or be full transmedia narratives that require intraction with various media source to get the full picture, like Google’s Ingress. In part this reflects a broader understand of games as not just a self-contained unit of code, design, and sound, but as situated within a broader ecology; many games now come with curriculum, social media integration, ways to take action and more. Finally, the spread of both mobile tools and mobile gaming has opened up new ways to do non-analog activities – connecting with people and the places around them – but supported through geolocative mobile tools.

“Change” isn’t what it used to be. Suzanne Seggerman, one of the co-founders of G4C, was primarily motivated by her experience with political games made by artists. She wanted to bring a community together to support those efforts. These games were not always didactic but their political goals were explicit. As with the initial sole focus on games as a unit, this initial approach defined “change” in terms no less constrained. The game HAD to be explicit about the issue it addressed. That declaration of intent made it a Games For Change. No more. (It didn’t even need to be a good game). Increasingly, the impact now can come less from the games relationship with its players than its relationship with its creators. In recent years, those efforts have focused on youth designing games (reflected this year in the Global Kids panel on Tuesday and the STEM Game Design Challenge on Wednesday); but this year we are moving beyond youth. E-Line Media announced at the Festival their partnership with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a social service provider for Alaska Native and American Indians, to launch the Upper One Games, the “first indigenous-owned video game company in the U.S.” I anticipate the content of the games developed will fit well into the Games For Change format, but they don’t need to anymore. CITC is motivated in part to share their value and culture through games, but they have another goal: “As an organization we want to be able to chart our own destiny,” Gloria O’Neill said, the President and CEO of CITC. “This is about pioneering a new approach to sustainability.” So even if they produce a well selling version of checkers, if it leads to a sustainability then theirs will be a game for change.

Games changing their creator as not the only way the definition of “Change” is being broadened. As I mentioned in the previous post, when the world is full of games, you don’t need to explicitly make a game with socially-impactful content to make a socially-impactful game. This definition is a way for G4C to claim a point of content with the recent success of indie games. At the same time, “change” is being seen in an educational context – how can games change what learning looks like, when and where it happens, and who is in charge? Sometimes it’s a tool for teachers to structure their curriculum; other times it’s educators adapting commercial tools for their own purposes. Neither of these efforts are new – what is new is the scale of these efforts, the funding behind them, and a shift in educational policy that supports such efforts. Finally, we have games where the change is not about resolving a social issue – not about the players’ relationship with a particular political or social issue – but about the players relationships with each other and the space around them.

Thinking about how the words “games” and “change” have shifted in the past decade helps me think clearer about the future of the Games For Change festival. It helps me understand why things look different now than they did over the past ten years. More importantly, it helps me to understand the new possibility space the Festival occupies and new opportunities to support and think critically about the wide-ranging possibilities for using games to better the world.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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