The eighth annual Games for Change Festival, held last week in New York City, demonstrated that video games have made the transition from pure entertainment to one of the most important communications platforms of the modern era. For businesses that have embraced websites, chatrooms, Facebook, Twitter, and other digital platforms, video games are the next logical step in customer engagement. They also provide a powerful tool for businesses that are seeking to go beyond their customer base, and engage community stakeholders in economic development and social change.
Michelle Byrd, Executive Director of Games for Change, previewed the Festival for Triple Pundit and remarked that the whole point of Games for Change is that video games can and do influence real world actions. After checking out part of the Festival, Triple Pundit can offer some insights into how an effective social engagement game works.
Games and Research
Two video games featured in the Games for Change Festival, At-Risk and Fate of the World, approach gaming from two entirely different angles. The themes are different (one is suicide prevention, the other is global warming), the graphics are different, and even the funding is different; At-Risk is a project of the U.S. Veterans’ Administration that will be distributed for free when launched this summer, and Fate of the World is a privately financed commercial game. Where the games come together is their intense dedication to thorough, fact based research.
Setting Goals for Social Change Games
For At-Risk, the Veterans’ Administration had a single, straightforward goal based on a real world, quantifiable situation: their data showed that suicide rates were lower for veterans who sought help from their clinics, so they wanted a game that could coach family members to recognize at-risk signs and encourage veterans to seek help. Fate of the World’s goal is more broad – to engage players in the complexities of climate action – but that goal is based on a large body of knowledge. So, if you think a social change game could fit in with the mission of your company, it helps to identify a goal that can be backed up with real-world research.
Designing an Effective Video Game
Research also carries throughout the game design. The Veterans’ Administration had amassed a large body of clinical evidence that formed the basis for the controlled conversations at the heart of At-Risk. Despite the somewhat minimalist graphics, when clips from the game were played for an audience at the festival, the reaction was immediate and enthusiastic – the realism of the conversation definitely touched a common nerve. Kognito Interactive, the game’s designer, also worked closely with veterans and their families throughout the design process to ensure that the conversations were realistic and effective. Similarly, Fate of the World’s designer Red Redemption drew from A-list scientific sources for every detail, as well as consulting policy makers and even the CIA.
Learning from Mistakes
Learning from one’s mistakes holds true for conventional competitive video games, and even more so for engagement games. Both At-Risk and Fate of the World incorporate options that enable participants to test their instincts and see how the consequences could play out – without harming themselves or anyone else, or exposing themselves to ridicule. These games can also help participants question their pre-conceived notions and expectations. In particular, At-Risk can be a real eye-opener for players who think they have a good grasp of climate action policy.
If social engagement video games are starting to seem like a natural fit for the field of corporate social responsibility, that may be because a good game has a lot in common with a good business plan. Both call for clear goals, solid research, and an honest approach to the complexities of human behavior.
Image: Play by Pink Sherbert Photography on flickr.com.
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