The Games for Change Festival came to New York City this week, and the three-day event provides a unique perspective on the growing influence of video games. As its parent organization Games for Change puts it, the festival put the spotlight on "the increasing real-world impact of digital games as an agent for social change." Although Games for Change focuses mainly on government and academic partners, the economic development potentials could offer a powerful tool for companies seeking to interact with their customers beyond the level of simply consuming products and services, working toward a stakeholder engagement that partners with communities to improve and advance.
In a recent interview with TriplePundit, Games for Change Co-President Michelle Byrd shared her thoughts on the ability of video games to transfer ideas and actions from the digital dimension into the real world.
"I was always interested in the use of media for social change and I could see the potential in video games," says Byrd, who came to Games for Change following twelve years as Executive Director of the Independent Filmmakers Project in New York. "The funding was there, and video games provide a way of meeting people where they are."
Byrd's film background suggests some interesting contrasts and similarities between movies and video games. As with movie goers, gamers originally had no choice but to go outside their homes in order to have the experience of a new medium. However, from the beginning video games were part of a much more active social environment given their placement in bars, restaurants and arcades. This advanced level of social interaction has followed video games into the home, and it follows gamers on the go in the form of laptops and cell phones.
As for the observable influence of video games on behavior, that issue is a matter of controversy for games that are designed primarily to entertain. For the type of games that Games for Change promotes, there is no controversy, and Byrd is characteristically straightforward on the subject. "Our partners care very much about behavior change," she says. "That's the point."
To help clarify the behavior change issue, you can start with the way that video games can be used to teach basic math, reading and writing skills. These educational games quite obviously help to provide players with knowledge that can have a profound influence on their behavior. Now take it up to a much more sophisticated level and you have a Games for Change project called Half the Sky, which is designed to raise awareness of the oppression of women globally, and of the "opportunities women offer to promote economic development and combat fundamentalism."
Based on the book Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the Half the Sky game is an example of the "transmedia" trend in social change gaming.
"Transmedia is a new buzzword that you will hear more of," says Byrd. "It means that you can engage people on multiple platforms, for example with a game and a book, or a game and a film."
What does all this mean for businesses? One answer can be found in the efforts of Levi Strauss to push corporate social responsibility beyond the borders of a company's operating facilities (and those of its supply chain), to focus on creating partnerships that promote development in the surrounding community. As one element in a comprehensive CSR program, gaming has the potential to help companies engage new stakeholders.
In this context, it's natural to think of social change gaming as a means of helping underdeveloped nations, and that is where Games for Change is focused. However, businesses also need to engage in highly developed communities in order to remain sustainable. One recent example covered in Triple Pundit is the potentially devastating impact of water scarcity on the economy of metro Atlanta, Georgia, a controversy that has come to a head with federal lawsuits and a downgrade warning from credit rating agencies.
The Games for Change Festival is taking place now, through June 22nd in New York City. New this year is an on-site arcade where participants can check out Half the Sky and other Games for Change projects. For more information visit gamesforchange.org.
Image: Recreation of vintage video game by oskay on flickr.com.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.