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This week, Asi Burak, Co-President of Games for Change, and Emily Treat, Games For Change Senior Producer, joined us at our offices for a game development workshop. I had the chance to sit down with Asi and Emily to ask them about this burgeoning medium and how people can use interactive games to engage with the causes they care about.
Could you tell us about how you got into gaming?
Asi: “I did entertainment mobile-based games when I was inIsrael. That was in the early days of mobile. Then I came to Carnegie Mellon[University]. When I left Israel, it was the first time for me to blend theideas of a game project and the Mideast conflict. That’s when we did ‘Peacemaker.’”
What made you decide to make the transition to games thathelp achieve good?
Asi: “It was ‘Peacemaker.’ It was a wild ride — as much as Idid it for passion, it was also the passion to change a medium. We believegames will become the most dominant medium of our time. We’re like those whomade the first documentaries. It’s about, ‘How far can we push it? How can wetackle the most serious issues of our time?’”
Emily: “I also studied at Carnegie Mellon. As an undergrad Ihad taken a class in video game design. Coming out of an art major, I was veryinterested in the idea of collaborative, creative fields. Coming back forgraduate school, that’s when I got interested in the idea of games foreducation. I think at that point I realized that you can do far more with agame than just do a fun experience. Since graduation, all the projects I’dworked on were games for learning opportunities. Later, I looked to expand thisbeyond just academic games. I share with Asi the feeling that we can remake thesame games again and again, or do games for social impact. It’s a genre thathasn’t been completely explored.”
What is the overall mission of Games for Change?
Asi: “We’re a non-profit, and we’re building a sector. That’sour main mission…to take this field — a genre and idea — to the extentpossible. What happens for many people and organizations is that their firstcontact is with Games For Change. For some projects, we give the firstresponse…even in terms of advice. From there, some projects move forward. Westart with a workshop where we sit down and look at the idea. And some projectsgo on to development.”
Are you putting organizations in contact with others who canhelp?
Asi: “Yes. One thing that we’re saying is that to create a goodproduct you can’t do it alone — especially if you’re coming from outside thefield. It’s about multi-stakeholder partnerships. We’re trying to make surethat an organization understands that they need to find the best resources fordevelopment, content and funding. When it comes to development, organizationsshould find developers who speak gaming. They also need to do their research,especially when it comes to working in the developing world. They need to mapthe technology, the landscape, etc."
Why should those who are concerned about the issues ofhunger and poverty care about this trend of games for social good?
Asi: “If you believe media canchange minds, then you should absolutely explore games. People are therealready…especially the younger generation. That’s the power: they’re alreadythere, spending the time, purchasing and downloading content. I would say theother aspect is that there are attributes to games that map to social impact. What happens in a game is that you takesomeone who is interacting with the experiences and you’re able to make themunderstand the complexities of an issue in a way you can’t in any other medium.You also get people who are already interactive and they’re one click away fromtaking action. When you get someone into the action of the game, they’re in themindset of being immersed or being fully engaged. To move them from the game totaking action will be a natural extension if the game is designed well.”
Emily: "There are deep, emotional experiences in games. Gamescan let the player take risks without consequences. They can challenge theirown beliefs in a game in a way they can’t through a book or other medium.”
Asi, you have said that interactive games comprise a $60 billion peryear industry worldwide. What portion of that belongs to games for social good?Do you see that shifting more toward the social good side?
Asi: “It’s shifting, but it’s very early, and it’s a small segmentout of the large pie. The main reason is that there’s no real market place —like any young industry — there’s no ‘games store’ where you can find allsocial good games. In some cases, you‘re making the game for an audience thatmight not have access to such a marketplace, like in remote villages.”
Emily: “There’s an inherent disconnect…it seems counterintuitiveto charge money for a game that is intended to raise awareness. Charity gamesdon’t yet have a structure for monetization.”
Do you see a lot of hunger relief organizationsthat use games as part of their outreach strategy? Do you thinkthere is potential for these types of organizations to do more with gaming?
Emily: “Not a lot [of organizations], but there are some good examples. 'FreeRice' is one such game. I wouldn’t say that every organization is thinkingabout that as a direction. A lot of smaller organizations don’t have funding toproduce games. There’s definitely more potential, but many organizations haven’tyet decided to make it a priority.”
What advice do you have for organizations that are thinkingabout using gaming as a strategy to achieve their goals?
Emily: “First, figure out what you want to use gaming for.Put it down on paper and get one clear, defined goal so you can go back to itas you develop the game and decide what it will be and how you’ll reach youraudience, Don’t do a game that goes against your goals. Do your homework, lookat other games and figure out what you want. You should also take the timethink through ideas and paper test them and spend the time to be sure that whatyou’re doing is what your audience wants.”
Asi: “If you go into gaming, do it seriously. What couldhold you back is if you say, ‘I want to try it out,’ but then do it low costand without strategy. You don’t get the most benefit and your funders won’t behappy. To really do it strategically, you need to think through how you couldbenefit from it. 'How does it fit my audience and how does this fit into thelarger context?' One advantage that technology has given us in the last fewyears — games no longer need to be expensive. One example we see more are gamecontests. You crowd source solutions from people all over the world. That couldbe a cost effective way to crowd source information and get people involved.“
Do you think we will reach a point of saturation with socialgood games? Will the market start to see them as noise and tune them out?
Asi: “I think we’re not even scratching the surface andthere aren’t enough success stories. My simple test is to go up to 10 people onthe street, and if nine out of 10 say they haven’t heard about what we’redoing, then we have a long way to go. This hasn’t even become mainstream.”
Emily: “I think there will always be causes that people aregoing to advocate for and support, and causes are going to shift as time goeson. But is there an over saturation of charities? Even if they’re advocating thesame cause, people don’t think, ‘There are too many good causes.’”
What advice would you give someone who wants toget involved and make a difference?
Asi: “One way is to go to the Games for Change website andplay games that were not developed by Games For Change but by developers fromall over the world. We curate a lot of games there. Spend some time there, andsee what these different experiences are like and see where this is going. Forthe more advanced, I would say there are very interesting platforms that letyou create your own thing without being a game developer: Scratch, Game Maker and Gamestar Mechanic. These are labeled as 'game makingtools,' and you can actually start playing with what it means to make a goodgame. I’ve seen incredible games made by students in middle school."
Emily: “Jeff from our New York office got involved bywriting blog posts about these type of games. On our website, there’s a placeto write reviews of games. So that’s another way to get involved. It’s furtheringthe discussion and adding to the dialogue.”
I think our readers would be very interested in your workwith “Half the Sky.” Could you tell us briefly about that project?
Asi: “It’s a multimedia project that’s all based on thebest-selling book about women and girls empowerment in developing countries.The book triggered a TV show that will be on PBS in October. We were tasked by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tocreate the games for this project. It took years to get to where we are now,and now we have two projects: a Facebook game that’s based on the book and it’sall about how people in the West can get involved in a real, meaningful way anda series of mobile games for very simple devices that we will launch in Indiaand East Africa. Now we’re doing three mobile games with the intent to createmore, and each of these games tackles an issue in a very focused way: maternalhealth, de-worming and family norms, which you could also call girl's education.So when you think about it, we’re doing one project for people in the West andone project for people who are most affected by these issues. The feedback we’veheard so far — from the NGOs we’re partnering with — has been good. They say it’slike night and day. They’ve gone from using pamphlets and flipboards to mobilegames that are interactive and fun.”


Casey Neese