Jul 20, 2023 - Technology

Games for Change, promoting ways games can improve the world, turns 20

Researchers Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire present tallies of research reports about gaming's positive impacts. Photo: Game for Change

The idea that video games can be used as a force for good has been central to Games for Change, a nonprofit that held its 20th anniversary festival in New York City this week.

Why it matters: The movement was born at a time when its view about the positive potential of games was rare among the public, in the media and even within a video game industry that was hesitant to join in.

  • In the years since, indie developers have created games to advocate for social issues, corporate publishers have used their blockbusters to promote social good, and the idea of games like Minecraft being used productively in schools has gone mainstream.

What they’re saying: “The press had this one message: games are bad,” G4C co-founder Suzanne Seggerman said Tuesday during a panel looking back at the organization’s early days.

  • "We had another game message they'd never seen before, which is: Games have the power for positive social impact. And having all this press made, you know, the industry people say, 'Oh, well, maybe we'll get a toe or a little toe in the water.'"

Details: At this year’s Games for Change, organizers ran panels with the United Nations to promote the idea of using games to raise awareness about the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

  • A talk on Tuesday, from University of California researchers Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler, zipped through studies about video games and gaming tech for everything from improving evacuation plans at Chinese dormitories to monitoring the daily cognitive performance of senior citizens.
  • Such are the topics at a show like this: A Kenyan game developer discussed his team’s efforts to make games to combat modern slavery; another panel focused on teaching kids using Dungeons and Dragons.

Between the lines: "We're a small fish in the pond of this big, big industry,” current G4C president Susanna Pollack tells Axios.

  • Corporate partnerships help as companies try to burnish their image and promote their corporate social responsibility bona fides.
  • Microsoft is a sponsor, offering what amounts to half the festival floorspace for free. Verizon is a partner, working with G4C on education programs. Activision shows up, detailing the money raised by an in-game charity run for veterans in Call of Duty.

Yes, but: Games for Change has also swum against skepticism from outside and even at times from within the gaming community.

  • In 2006, game designer Raph Koster ended the show with a douse of cold water: "It’s almost like if you were a paper airplane maker, and someone came up to you and said, 'You know, paper airplanes, seems like all the kids are into that in the schools these days, so we really want to make paper airplanes about Darfur.'"

There are more believers now and, perhaps, games more effective at delivering messages about dire topics.

The bottom line: Pollack says the focus on games during the COVID pandemic, with the increased playtime that came with lockdowns, helped open more eyes to the power of games in people’s lives.

  • That's fueled greater interest and more support. The organization, while small, has raised about $3 million according to its most recent annual filing.
  • Attendance at this year’s festival exceeded 1,100 people. A rep noted the figure was higher than pre-COVID levels.

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