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Games for Change wrapup retrospective

This year’s G4C conference (sorry, “festival”) continues to demonstrate a diversity of approaches, but whereas last year emphasized moving away from one-minute propaganda pieces, this year seemed to lean back in that direction, as more sophisticated simulation-based games prove difficult and expensive. There was also a lot more emphasis on game development rather than the games themselves as a vector for learning.

Participating in the conference, I find that my own personal interest lies with either more sophisticated games that can convey nuance and complexity in a way that traditional media just continues to fumble, or games that are embedded in a social network and practice rather than simply put out there like so much advertising.

At our “Birds of a Feather” breakfast discussion on Tuesday morning, a number of interesting ideas emerged around the issue of how to translate games into actual social action. Coming at this from a community organizer’s perspective, I tend to believe that social change needs to be embedded in collective social action. The critical question become how to ensure that online activism translates into offline action — and how the game creators would know. (Many examples of successful online organizing involve actions that can be completed online — whether raising money or signing petitions or crashing servers or posting “illegal” content).

One very innovative idea was to turn the actions themselves into a game — for example, writing a letter to your senator gets 1 action point, getting a friend involve gets 2 action points, etc.

Another idea is to integrate games with existing social networks. With its open API and access to millions of students, Facebook is a natural setting to plop down a Game for Change. (Obama’s plugin just doesn’t get it — it’s a top-down message-repeater. What we really need is a way for Obama supporters to connect with each other and to get rewards for pulling more people in to take action).

Finally, there was significant interest in the institution known as Games for Change to take a leadership role in pushing the results agenda, whether by directing resources to the question, collecting and publishing best practices, or just keeping the heat on at conferences like this. Last year “transferability” was a major catchword; this year, not so much.

Games are one of the few media that give its users free choice, and sophisticated games embed those choices in systems that reflect the reality of our real world. For example, global climate change is not a single-variable model where more CO2 means more hurricanes. Curbing CO2 emissions also could lead to consequences for GDP of different nations, and a good G4C would acknowledge and lean into that difficult tradeoff. Does showing that tradeoff make for good propaganda? No. Persuasive media require simplicity of message. I’m more interested in games that help people see just how difficult moral decisions can be — and ask them to make those choices anyway.

See also Ian Bogost’s coverage: Day 1, Day 2

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