Games for Change Conference

Founded in 2004, Games for Change is the leading global advocate for supporting and making games for social impact. They bring together organizations and individuals from the social impact sector, government, media, academia, the gaming industry and the arts to grow the field, incubate new projects and provide an open platform for the exchange of ideas and resources. Check out their great Learning Resources for more info.

The 8th annual Games for Change conference was earlier this week in New York. I was stoked to be offered a free ticket (thanks Beth!) and tweeted up a storm along with the rest of #G4C2011. We even storified keynotes by Al Gore, James Shelton, and Jesse Schell. I relished the opportunity to attend the conference as a relative novice — I’ve read a bit about games, but I’ve never made a game, worked on a game, or even been an active gamer. Here’s what I learned:

  • Nonprofits (at least the ones smart/interested enough to be in attendance) are looking for opportunities to connect with game makers (& gamers), but know even less about goals for gaming than they do about goals for social media. Many of the speakers with a strictly nonprofit background made clear to the crowd, “I don’t know anything about gaming, but what you do seems cool and maybe useful, so if you’d like to work with us, get in touch!” Nobody has the expertise across game design & funding & social impact, so partnerships are abundant.
  • The tradeoffs between making a game that “users want to play” and “C-level nonprofit execs will approve of” and “clearly leads to positive social change” and “attract enough revenue during the conception phase to actually get built” are nearly impossible to navigate. Many of the game demos presented were deeply flawed on at least one of those measures. If anything, it seems to be easier to take a “commercial game,” find the aspects of it that tangentially relate to the social good sphere, and build teaching/advocacy materials around that aspect (eg Portal 2).
  • There’s a huge variety of genres of games for change — first person perspective, gestural based, point and click, simulations, Facebook, alternate reality, multiple choice, even low tech board games, and a wide variety of games adapted for smart phones and dumb phones.
  • There’s a huge variety of nonprofit sectors interested in using games for change: we saw examples from city government, cultural institutions, a zillion games in the classroom (enough to form an entire Games for Learning Institute), public media, health care, and many many more. One interesting area of focus for Games for Learning is STEM subjects. Nearly anytime games for the educational sector were mentioned, it was in the context of teaching STEM. There was much debate on Twitter whether games should be about STEM, should simply include STEM principles/ideas, or if games de facto helped teach STEM, regardless of the content or genre of the game.
  • There’s a huge variety of audience demographics interested in gaming: enough stats to make even my head spin — from boys to girls, kids to seniors, developed to developing economies, over represented to under represented communities. Games seem to be more ubiquitous than any other form of media, social media included.
  • Evaluation metrics for games are awesome. Game designers build a game with an outcome in mind, and you can do a (relatively robust) pre/post game play user analysis to test that outcome. Most games have a clear conversion funnel (beginning, levels, end), clear metrics (user uploaded content, made it through this level in 10 minutes, etc). And game makers can test EVERYTHING during the game design process to optimize before launch.
  • There exist gaming engines that you can build a game on top of so you don’t have to create your own software. Think of Wordpress as a blog engine — you can modify the look of it, use it towards a lot of different ends, customize certain pieces of it. Unity was the game engine that kept coming up in presentations, but there are at least hundreds out there.
  • Kids these days are WICKED smart. Gabe Newell, creator of Portal, showed an incredible video of middle schoolers taking a field trip to Valve labs and learning to build their own version of Portal in a few hours. Also, of a 2 year old playing a computer game — before the kid could talk he could understand game mechanics. We heard a few times from the demo judges that a game was “too complicated” but the (Twitter) crowd seemed to agree that the end-users (usually kids) would understand the game far better than the adult panel. On the other hand, one of the most provocative questions I heard at the conference was, “What’s the social graph of a 6 year old?”
  • Game maker want to tie in-game action, to real world action. Achievement Unlocked gave a great presentation about their ideas for how to make that happen.
  • An overall trend I noticed was for games to be mashed up with documentary film footage. Which of course is just a subset of the transmedia storytelling opportunities.
  • Just like every other piece of digital content, users want to manipulate the game, change it to fit their desire, they want the game to adapt to them uniquely. Games, more than nearly any other type of digital media, seem to be able to incorporate this desire for manipulation organically into the game.

The conference itself included game play: a networking game called Stakeholdem that crossed LinkedIn with Uno and was the most successful “forced networking” I’ve ever seen at a conference (of which I’ve been in 7 in 2011 alone). There’s also an archive of the live stream that you should definitely check out.