Games for Social Change

Mary Truong
Feb 13, 2018 · 6 min read

At the Knight Lab, I’ve been working with a team on a prototype of an AR app that documents the space and history of two Chicago neighborhoods: Pilsen and Bronzeville. This project entailed thinking through how games/gamification can be incorporated in such an app, and so I’ve been researching the games for change space: essentially, how games can be used as educational or humanitarian tools and produce social good?

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Image taken from AMC Conference:

You can read completed bibliography here- it contains examples of games in the social change space and my brief analysis of how they can change attitudes or behaviours to for societal benefit. Since the app is augmented reality, there are also examples of games within emerging interface space (AR and VR). There is also section of gamification used specifically for adult audiences .

This write-up won’t be a repetition of the bibliography; rather, I’ll go into my research methods and do a deeper analysis of games for change- what are the mechanics that promote “change”, and how effective games are at producing an intended outcome.

Fortunately, last summer, I had an internship at UChicago’s GCC Lab, where the team produces games to positively affect individuals’ attitudes and behaviours in health. My supervisor gave me a list of Games for Change to play through and a few articles to read, so I came into this project with some background knowledge. I also looked at the Games for Change site to find more examples. Once I had a substantial list, I looked at the game designer’s statement of intention for the game, the intended audience, and the mechanics of the game.

Although I was unable to play every game listed in my bibliography, if you do your own research, I encourage you to actually play the games. The mechanics that allow (or obstruct) player agency, the decisions that players can make, the graphical interface, and the text embedded in the game are vital in understanding what sort of outcomes the game produces. Furthermore, a game’s construction can result in a different outcome than the designer initially intended (see Spent*).

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Finally, in an ideal world, I would record the responses of many users playing the games listed in the bibliography. Many compiled results usually result in less bias. Since I did not have the responses of multiple users, I acknowledge that my interpretations/analyses of these games are biased, and you should take my points and observations with caution.

When thinking broadly about the intended effects of Games for Change, there seems to be three main outcomes: to promote empathy with a marginalized group, to educate, and to promote solidarity within a group. These outcomes can be combined (for example, Third-World Farmer includes educational and empathetic content).

In Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost argues that video games are especially adept at being persuasive because execution-based logic has the affordance of displaying causal relationships (Even though I don’t agree with Bogost on some gaming topics, I think Bogost’s Persuasive Games is a valuable read for any game designer). I’m applying Bogost’s idea of “procedural rhetoric” specifically to educational. As noted in my bibliography, it’s very easy to show cause and effect in games because games (and computers) are ultimate receivers of input and output. In a game, if you step in a pile of thorns, your character avatar might lose health. Cause: stepping in thorns; Effect: hurt; Lesson Learned: avoid thorns.

Game relationships can be readily applied to real-world concepts- something Electrocity demonstrates well. The player can build a coal plant to generate more electricity, but their city’s health is going to suffer. They can build an amusement park and increase their citizens’ happiness, but the city must generate a lot of electricity for the amusement park. Although video games demonstrate cause and effect well, they run the risk of oversimplifying the world into a few constraints. There’s (currently) no way to map the depth and intricacy of all the overlapping elements that cause something in reality, so games lose a lot of nuance of the real world. Despite this, I think that games are unambiguously a valuable tool for education.

The same cannot be said for games that seek to promote empathy. Among people who study/make games, there’s a lot of contention about the value of empathy in games. Since the prototype app that my team is working is made for AR, I’m especially thinking of empathy within AR and VR. The video below is a talk by artist Chris Milk about how VR can be more human-inclusive.

This talk is virtual reality in its most hopeful form- virtual reality is an incredibly visually stimulating medium that creates a strong sense of immersion. Milk argues that immersion is a gateway for deeper empathetic connection. Watching a 2D video about a person is different from being able to sit with the (virtually rendered) person, walk around in their environment, and note the minutiae of how they live.

Robert Yang, a game developer and academic, strongly critiques empathetic VR media (I especially like this article). He writes —

The “embodied” “transparent immediacy” of virtual reality (or much less, 360 video) does not obliterate political divisions. Even a culturally-advanced medium like books can barely chip away at the problem, so VR definitely can’t. In this political sense, VR can’t actually offer any embodiment, transparency, or immediacy to anyone. At best, VR can only offer the illusion of empathy….

VR empathy machines are just VR Appropriation machines. They are fundamentally about mining the experiences of suffering people to enrich the self-image of VR users….

Yang also notes his frustration how his games about gay culture have been misinterpreted to be games for “straight people to understand what being gay is like” when instead, he intended them to be “highlighting gay culture or queer solidarity” — which provides a segue to the third outcome of Games for Change- to build solidarity within a community.

The creators of Depression Quest state two reasons for making their game:

“Firstly, we want to illustrate as clearly as possible what depression is like, so that it may be better understood by people without depression. Hopefully this can be something to spread awareness and fight against the social stigma and misunderstandings that depression sufferers face. Secondly, our hope is that in presenting as real a simulation of depression as possible, other sufferers will come to know that they aren’t alone, and hopefully derive some measure of comfort from that.”

The game is meant to be educational for people who have not had depression and to provide a sense of community for those who do have depression.

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This is my personal take: I think that the immersiveness of VR and AR can contribute to building empathy. Being able to move in someone else’s world feels more revealing than just watching a video about a person. However, I sincerely doubt that VR and AR are the best mediums for empathy; to me, human-to-human interaction seems to create the most complex, fully realized experiences that can lead to empathy. If meeting a person isn’t possible (after all, how often can a person go to a Syrian refugee camp?), then a detailed analysis of a person’s thoughts (preferably by the person!) talking about motivations, behaviours, emotions and the intimate nature of themself can create a window of understanding that leads to empathy. I noted earlier that games run the danger of oversimplification when used for education; the same can be said VR/AR and empathetic experiences.

I think this article was a pretty short introduction to some thoughts I’ve had about games, but it obviously isn’t very fleshed out, so I think I might try again. Hopefully, the bibliography that goes with this article provides a good introduction to Games for Change. If you have any comments, feel free to email me.

*Addendum: The scientific literature on how Spent affects people’s attitudes towards people in poverty varies. Recently, my friend and I had a conversation about this game (both of us come from low-income backgrounds). I agreed with the linked article, but she was more inclined to other literature. In the end, Spent has raised over $70,000 for the Urban Ministries of Durham, which is a very positive social effect (but might not be the intended effect).

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