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Gaming for good.

Video games can help us tackle real-world issues.

Video games have historically copped a lot of flack for being too violent, too misogynistic, and a waste of time. Of course, any gamer will strongly object to those unfair accusations, and rightly so. Studies have proved that video games can help people achieve learning objectives, learn social skills, simulate real-world scenarios like climate change and even manage pain. The current generation of game makers is aware of the global and social impacts their creations can have, and have been pushing such boundaries with their work. Subsequently, there’s been a rise in the ‘games for good’ movement. I wanted to better understand the motivation behind this change, so I spoke with Sara Cornish, Marketing Manager at Minecraft: Education Edition to get the inside scoop.

Sara Cornish.

Sara first learned about the games for good movement in a game design course as part of SVA’s Design for Social Innovation program. At the time she was working with the UN Global Pulse team, translating big data research into more accessible stories and visuals. She was looking for new ways to teach and educate people and was excited by the possibilities that gaming offered. Soon after, Sara joined the team at Games for Change, a nonprofit that empowers game creators and social innovators to drive real-world impact through games.

After learning a little more about Sara’s journey into gaming, I asked her why she thought games with social impact are becoming increasingly popular.

“There is real demand for games that tackle complicated, real-world subject matter. Games are an amazing way to explore scenarios like war and climate change, learn about subjects like coding and biology, and even build skills like creativity and collaboration.”

Game developers are also behind the drive to use gaming for good. “Eighties babies who grew up playing games are now entering their late 20s and 30s and making games themselves,” said Sara. “We can see a trend of creators thinking about the positive impacts of their games beyond financial goals. Big games like Assassin’s Creed have added more diverse characters to their stories, and fact check game content with historians.” For example, Origins — the latest release in the Assassin’s Creed series — tackles racism, colonialism and systemic misogyny within its storyline, and intentionally added a greater diversity of characters than what might have occurred in real history.

Established, popular games with a global audience carry the greatest potential impact for spreading positive social messages and it’s great to see this being acknowledged by the big gaming awards. This year, The Game Awards includes a ‘Games for Impact’ category and six games that explore subjects like depression and the lives of Syrian refugees. What’s more, one of these games, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, has been nominated in four other categories including best narrative and best independent game, proving you can combine high quality entertainment with social impact.

But what about games that aren’t designed for big, global audiences? I wanted to learn more about the games where entertainment is the vehicle for delivering other objectives. Sara told me about a virtual reality game called SnowWorld that’s helping burns patients manage their pain by distracting them as they have their dressings changed. In the game, players are transported to a snowy scene where they have to fight off snowmen and penguins by throwing snowballs at them. It’s fun to play and the patients are feeling the benefits. There are also games that help people with ADHD improve their attention span, and others that help autistic people manage their impulsiveness and social skills.

SnowWorld is a virtual reality game that helps burns patients manage their pain.

Sara and I talked about the use of games in the classroom. As Sara said at the beginning of our conversation, games are a great learning tool. They also provide instant feedback, making it easy to measure aptitude and assess someone’s progress. Sara told me more about Minecraft: Education Edition, a special version of the game developed to meet the needs of educators. Since launching in 2016, the educational version of the game has gathered more than two million licensed users.

“One of the key opportunities of Minecraft in education is that students are already familiar with it, and so when teachers use the game in their classrooms to augment their teaching, students are super engaged,” said Sara.

Teachers across the globe are using Minecraft to teach lessons about green building, probability, U.S. history and much more. Sometimes the students have more experience problem-solving within a game environment than their teachers. This kind of role-reversal can be empowering for the students as well as beneficial for both student and teacher as they learn from one another.

But how do we measure the success of a video game? “From a commercial perspective, success is based on indicators like revenue, player engagement, and chatter on social media and player forums,” said Sara. “From a social impact perspective, success can be judged in terms of issue awareness, behaviour change and learning.” However, developers have another view of what success means.

“Developers want to make good games. If the game’s not fun and compelling, it’s probably not successful,” said Sara.

Although obvious, this point is worth highlighting. After all, if a game is not enjoyable and entertaining, people won’t play it and they won’t learn anything from it.

So what’s next in the gaming for good world? I asked Sara if she thought the use of augmented reality would continue to grow. She thought it would, especially in spaces such as education, journalism and health, because it’s cheaper to produce and use than virtual reality. Augmented reality make use of technology we already keep in our pockets so most people can get access to a smartphone or tablet. New York’s American Museum of Natural History is already incorporating augmented reality into its educational programs with games like MicroRangers that take museum visitors on an enhanced tour of the exhibits. The cost of virtual headsets, however, is still high and for most schools, prohibitive.

It seems to me that gaming for good is a concept that reaches across the spectrum of the games industry — from the big titles addressing diversity, to doctors helping patients, and to the teachers who make learning fun. Each of them may have different objectives, but their success relies on creating a great game that their audience enjoys playing. From this enjoyment comes engagement, and that’s the place where change can happen.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Sara for talking to me about the exciting world of gaming for good!

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