I just got back from New York City for my first visit to the Games for Change Festival. In its eighth year, this year’s festival was held on June 20-22 at New York University. I wasn’t able to attend the entire conference, but thanks to live streaming I caught most of the Tuesday talks I would have missed otherwise. (You can watch the archives of the live stream, too!)
In telling you about all the amazing things I learned the past few days, I’m compelled to start at the end. The closing keynote by Jesse Schell was one of the highlights of the festival. I’ve always admired Jesse for his top-notch game design, writing, and speaking skills. His book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses was the first book that really got me started with game design (I actually only got into this area at the beginning of my PhD studies less than two years ago). I was pumped to see him speak in New York, and I was not disappointed.
Games for Change 2011: Jesse Schell from Games for Change on Vimeo.
Jesse treated us to a brand new, never before seen talk called “Make Games, Not War.” You can watch that talk in this live stream archive video by scrolling ahead to the 57-minute mark.
He explored the ever controversial topic of violence in video games, keeping a scorecard that listed aspects of games that seemed to get players to become more war-like (including desensitization and games’ ability to train people to kill) and more peaceful (such as games acting as a form of catharsis and helping us see other points of view). For a while, the war-side seemed to be winning, but eventually the list evened out.
Without a clear winner between war and peace, Jesse forewarned us of the war for every person’s attention that various stakeholders are waging in the 21st century. There are those who want to persuade us to think like them or buy their products, fulfillers who want fulfil the wishes and fantasies of people (many game designers fall here), artists who aim to make a statement or bring to life something that wasn’t there before, and humanitarians who want to know how we can make things that will make us better people mentally and spiritually.
The audience of Games for Change wasn’t really like most game designers. No, we were mostly humanitarians, Jesse pointed out. What we try to do isn’t so different from what Mr Rogers tried to accomplish with his television series. We are the humanitarians, and we must find a way to take control of the persuaders who want so much to control everyone else.
Or perhaps we can look to the Olympics, where for a few short weeks, the troubles of the world are put aside and we can all act like children, seeing who can jump the highest, run the fastest, or throw a ball the farthest.
Jesse asks, “If we were better game designers, couldn’t it be the Olympics all the time?”
I almost wish Jesse’s talk was at the beginning of the festival to set the tone for the rest of the events. In an indirect way, this happened anyway - the end goal of all the presenters was to make the world a better place.
One of my favourite speakers on Tuesday was James Shelton from the US Department of Education. I really got the impression that he “got it” - education in its current form just isn’t going to continue working (if we can even say it ever worked in the last few decades).
He pointed out that the US isn’t falling behind in the world because it's getting worse; rather, other countries are pulling ahead because they are getting better. They have taken what the US has done and figured out how to do it better.
School is going to be reinvented because it has to be. But we’ve reached the limits in terms of funding. We have to do more with the same - or fewer - resources. That’s where the gaming industry comes in. Games know how to get people to have fun, engage, and change their perspectives, beliefs and behaviours. Fundamentally, that’s teaching. Or at least, that’s what teaching should be. We need to find ways to harness this in formal education.
The many researchers who presented at Wednesday’s Games For Learning Institute track have been working diligently on this problem. How can games be used for learning? What patterns emerge in terms of effective game mechanics that support this goal? How can we measure the success in terms of player engagement?
Games have been a controversial topic the last few years. I hope that as research on games for change pushes forward and we start to see more commercially successful titles, our opinion of them will change and we can focus more on how to make use of them rather than whether we should. I think this year’s festival has brought us closer to this goal, and I hope that your mind will be changed ever so slightly so you can be part of the movement.
I’ve posted my (very) rough live notes that I took during the conference, if you’d like to read them. Be sure to browse the livestream archives and check out some of these other articles about the conference: