Let the Good Games Begin: Online Videogames for Social Change

posted by: Suzi Parrasch
May 7, 2010

Let the Good Games Begin: Online Videogames for Social Change

It's safe to say that most people have pretty strong views - whatever they may be - about online videogames. Considering that people spend about three billion hours a week playing online games today, it's also safe to say that love it or hate it, gaming is here to stay. And with the announcement last week that the Supreme Court has agreed to review a California law banning the sale and rental of violent videogames, gaming is sure to be in the spotlight come October. Good thing there’s a new trend right now - gaming for good.

Take Jane McGonigal, an alternate reality game master and gaming pioneer, and Director of Game Research & Development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. Jane and the World Bank Institute have an online game running right now through May 12 called EVOKE. The ten-week challenge is set in the year 2020 and follows a network of African social innovators. It's aimed at empowering young people to solve some of the world's most urgent social problems. Take a look at the trailer for the game:

"When we play videogames, we feel powerful. We feel capable of saving the world. But in real life, it's a lot harder to feel like we can make a heroic difference, or do something that really matters. EVOKE is designed to start tipping that balance," Jane told me in an email. Jane’s no stranger to the world of gaming for good. She also created World Without Oil, as well as a game that focuses on heart health, and was just named to Fast Company's list of Most Influential Women in Technology 2010.

EVOKE has its sights set on breaking out of the screen. "Every week there's a small, real-world mission that gives players a hands-on experience of doing something that matters, in a different context: food security, clean water access, women's rights, urban resilience against natural disaster. What we're observing is that just by spending an hour or two tackling a real problem, it changes for players what they imagine themselves to be capable of. They discover that problems like hunger and poverty are within their power to help solve," Jane explains.

In fact, the idea came out of a response to African universities' desire to engage students in real world problems. Bob Hawkins, Senior Education Specialist at the World Bank, and Jane's collaborator on the game, had just spent five years in South Africa looking at education and technology there. "Community outreach was the forgotten third pillar behind teaching and research," he says. "We thought rather than doing a standard website, it would be much more interesting to develop a game." In order to ensure as wide a swath of African participation as possible, EVOKE also works through text messaging - which far more popular and accessible than computers and the internet for many Africans. Over nineteen thousand people worldwide who have signed up to date ("much more than we expected," says Bob. "Our original estimate was five thousand"), with a good ten percent are from Africa - right on target for what they had hoped for.

"We can't actually change the world with a ten-week game," Jane well knows. Rather, she sees the game as a platform for change. "We help players develop their world-changing skills. We can put their heroic efforts in motion. And we can show them real places they can make a difference, real local problems they can help tackle."

Over the course of the game, players can have real life online mentors -experts from the World Bank and elsewhere, and as they go about solving each mission, they are able to collaborate with other players -- spanning continents and age groups. After the game's initial run is over next week it's not disappearing into the ether -- top players win real life mentorships, and possibly even seed funding. They'll also win scholarships to the EVOKE Summit in Washington, DC, set to take place in October -- where they will have the opportunity to translate their ideas into real world solutions.

As the good games trend picks up speed, more and more offerings are out there. Here are a few other sources to check out:

The Games For Change website is "a non-profit which seeks to harness the extraordinary power of video games to address the most pressing issues of our day, including poverty, education, human rights, global conflict and climate change." Its multiple gaming channels engage players to think about innovative solutions to myriad social concerns. Click on the Public Policy channel, for example, and the first game that comes up is A Force More Powerful – which asks players to solve conflict issues by non violent means. On the Poverty Channel there's a game called Ayiti: The Cost of Life which challenges players to manage a family of five in Haiti. The game has been played over half a million times, according to the website. Games for Change even offers the G4C toolkit that walks you through the process of creating your own social issue digital game. Games For Change is also hosting its 7th Annual Games for Change Festival in New York, from May 24-27 this year.

This week IBM unveiled its latest "serious game" CityOne, scheduled to launch online in the fall. Players will be guided through a series of missions to solve problems affecting our urban jungles, from the environment-including water and electricity -- to banking and micro-lending, to retail. Not a far cry from reality at all as cities already consume 75 percent of the world's energy, and emit more than 80 percent of greenhouse gases. Experts estimate that one million people are move into cities each week, and that the population in the world's cities will double by 2050. Of course it goes without saying that IBM is involved in many of the technologies offering solutions, but there's no getting around the fact that the world's major cities are in dire need of need help so why not spur on innovative thinking, whatever it takes?


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