I’m on a plane, on my way back to SF from one incredibly inspiring week in NYC at the Games for Change 11th conference. Directed by Asi Burak and sponsored by Zynga.org, Games for Change is a great opportunity to learn about video games specifically designed to positively impact on people’s behavior. Most of the featured games are designed to increase empathy among people, to sensitize us towards specific problems (take a look at the great Papers, Please), to engage us in potentially enlightening experiences, to heal our souls and bring joy to our hearts. The effort of the speakers and of the organizers is to understand how gaming could become even more pervasive and how we could use the ubiquity of games to make the world a better place. So, forget for a week about IAP, new monetization strategies or technologies: Games for Change is your place to question the reason why you are creating a game and to be inspired about a whole new way to think about games. It may sound idealistic,
but sometimes we need some idealism, don’t we? Pragmatism can only take us so far.
As a result of such a radical perspective shift on gaming, half of the audience was composed by women.
Apparently, women are increasingly more interested in creating a whole new generation of games. Games that allow people to explore emotions, to play collaboratively, to express themselves, games designed to foster behavioral change.
This means two important things: 1) women are not only demanding their right to play, they are demanding the right to design the games they want to play; 2) as huge as the video games market may seem, there’s an incredibly bigger market that’s still untapped because of the lack of diversity within most gaming companies.
Games like “Gone home”, narrated on stage by the wonderful Tracy Fullerton, shed light on an opportunity that’s still to be explored: the adventure within the life fallen into pieces of a young woman who return home one year later her coming out, only to find out her family moved to another place. She’s left alone, wondering in the place she used to call home, and we accompany her as she puts pieces of her story back together through a tough (and sometimes even scary) emotional journey.
Jane McGonigal left us with an advice to speed up the inclusion of women in the gaming industry:
One of the most inspiring presentation was Jenova Chen’s Designing a New Era of Emotional Storytelling Through Games. Jenova outlined a parallel between games and other forms of entertainment. Why do most grown-ups stop playing while they keep watching movies, listening to music, reading books? Why is gaming not perceived as a part of a grown-up’s acceptable cultural life? Jenova’s answer is that the available games only cover specific genres: action, adventure, horror, thriller, sci-fi, sport… whereas most of the people are interested in drama, documentaries, comedy. Why aren’t there more games targeted at people who have these interests?
“Right now, most games feel like summer blockbuster films, all explosions and crappy dialogue,” Chen said. “A big part of the games industry still hasn’t figured out how to give players something new. That’s what I want to do.” (Read the whole interview on the New Yorker)
Games have an impact on people’s behavior whether we like it or not. That’s the power of games and the reason why they are so fascinating. So how can games be used to “fix reality”? That’s the fundamental question that inspired the masterpiece of Jane McGonigal “Reality is broken”.
As Dan Ariely pointed out in his presentation, we like to think that people take decisions based on what’s better for them in the long term. We like to think that if people take bad decisions, that’s because they don’t have enough information: that’s why we put a lot of effort in trying to find new, effective ways to convey the best possible information to the people. The truth is: we don’t work that way. We need to trick ourselves to make the right choices, we need to hack our habits, and we need to keep in mind how rewards and motivation work.
Our good intentions are not enough to design a game that does help people make the right choices. A game that wants to achieve behavioral change needs to understand how and when to give people the right motivation to change their habits. We need to understand why a person has an habit, what triggers that habit and find a way to replace that habit with something new.
A lot of counterintuitive moves happen in the design of a game like this.
Facebook bought Oculus. That’s one of the “signals from the future” that Jane McGonigal listed in her opening presentation at Games for Change. What are they going to do with Oculus? Jane isolated “empathy” as a key word. She imagined a game to close the empathy gap, a game that could democratize the memoir and help us connect more profoundly with people around us. In her presentation she gave this hypothetic game an awesome name: “Walk my mile”.
A large part of games that are born to have an impact on society are educational games. Ed Tech companies conduct a great deal of tests to prove the positive effects of their games on young minds across the country. But do we measure also side effects? Most of us don’t. We don’t measure side effects because we like to think that our good intentions are enough to protect users from collateral effects. Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough. For example, if an educational game is “addictive”, is that good? If it keeps children sitting more than they should, are we happy with it? Are we willing to trade spelling for health? If we measured side effects of the educational games we design, we could probably come up with better solutions.
Dean Karlan from Yale University nailed this topic during his keynote titled “Impact Measurement: You don’t always get what you want.”
There are some tough questions social innovators need to ask themselves:
Professor Karlan stressed the importance of finding ways to create control groups to understand if our games have an impact. We need to create tools to measure behavioral change. One thing that apparently works well is commitment contracts: we need the price of a vice to be HIGH!
Wearable computers are another of the signals from the future that Jane included in her keynote. We are just at the very beginning of the wearables era, this may be the reason why this far we only have bracelets that show us charts when connected to a smartphone. As beautiful as these charts can be, they’re charts. Boring! This maybe the reason why most people abandon their fitness trackers after 90 days. “How long can you stare at those stats before getting bored?” Jane asks. We totally agree. Wearable computing can connect people, create opportunities for immersive storytelling, help us live better: we’re just not sure that can all fit in a chart.
Both Zach Gage and Paolo Pedercini stressed the importance of democratizing game design. Games can be “for change” only if we help people realize they can create games for a virtually infinite variety of reasons: they can create games to express themselves, to solve a problem, to connect to other people. The culture of makers is crucial to game design as it keeps games diverse, lively, awesome.
Noah Falstein, Chief Game Designer at Google, can’t really talk about what he’s working on (and we’re super curious) but he stressed the importance of designing games that can be played on less than state-of-the-art smartphones. Billions of people in the next 5 years are going to be online for the first time. Most of them will connect from developing countries. Games that can run also on less sophisticated phones could make a difference and conquer a huge emerging market.
“Don’t bet against the internet” is the big takeaway from Noah Falstein’s keynote. Games are increasingly used to connect with others in revealing, new ways. Designing games that don’t allow connection just doesn’t seem like a good choice.
Overall, Games for Change was really great. Thanks Jane McGonigal, Asi Burak, Tribeca Film Festival, Zynga.org and all the volunteers for providing us with such an amazing experience. We came back to San Francisco inspired and determined to give our contribute for change.
And if you haven’t yet, check out our newest project: the first animated training program for children Dooper School!
Francesca Cavallo, Co-founder and Creative Director of Timbuktu Labs