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Games for Change 2011: Channeling Our Collective Power


This post originally appeared on's blog and was written by Josephine Dorado.

Twice as many people play FarmVille as watch CSI now. Playing games has pushed into the primetime market, and with that statement, Chris Swain, CEO and Founder of Talkie, displayed a slide that showed weekly audience numbers for the wildly popular social game, FarmVille, towering above primetime television shows such as Dancing with the Stars, NBC Sunday Night Football and CSI. An epic win for the gaming industry? 

Whether or not you you play games, you can’t ignore the gaming community’s far reach these days. In the Games for Change Festival opening keynote speech, Former Vice President Al Gore jokingly admitted that his last video game experience was playing Pong, though he acknowledged the power of games, observing that "Games are the new normal for hundreds of millions of users.” Gore gave kudos to the Games for Change community in harnessing the explosive interest in games and directing it towards social good, and encouraged the progress, saying that he looked forward to seeing “FarmVilles for policy.”

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Gore emphasized cooperation over competition — a welcome message, considering that one of TechSoup’s future initiatives in tandem with the Nonprofit Commons is to launch a collaborative game design challenge, which would pool resources amongst nonprofits and leverage funding opportunities by collaborating with other nonprofits and games experts in order to create a social issue game that benefits many nonprofits rather than just one.

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James Shelton, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education, echoed similar thoughts in stating that for a time, it was assumed that education spending would go up every year, but that is no longer true, and now we have to do more with less resources. He recognized the need to innovate and acknowledged the influence of games in education, stating that “Education is probably one of the areas that we have failed to innovate the most.”

He remained hopeful though, and dispelled the idea that change can’t be catalyzed within mammoth institutions like the Department of Education: "The myth that you cannot make systemic change quickly is just that, a myth” and recognized the inherent need to transform the decisions of policy makers so that opportunity is recognized. 

Maybe the kind of catalyst needed is a paradigmatic shift in thought. Games don’t have to be viewed within disparate categories such as “games for entertainment” and “games for education.” Gabe Newell, president and founder of Valve Corporation, asserted that “There seems to be this distinction between games that are educational, and games that are going to be commercially successful. I'm not really sure I buy into that.” He cited Portal 2, one of the games in Valve’s portfolio, as breaking the mold of a traditional game model by eschewing the conventional collection of monsters or weapons and positioning itself instead as a game about physics and problem-solving. Echoing Gore’s earlier emphasis on collaboration, Newell added, “The social model inside of it is collaborative and not competitive.” Science gets a swift kick of fun when you can learn about it by being propelled through the air in a game. Newell said that they’ll be building curricula around Portal 2 by developing custom tools that allow students to create content to match educational programs.

Alan Gershenfeld, Founder and President, E-Line Media, touched on this as well when he spoke about the nuances of interest-driven learning vs curriculum-driven learning. Interest-driven learning focuses on connecting students’ natural interests to core curriculum, while curriculum-driven learning starts with the curriculum (which students may not be interested in) and encourages engagement through inquiry-based learning. Gershenfeld recommended a combination of gateway experiences which wraps students’ interests around curricula infused into game-making and pairs that with mentoring, for a high-tech/high-touch approach that is a powerful learning pathway. 

Some of the game-making platforms he recommends are E-line Media’s own Gamestar Mechanic, along with Game Salad, Gamemaker and Unity, depending on your needs. Here’s a chart mapping the various game design platforms with recommended age range and beginning to advanced game design skill level:

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How else can we engage learners? Andrew DeVigal, Multimedia Editor at The New York Times, said: “Tell me something and I will forget. Show me something and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand.” DeVigal spoke about the importance of interactive storytelling and leveraging innovations in technology in order to engage news readers and find the “sweet spot” between journalistic truth and game play.

Solving real-world issues in a virtual world environment is a growing trend, present in initiatives such as Zynga’s in-game Japan Earthquake Relief efforts as well as games like America 2049, Ecotopia and others.

Twelve hours after an earthquake struck Japan on Friday, March 11, 2011, Zynga launched in-game initiatives that made donations possible across a number of their most popular games, including FarmVille. Zynga asked FarmVille players to help by buying an exclusive Daikon crop that they could grow on their farm, from which 100% of the proceeds would go to Japan’s Save the Children Earthquake Emergency Fund. Players raised over $1.5 million in just five days.

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In a similar effort, Chris Swain from Ecotopia posited a challenge: Plant 25,000 trees in 25 days in Ecotopia and they'll plant 25,000 real trees in the Brazilian rainforest. 

Through melding fact and fiction in an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), America 2049 focused on the future of human rights. The game revolves around the capture of a fugitive in a futuristic America that is fiercely divided by race and ethnicity, and discourages self-expression. Though it was played primarily on Facebook, which allowed Breakthrough, the human rights organization behind America 2049, to leverage Facebook’s almost 1 billion member community as its player base, it was also augmented by transmedia pieces.

Image credit: funksoup

Heidi Boisvert, creative director and producer of America 2049, spoke about the layers of narrative built by the transmedia pieces and how these were integral in building a backstory for the game that would engage players to bridge the gap between online “clicktivism” and real-world activism.

But is this enough? In a Q&A session, one person challenged’s Director of External Partnerships, Laura Pincus Hartman, asking why Zynga didn’t create theme-based FarmVilles that revolved around current events. Considering that Gore had mentioned “FarmVilles for policy” and DeVigal had cited the engagement of news readers through an intersection of journalistic truth and game play, I can’t help thinking how apropos this question was. Hartman’s answer was disappointing, amounting to an answer akin to “that would cost a lot.” With a user base of over 80 million and weekly players that number between 30-35 million, does a game giant like Zynga have a certain amount of social responsibility to engage their players in this way?

It's an opportune time for combining games with current events in a way that's more substantial than the superficiality that is "gamification" and in a way that's more relevant than standalone news games. Companies like Zynga are at an intersection where they could be leveraging their outreach towards engaging their more than 80 million players in current-events-themed FarmVilles. 


Image credit: funksoup

Perhaps the answer is in our collective power to summon paradigmatic change around us, as Jesse Schell, Professor of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University and Owner of Schell Games, advised in his moving “Make Games, Not War” keynote: “We can channel our collective power to make media that brings change.” He closed with a vision of our best foot forward, in which a story of triumph through game design wins: “If we were better game designers, couldn't it be the Olympics all the time?”

For more information about the Games for Change 2011 Festival, see the official website:


Josephine Dorado 
Twitter: @funksoup