By Angelina Gherardelli
‘Serious games’ are games with a purpose that go beyond sole entertainment by aiming to educate, inspire, or even change certain real world behaviors of its players. ‘Games for good’ or ‘games for change’ focus specifically on creating social change.
The movement is widespread and—as witnessed by the last three months alone—it is gathering momentum. In May, Crete (Greece) welcomed the first international workshop on Intelligent Digital Games for Empowerment and Inclusion; Paris followed with a Games for Change Europe Festival in June; and August brought together the leaders of the serious games industry for a Serious Play Conference near Seattle. The study and development of serious games started spreading in the last decade thanks to the increased understanding of the enormous potential gaming has as learning tool —as explained in the article published on Development Roast Learning to Play and Playing to Learn— and as an instrument of social change. Here five games that in the last three years have demonstrated that gaming can actually change real world behavior.
1. Half the Sky Movement: Fosters awareness about women issues and it is raising significant funds. The Harmony Institute studies the impact entertainment has on individuals and society. Its July 2013 publication explains the relevance of agency and control in the retention and learning process. This characteristic is distinctive to the medium of video games, when compared to movies or books. As an example, Half the Sky Movement: The Game released in 2013 as the game component in a transmedia campaign (story-telling through multiple platforms) seeks to address the issue of women’s oppression in the world. It does it through its main character, Radhika, woman who goes through difficult situations, for example, getting her child to the hospital. As of July 2013 the game—where the player triggers funding from external organization or individuals—had 950,000 players, and had raised a sizeable US$342,316 in donations for the charity. Its particularity is that opportunities to respond to Radhika’s needs are intentionally paired with actions in the game and in real-life. As an outcome real-world players donate money to the cause. This behavior can be used as a measure of player engagement, and therefore as a behavioral change in real life.
2. Concussion Slayer/SupperBetter is helping the terminally ill feel better and stronger: Jane McGonigal, game designer working at the Institute for the Future, tells in her TED talk, how she was able to beat one of the most difficult times of her life thanks to gaming. After hitting her head and getting a serious concussion, in order to heel she had to stop any daily stressors—reading, writing, gaming, alcohol, etc. These injuries usually come together with suicidal tendencies, which is what happened to her. At that time she said to herself “I am either gonna kill myself or turn this into a game”. This is why she created a game called Jane: The Concussion Slayer, she gathered her allies and began to identify the ‘bad guys’, which was anything that could trigger her symptoms and slow down the healing process. The basics of the game were quite simple; “adopt a secret identity, recruit your allies, battle the bad guys, activate the powers’ ups”. Only after a few days the depression and anxiety went away, and even when still having the symptoms she stopped suffering.
So other people in the world with similar issues would be able to overcome their difficulties, she renamed the game to SupperBetter. The outcome was impressive, even people with terminal diagnosis were talking about feeling stronger, feeling happier and better understood by their families, even when they were facing the hardest moment of their lives. This very simple game allows us to witness the power gaming can have in setting small and easy goals, rewarding ourselves when achieving them, looking for the support of our friends and family, and ultimately the impact gaming can have in our quality of life.
3. Participatory Chinatown encourages civic engagement. Participatory Chinatown, a game released in 2010 is a great example of how virtual games can engage citizens in civic participation. In this game players wander around a virtual version of their neighborhood, search for resources, explore potential development possibilities, and have the chance to assist pubic meetings, network and make connections with other individuals from the neighborhood. The game’s results, along with traditional community meetings, informed the 2010 Boston’s Chinatown master plan, which goal was to produce a community vision to create a more sustainable and livable environment for Chinatown’s residents. This shows on the one hand the potential serious games have to make changes in real life, and on the other hand how virtual games can invite a wider range of participants and audiences by allowing people to speak freely and share their opinions without fear of judgment. As Eric Gordon, founder of the Engagement Game Lab says, “if we can produce games that are integrated into civic life, then we can create meaningful platforms to make people feel like they can make a difference.”
4. Paying for Predictions prepares communities for floods and droughts. An interesting example of how serious games can change our behavior in real life is provided by the game Paying for Predictions – one of 45 games developed by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, to engage people with humanitarian issues. Unlike the other online games, this one is designed to be played in person and helped along by trained facilitators.
In this game players have to text their predictions about the river’s water level, and the best guessers win a prize. The real objective of the game is to get residents of the area to pay more attention to the river’s fluctuations, which would allow them to be better prepared for floods or droughts. “The game can literally save lives” enthused Pablo Suárez, associate of Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre. The same basis through which the Red Cross game has been developed could be used to create games that involve solving problems from personal life to global issues. For example, serious games about global warming have already been developed, where Dynamic Climate Change Simulator, LogiCity, and Stabilization Wedge Game are only few of the most well known examples.
5. Lexica gets kids reading. Another recently released (and still not available online) game that intends to change people’s behavior is Lexica. A role-playing game designed by Schell Games, which intends to change the reading habits of teenagers. As Greg Toppo explained in his June 2013 USA Today article, the game invites teenagers to interact with characters of classic novels and read the book outside the classroom if they want to get ahead on the game. The particular characteristic of this game is that it focuses on how hard the children work and not on how smart or talented they are. “If you really care about the game, you’re going to read the book […] the game gives you a powerful reason to read books, [and] the more characters from literature you get to know, the more powerful you become,” says game designer Jesse Schell. The idea is that in this way children start reading books, something that these days is not part of their daily habit. Lexica will be formally released in 2014.
As last month’s Harmony Institute article explains, measuring and assessing the real impact and the correlation serious games have in our daily life is not easy. Therefore new metrics such as mobile giving, petitions, digital letters, quizzes or surveys, file sharing, and apps for community participation are being developed, in order to quantify and measure a particular set of impact goals. How to measure and assess these changes is still a question for social scientists and game developers, however the fact that games can change our behavior in the real world is unquestionable.
Check out INESAD’s deforestation simulation SimPachamama where you get to be the mayor of an Amazonian forest community and have to balance policy priorities to achieve the best outcomes in terms of wellbeing and the environment.
Angelina Gherardelli is a research and communications associate with INESAD.[contact-form to=’firstname.lastname@example.org’ subject=’Angelina 5 games’][contact-field label=’Like this article? Enter your email for weekly updates from INESAD’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]