Serious Games Summit: Games for Change (Life Changing Stuff Here)

By the second breakout session of day 2 (the seventh of the summit) I was feeling much better. I had a chair, and some food in my system.

I attended the inspiring Games for Change and the Theory of Change: The making of good social issue games.

Suzanne Seggerman, the acting director of Games For Change in New York kicked off the session by explaining they are talking about social change, and offering this mission statement:

Games for Change provides support, education and visibility to institutions and individuals using digital games for positive social change, with special assistance to non-profits and foundations entering the field.

I think she actually said aloud “to effect positive social change,” which is straight out of the Walden University mission statement!

… Walden’s student-centered programs prepare its graduates to achieve professional excellence and to effect positive social change.

(Unfortunately, I note that the mission statement has been revised on the new website… it has been tightened up, but I don’t know if I like “transform society” as well as “effect positive social change.”)

At any rate, lets say that what these people were talking about resonated with me and fits well into the work I’ve been doing at Walden for the last two years And it certainly fits into the KAM I am currently working on, Principles of Societal Development.

In New York Games for Change hosts a salon every other month and they encourage their satellite chapters to do so, too. I later got Celia Pierce’s name as the contact person in the LA chapter, which I aim to get involved with, but I have yet to locate her or the chapter. I guess I’ll have to start at the top… (Actually, creative googling finally helped here… as did remembering I met her at the Education Arcade in May and that she is associated with UCI.)

They recently held a conference in NYC, which featured 15 serious games for change. Presenters included Ben Sawyer, Ian Bogost, Erik Zimmerman, and many others. They discussed open source and low cost tools, and alternative business models. All good stuff. From the conference they learned that foundations and non-profits need to know more about this space and the possibilities, and academics need to know about the funders – and about others like Games for Change. (It was strange to realize I was there as academia… or at least they didn’t even ask who was an educators during the show of hands!)

They spent some time at the outset establishing a definition for social change. Google, it turns out, will point you to 369 definitions. The definition she settled on went something like this: Social Change… a process whereby the beliefs and behaviors of a group become modified over time. It grows out of both the natural process of societal change, as well… (damn she went too fast!)

The focus of their organization, then, is the idea that games can act as a catalyst for change. Games can be directly transformative (something my brother James has been interested in when I talk to him about this). So, goes the presentation, these games should be driven by a theory of change and a concrete plan for how you will transform the audience.

Mario Armstrong, I think, got up to discuss “Why a Theory of Change (ToC)?” And wow, was he too fast for my notetaking, too! At any rate, he said a ToC defines the building blocks to achieve a long-term goal. Key elements include interventions and outcomes (he noted that the world is always changing, but we must intervene to get the outcomes we want!), and a pathway to change.

He was most interested in how a social context changes… not individuals, as is the tradition for most serious games. He also stressed the need for long term effectiveness, and offered the contrast between the short term effectiveness of showing starving children to get donations for food and the long term effectiveness of showing children’s lives being improved. (In the first case people give like crazy, but then stop giving… it seems hopeless. In the later case, people become long term givers.)

He asked the question, “how do we change society?” and expanded this to mean how we change institutions, infrastructure, and cultural mores. In a pitch for a serious game he would expect to hear something like “this is my game for change and I think it will affect society in this way… because it will change cultural mores this way…”

Barry Joseph spoke next about his program, Global Kids (He’s the online leadership director). The program aims to transform urban youth into successful students and global/community leaders by engaging them with, well, cool stuff. He was going fast, too.

He game a rundown of some of their other programs and then finally talked about Playing for keeps, a program in which students create a serious game each year, a process that changes their sense of self, their sense of power, and their level of efficacy. He was moving too fast for me to even transcribe the slides, never mind what he was saying… and it was all gold.

He showed off a prototype serious game created by students… a game about racial and gender profiling by airport security. It was powerful, though unsophisticated graphically. Some of the challenges they face in this process are unifying the content, meeting their educational goals, and mastering the core mechanics.

Catherine Herdlick, a developer, talked next but I took few notes. After lunch I attended her session, though, and took plenty, so stay tuned.

Finally Benjamin Stokes got up to talk about his Peter Packet project. Brilliant. Just brilliant. I only just now visited and check it out. This teaches social responsibility and the principles of networking! Not to mention the implicit value that the Internet should be used for altruistic purposes. (The embedded add for Cisco routers made me laugh, too!)

Stokes asked what kids can do as far as advocacy, and explained that they built the skin of a game around real world advocacy strategies, such as “invite adults to contribute” or “email your senator.” He claimed that kids can and will opt-in to raise awareness and funds, and he relayed stories of kids checking their points, or “total money for poverty” online.

It occurred to me that perhaps the ONE campaign needs something like this… the ONE Game. I find this a doubly good idea now that I know about Bono’s interest in serious games, too.

It also occurred to me that none of my doctoral work thus far would be lost if I were to refocus my efforts into this space. Hmm…

They concluded the session with the suggestion that the funding community loves “theories of change.”

They offered to put each of us on their mailing list, and I’m sure the offer would extend to anyone reading this… check out or email to be added to the mailing list.

Then, with a final stroke of brilliance, they asked us to go get our box lunches and return to the room to talk more over lunch!

At lunch we each were able to introduce ourselves, what we do, and why we were there. A few points of discussion were worth capturing as well (just using my blackberry at the time as we ate)…

Some of the developers suggested development tools: RPG Maker 2003,, Kids Programming Language (.net), Squeak, and Alice 3D.
One of them suggested that 2D programming is better for younger kids. Later they mentioned MUPPETS for MMOs, NEL, and moved into a discussion of “open” development for games; there seemed to be agreement that open source development works for technical things like software, but that it might not work for an artistic team endeavor like a serious game.

Someone said this gem: “Saying I want a game is like saying I want a meal. How much does a game cost is a similarly flawed question.”

Here was another that sat well with me. :) “Don’t think that because you are doing good, you have to be poor.”

Also, participants recommended these books: Buzzmarketing, and Secrets of Word of Mouth Marketing.

I’m sure I will be writing about these folks again…


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