Sunday, February 6, 2011

GAMES FOR CHANGE, AND I DON'T MEAN QUARTERS


Games for Change on ABC News from Games for Change on Vimeo.

When I was a kid, the most socially redeeming video game I played was perhaps Missile Command, because at least I was saving whole cities -- however abstract they were -- from an unseen enemy that relentlessly sent nuclear missiles to destroy them. In the end, of course, I could only stave off the bombs for so long, the cities would all get annihilated, and the game would end. But we all die anyway; at least my 25-cent heroics kept a whole lot of imaginary people alive for another few minutes. And maybe if I ever found myself at the helm of an actual anti-missile defense system, I would be that much better prepared to deflect an attack. That's about as far as it went. Maybe if I had gotten into role-playing video games -- rather than just the aim-and-fire variety -- I'd be an arms control negotiator by now. Or not.

Ah, my wasted youth. Not to mention all those quarters! Well, an organization called Games for Change (G4C) seeks to reverse the equation for a new generation. Instead of shelling out all kinds of pocket change for game-play, G4C promotes (mostly free) games that they hope will promote social change -- mostly for kids to play, but adults might enjoy them as well. Whereas the first-person games I played as a kind usually put a gun or cannon or some other such weapon in my hand, these games put the player in situations -- often in the first-person -- that challenge them to make choices. Here's my informal rundown on a few of the more story-based games.

A game from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees -- yes! the UNHCR has a video game! -- called "Against All Odds" allows the player to "experience what it is like to be a refugee." You are put in the position of someone in danger in her own country: you are arrested and interrogated. From there, you face a series of choices about how to answer the interrogation questions, what form of transportation to take if you flee, whom to leave behind on your escape, whom to trust to ask for help, and so on. It's a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure kind of game, just that some of your choices may result in the torture or death of you or people you love. For all that, it's entertaining -- or rather, engrossing, in a way that a successful game must be -- even when you're learning something. The educational aspect of the games has less to do with facts and figures (though there are pop-up options for more information), and more to do with grasping some of the difficult, even impossible choices that refugees may have to face.

A game called "At-Risk" puts you in the chair of a college professor who is concerned about a handful of his students who seem to be depressed or failing. A "file" on each student gives you their grades, attendance records, and other notes from the academic year. Your goal, when each of the students come to your office to talk, is to get them into counseling or other kinds of support. You are presented with a series of options about what to say, and the student's response is unique to each question. Your choices for how to pursue the conversation change depending on what you've said before. Say the wrong thing, and the student might get defensive. You get three chances to undo things you've said.  Although I made a couple remarks that prompted sarcastic responses from one student, Alberto -- in fact, I thought he was kind of a jerk! -- I was proud to have helped him step back from the brink of suicide, and get into counseling. I saved a life!

Engaging as it was to spend a half-hour on each of these games, their limitations prevented me from going much further: the player's options (and the games' responses) are relatively few in number, so the story or conversation can only go so far. How to lift such limitations? One way would be to provide more options for action, though this would quickly become increasingly more complex to program. Two other games, however, solve this problem by continually adding new content, and/or by allowing you to play not just with a computer but with other people. "Play the News" takes actual news stories and enables players to assume roles of the people involved and decide how they would act. "Imagine fantasy sports meets the evening news," says the website, and the result "changes the paradigm of news consumption from passive reading to active engagement." And the social-network game "EVOKE" is a "10-week crash course in changing the world." People who sign up play a whole "season," and generate ideas to real-world problems like food security, disaster relief, and human rights abuses. Every Wednesday night during the season, players receive a "mission," which they must then learn about, act on in the real world, and imagine "a story about the future they would like to make." The first and most recent season took place last spring, but people can still form groups to play the game, or wait for the second season.

I played only about 3 hours of these and other "Games for Change," so I'm no expert, but the most successful educational and political games would seem to be fun, attractive (such as in the case of the artful graphics in the UNHCR game), and full of routes, narrative or otherwise, down which to travel -- whether that be through the complexity of the game, the infusion of new source material, or the inclusion of other people to play with/against. If a game can be anywhere near as addictive as "Missile Command" was for me, and still fire the political imagination rather than just quicken the trigger finger, then maybe players will actually become informed and activated enough to go out and help save a few real lives.

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