Can good game design inspire real-world behavior change? Critics and developers are increasingly arguing they can. Last Friday, I dropped by the Soho House NYC to attend an intimate salon called 'Gaming for Good' put on by design blog heavyweights PSFK. The event was the result of a collaboration between PSFK and Al Gore's Climate Reality Project, the organization that ran the unorthodox '24 Hours of Reality' program a few months back.
PSFK recently released a report, 'The Future of Gaming', that analyzes emergent trends in the industry. In it, they conclude that there are many such trends that "brands, non-profits and communities can leverage to build engagement and motivate their target audience towards achieving a desired goal or outcome." That games can be used for good--beyond straightforward educational programs that have long been a staple of the medium--is a notion that's beginning to draw more and more attention. The 'Games for Change' conference I attended earlier this year devoted a few days to exploring specifically that concept.
The Games for Good salon marked the conclusion of a design contest of the same name: PSFK and Climate Reality had teamed up to solicit gaming concepts from designers around the world. Their task was to imagine a game that would engage players in a way that simultaneously helped tackle the climate crisis. The concepts rolled in, and the results ranged from quirky cellphone apps to wildly ambitious games involving massive digital avatars. I've already profiled a couple of the most impressive; the Oregon Trail-style 'Climate Trail', and the expansive 'Realitree'.
And there were tons of others--Farmville hacks, games designed to help players battle climate change-denying trolls on online comment boards (!), a green version of Foursquare, and a tool that helps users catalog the climate impact of products in the marketplace. Most were well thought-out, and with the right kind of financial support, some could feasibly be widely played.
But it's the concept itself that's more exciting than anything. When I attended the Games for Change conference over the summer, many of the games struck me as well-intentioned reincarnations of those educational PC games my parents bought for me in elementary school; they mostly sat, collecting dust, on the shelves. A handful in this go-round hit the same hurdle. A good educational game can't feel like it was designed to be educational. So, when panelist Aaron Dignan (Al Gore and marketing wiz Alex Bogusky were the others), author of Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success, noted that we were only beginning to see the potential of such gamification, the notion started to seem more promising.
He noted that the still-growing ubiquity of video games, along with a booming market for app games, was flooding the industry with new talent. Video gaming is no longer a niche industry; it now attracts talent from all walks of life. And as with any other sector, video game developers and programmers may soon be seeking out more meaningful outlets than "designing the next first-person shooter", as Dignan said. Developing a game that helps subtly provide players with good information about climate change or inspire them to take political action may seem like a more rewarding career path.
In other words, these fledgling attempts to create games that both entertain players and harness their participation for the greater good are just the first wave in a percolating trend that has yet to truly pick up speed. It might be hard to imagine a smartphone game that could catalyze widespread social change right now--and I haven't seen anything yet that comes close--but the floodgates are just opening.
Learn more about the event and the different game concepts over at PSFK.