Where Gamers and Social Change Come Together
There are 2.5 billion1 video game players in the world. All told, they spent $152.1 billion2 on games last year, logging, on average, seven hours3 of activity per week. Unlike retro video games, these players are largely online, creating global communities—and a sense of camaraderie and competition among them.
These communities hold lots of promise beyond gameplay. From educators to activists, people are turning to gaming to encourage social good among the gaming community. Take the not-for-profit organization Games for Change4. Founded in 2003, after 40 social activists and academics gathered to discuss the possibilities of social impact games, the Games for Change website now houses a curated collection of over 200 mobile, social and console games sourced from its community. Topics span the refugee crisis to mental illness to LGBTQ+ issues.
“There’s something inherent about games that can drive impact if intentionally developed,” says Susanna Pollack, President of Games for Change. “When it comes to the impact games and why they can actually drive change, it has to do with that intentional outcome and collaboration with different experts.”
Although still far from being considered mainstream, social impact games are on the rise as an engine for real-world change. Thanks to continued advances in technology—namely, the data storage and processors game developers rely on—and developers and organizations with a vision, these games are becoming a more efficient way to do good through education, fundraising and data collection.
Raising Awareness and Action Through Education
According to Dargan Frierson, a climate scientist at the University of Washington, one of the biggest hurdles to saving our planet from climate change is a lack of awareness.
So he created a course called EarthGames5 at UW in 2014. EarthGames aims to raise awareness across a host of climate change-related topics—and in many cases, inspire action. In addition to coursework spent brainstorming ideas and fine-tuning existing mobile games with a climate change focus, EarthGames hosts “game jam” development to surface new game concepts on a regular basis.
For example, Deal: A Green New Election6, gamifies political action by putting gamers in the shoes of politicians trying to pass a ballot initiative. Frierson says the popularity of each of EarthGames’ titles varies, but games with ~10,000 downloads are a great success for the group.
The students who take Frierson’s course are planning to launch its first computer strategy game next year called Flourish. In Flourish, players begin with a scientifically accurate model of today’s world and are challenged to reduce carbon emissions while balancing a happiness metric—a gameplay model based on some of today’s most popular strategy games7.
Fundraising (and Gaming) for Change
Lual Mayen felt inspired to create a video game aimed at raising awareness about social issues—but rather than climate change, his game is focused on the refugee crisis. And it’s an issue that’s close to home: In his childhood, the now-D.C.-based developer and his family fled from a civil war in South Sudan to a refugee camp in Uganda. In his first game, Salaam8 (which means “peace” in Arabic), players are put in the shoes of a refugee doing just that. Mayen first brought Salaam public by posting it to his Facebook page in 2018 to promote and test the game’s mechanics—and it went viral9. This summer, Mayen will be releasing an iteration of the game through his company Junub Games. This release includes a revenue element which will allow players to donate medicine, food or money to a refugee in real life.
Learn more about Lual Mayen and Salaam here.
Mayen’s ability to launch Salaam on Facebook can be attributed to its success, since a major barrier to date of social impact games is the availability and affordability of technology.
“It used to be that the only platforms you could use to play games were Xbox and PlayStation,” says Pollack. “But with the development and adoption of smartphones, tablets, and with the App Store or Google Play, there are ways to publish games that don’t require this big gatekeeper.”
But as new platforms have opened up and technology has become more accessible and affordable, developers like Mayen have more opportunity to experiment with and grow successful games. In fact, when Mayen was first learning to code, his family didn’t have internet access. So he learned to code from tutorials saved on a SanDisk® USB. Today, not only are network connections more accessible for players and game developers alike, but the backend technology for game development is more sophisticated.
Now, Lual has teamed up with WD_BLACK – Western Digital’s premium brand for gaming storage solutions – to explore new ways to develop his games and scale social impact. In an earlier interview, he sat down with Michael Hoang, Global Digital Marketing for Gaming Lead, to share his journey as a game developer. The two are currently in collaboration, with Michael hinting, “WD_BLACK has always focused on the need of the community. Social good and social impact is a crucial part of that. We’re honored to able to help and we stand by Lual’s efforts. We are currently discussing opportunities to help aid Lual on his journey.”
Gathering Data for Citizen Science
Data isn’t just a part of creating the games—it’s another way that games can be used for social good. Developers commonly collect data about gamer demographics, how they play and how long they play. And while there’s debate10 about whether commercial games should gather this information, there is a growing class of games for social good built on the concept. It’s known as “civic science,” where players opt-in to the process of collecting data to solve a scientific problem.
In fact, the biggest dataset of human behavior for scientific purposes was collected through a game called Sea Hero Quest11. The mobile game, released in 2016, tracked players’ spatial navigation abilities as they guide a virtual ship through a maze of waterways. The goal was to create a global benchmark for dementia and help doctors diagnose the disease earlier.
Millions worldwide have been diagnosed with dementia, and while spatial ability is an early marker of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s impossible to give an early diagnosis because spatial ability varies in the general population. Is someone just bad at navigation, or is it pathological?
“To solve this issue we need a planetary-wide dataset of how people navigate,” says Antoine Coutrot, one of the data analysts and researchers involved with the study. “To build such a dataset, we needed to test a very large number of participants from very diverse profiles. In a lab-based setting, this would have taken 10,000 years.”
According to Coutrot, over 4 million people played at least one level of the game, which he accredits to the widespread adoption of the smartphone. Sea Hero Quest has now been taken into a clinical setting to provide researchers with a massive dataset that can be studied in depth to understand, diagnose, and detect the early onset of dementia for years to come.
Gaming for Social Good Continues to Grow
The success of games like Sea Hero Quest and others, along with the ever-increasing affordability to produce, publish, and play them, continues to facilitate the growth of games for social good. The developers and organizations behind all of these games are scrappy and dynamic, willing to challenge the status quo by exploring new publishing avenues, new formats like VR, and most importantly, new problems.
Pollack says the annual Games for Change Festival will be held virtually this year and will focus on resilience, connectedness, and wellness as people struggle during a time of isolation and stress due to recent global conditions.
“We want to help highlight the fact that games can play a role in our healing and in our coping with anything from distance learning, to being far away from your family, to the mental stresses of our current situation,” she says.
It’s this ability to adapt, and this innate hunger for a solution, that fuels the social impact gaming movement, pushing it beyond the boundaries and limitations of traditional gaming.
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.
- 2.5 billion video game players in the world
- $152.1 billion spent
- seven hours of activity per week
- Games for Change
- Deal: A Green New Election
- a gameplay model based on some of today’s most popular strategy games
- there’s debate about whether commercial games should gather this information
- Sea Hero Quest