Confession: I commute from New Jersey. Every day, I catch the same train at the same time at the same station to get to Penn just before 9:00 AM, just like hundreds of others. I see dozens of the same people every day, but we remain anonymous to each other—both familiar and stranger, totally apathetic for fear of breaking the traditions of ritual travel. We don’t interact at all.
I think it’s different for something out of the routine. Like Tuesday, when I jumped on the R to get to NYU for the ninth annual Games for Change festival, an event held to spotlight and inspire people looking to “catalyze social impact through digital games.” As the trip isn’t one I make regularly, I thought, hey, it would be kind of nice to talk to the people on my subway car. But why? It’s more of a leap to reach out to them than it is to those on my regular commute. Saying hi would be that much weirder. And so the only person to break the silence is an old handicapped man, waddling forward and shouting for spare change, while some uncomfortably shift away.
At NYU’s Skirball auditorium, precisely halfway through Tuesday’s Games for Change talks, Jeff Watson and Tracy Fullerton, who are researchers at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, took the stage. They told the audience—a mixed crowd of academics, educators, game developers, activists, and members of the press—of the misconception many of their incoming freshman had had. A misconception that it would be their job to break.
“They think of themselves as sort of the ‘lone filmmaker,’” Fullerton said. “And so we decided to do an intervention on our students.” Fullerton and Watson, along with their colleagues, wanted their incoming freshman to collaborate with each other, experiment boldly, and connect. But they wanted them to do it on their own, outside of class—and they thought the best way to engage the students would be through a game.
What Watson and Fullerton had developed was loosely modeled after the structure of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG). Players in ARGs don’t look for the game as much as stumble across it. In Watson and Fullerton’s game, dubbed Reality Ends Here, the first clue they planted at USC last fall was a flag emblazoned with a mysterious symbol that would be the game’s trademark.
If students followed the breadcrumbs, then they would find the Game Office. And the Game, for them, would begin.
Upon discovering the office, players would receive ten cards, which, when following certain rules, could be combined to form a creative prompt, or “Deal.” The more cards you had, the better deals you could make, and the more elaborate the instructions for the media you had to produce. When used in conjunction with a social media hub called the Bullpen, the students were in a frenzy—comparing cards, soliciting each other for help modifying their deals, and producing what their deals prompted them to make.
“The old style [of ARGs] is about the cleverness of the designers. We wanted a game that would focus on the cleverness of the players.” Watson said. “We wanted to interfere in their actual, physical lives.”
Such an approach is unusual at Games for Change which focuses primarily on digital games, but it accomplishes what all parties involved strive for. It got people actively, visibly involved, working towards a very real, tangible result.
The thing about Games for Change is that its mission—catalyzing social impact through digital games—is many times undermined by what should be the main event: the games themselves. They just aren’t very good. That’s not to say they’re broken or unplayable, it’s just that most of them emphasize a message or social outcome rather than employing compelling gameplay.
Another thing nagged at me when looking at the list of games in my program. It was the “Target Audience” section under each title. 11+. 14 and up. 9-15. Then the games and talks themselves. Teaching urban youth healthy ways to deal with fear, frustration, and sadness. Encourage young people to think more about the origin of the clothes we buy on British high-streets. Empowering youth to view and participate in civic engagement through a game creation lens.
Games for Change is almost overwhelmingly skewed toward educating youth.
There is a problem with this on two levels. First, the audience that most of these games are targeting probably play bigger, better, commercial games. Games that have multimillion-dollar budgets and look so slick and polished that any other games that don’t look like summer blockbusters are assumed to be bad by default. Many Games for Change don’t have the sort of budget to look anything like these games, and few seem to be cognizant of the video game status quo. Many of them don’t even bother engaging potential young gamers where they live—nothing shown at the festival was in development for a major console, nor Facebook or any other big social media site.
Looking through the program, I couldn’t help but think what about me? I’m a young adult, out of college, willing to contribute. I want games that not only ask me to do more than kill others trying to kill me, but games that explore things that matter, that make me uncomfortable, that achieve that level of social impact and good that Games for Change aspires to bring about.
If we had more games with uncompromising convictions, games for adults that are compelling and not merely entertaining, social media that pulled us out of our social circles, then perhaps Games for Change could incite those actually able to change to take action. Children are malleable, curious. They’re not set in their ways. Change is a way of life for them. But what if game developers tried to intrigue adults, to shake them out of cynicism, apathy and routine? We’re the ones who need this.
“It’s not a system that will get people to do what they aren’t predisposed to do already,” Watson had said when asked why the game he and his colleagues had put together was so successful. It ultimately amassed 120 players out of a freshman class of 180, who produced 122 projects. These were media students, people who wanted to make short films, music videos, and their ilk. The game spoke a language they wanted to share with others. And so they were thrilled to discover it and play.
But more importantly, they were college freshman. The physical space that Watson, Fullerton, and Co. were invading was one that they all occupied together: a college campus, a community. “Local is where you can get people really emotionally involved,” said Fullerton, “Local is great.”
On the train home that night, I sat next to another local commuter, my eyes passing over a book without really reading it. I wondered if there was something that could be made, something that would invade the empty space between us and everyone else on the train. Could a game fill that? Stitch something familiar between strangers? The train was quiet, as it always is on a Tuesday night. There was no one begging for change that time.