Stanford Social Innovation Review : Informing and inspiring leaders of social change

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Technology & Design

Playing Games and Getting Results

A game development initiative brings individuals together to achieve real-world social change.

Today’s savvy entrepreneurs, businesses, and nonprofits alike are looking to harness the power of games to achieve social impact. As Al Gore expressed at the 8th Annual Games for Change Festival (G4C) last week, “Games are the new normal.” During his keynote, he described a growing interest in games that produce real-life results, such as combating climate change.

Over the last few years, Knight Foundation has funded the development of several games, as part of our work to support novel approaches to building community. We recently partnered with the game developer Area/Code to create two real-world, social impact games that use game mechanics and the contagious spirit of play to bring individuals together to address local challenges.

The first, Battlestorm, uses freeze-tag and capture-the-flag tactics to promote hurricane preparedness among youth and their families in the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The second game, Macon Money, is a social game that introduces a new local currency to help support the revitalization of the College Hill Corridor and the downtown area in Macon, Georgia, while strengthening relationships in the community.

Both games just ended their first implementation efforts earlier this month, and while we’re only half way through our formal evaluation, we do have some early findings about the impact of Macon Money.

The concept of Macon Money is simple: A new local currency is distributed in bonds, but only half a bond is given out to each player. Players must connect with other community members to find a matching half of their bond (each bond had several matching halves in the community). Some players used the game’s Facebook page to find other local players; others found a match at local events or by using personal relationships.

Once a bond is whole, the two players can spend their Macon Money at real-life participating local businesses, where they can buy various goods and services, such as coffee or a haircut. More than 3,000 Macon residents have played the game so far. (Watch a data visualization video that maps connections people made during the first six months of the game here.)

Early findings indicate that the game is making a positive contribution to local revitalization efforts in Macon. The map below indicates how much money players spent at each of the 41 participating independent, locally owned businesses during the first six months of the game. Interestingly, because players saw their bonds as a “gift” (essentially free money), they were often willing to branch out from their normal consumption habits and visit new local businesses that they wouldn’t otherwise frequent. Further evaluation will reveal the full extent to which residents were exposed to new businesses and whether local merchants observe any sustained changes in their patron base. 

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Based on stories people shared about playing the game, it’s clear that it was a fun experience—but did the game prompt any changes in awareness, attitudes, or behavior? Did these short moments of interaction between strangers lead to continuing relationships and exchange? As the findings come in, we’ll be sharing the results on the What We’re Learning section of our website.

While the effects of digital video games on learning and cognitive development are well explored, much less attention has been paid to the social impact of real-world physical games. We hope that the insights we’re gathering will contribute to the field’s emerging understanding of possible ways to turn people’s passion for gaming into positive community outcomes.

View the full presentation of the Macon Money case study on Slide Share.

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