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Taking Games for Good to a New Level

Great social issue video games are out there; now it’s time to invest in them.

Taking root beneath the complex, multi-faceted public debate over whether playing popular, often violent video games leads to violent behavior, there is a budding industry of games for social impact—and maybe a reason to be hopeful about the future of game media and its influence on youth.

Last month’s Games for Change Festival (G4C) celebrated the promising power of video games to yield social change. The event, now in its tenth year, brings game developers, educators, NGOs, and government agencies to New York City to discuss and promote the creation of social-issue games in an industry with a global market of $67 billion, projected to reach $82 billion by 2017. Big numbers like this prove that the gaming industry has engaged the masses, and G4C wants to push this engagement toward social learning and positive action.

It’s already happening on a small scale. The Games for Change Awards, announced annually at the festival, recognizes effective mission-driven games. This year’s winning games included “Data Dealer,” which raises awareness around personal data and online privacy, and “Quandary,” where players are social pioneers facing decisions that challenge their moral compass. These and other games endorsed at G4C achieve a blend of social influence and technical innovation through engaging gameplay.

G4C has also aligned with larger social impact movements, proving that video games can be vehicles for positive global action through game mechanics. Half the Sky Movement is a transmedia campaign working against the oppression of women worldwide; it includes a book, film, and game. The game, produced by G4C and available for free on Facebook, features game tasks that transfer to real-world donations and social action opportunities. Since launching in March, “Half the Sky Movement: The Game” has raised nearly $350,000 to empower women worldwide.

Yet, social issue games production still resides on the edge of the gaming industry. Just 800 people attended G4C this year. And the Entertainment Software Association reports that the best-selling video game of 2012 was the first-person shooter game “Call of Duty: Black Ops II,” which sold 10 million copies. Imagine the impact if, in 2013, 10 million kids played “Quandary.”

How can high-quality games for social good make the leap to the mainstream market? The film industry may provide a model for scaling up this movement. Nearly 60 percent of box office gross is attributed to mainstream action, adventure, or comedy movies, but among these have emerged renowned social impact films such as “Waiting for ‘Superman” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” These are just two examples of profitable, widely distributed social issue movies, and their success indicates that engaging, mission-filled stories resonate with the mass market.

The reason movie-goers know these titles, though, is because these small-budget social issue films were developed and marketed by big name benefactors: Participant Media produced both movies and presented them on the acclaimed stage of Sundance Film Festival. Participant Media and Sundance (comprised of the festival and the nonprofit backer Sundance Institute) were both founded by philanthropists—Jeff Skoll and Robert Redford, respectively—but the funding stream is not as important as the support. Creative voices willing to confront pressing problems conceive social issue movies, but these movies make their way to production and audiences through funding, publicity, and distribution by socially conscious industry leaders. Participant Media, Sundance, and even mainstream movie studios (“Fahrenheit 9/11” was a Miramax Films production, for example) make it possible for high-quality social issue movies to find a mainstream audience.

The film industry illustrates that the audience for social issue entertainment already exists, and this year’s G4C proved that creativity and talent are rife in the social issue game community. But how will we know their impact if the masses can’t use or learn with them? Industry foundations such as the Knight Foundation and the Entertainment Software Association Foundation fund G4C, but it would require significant funding from industry insiders to support and distribute mission-driven games on a larger scale. Gamers and citizens alike stand to benefit from the support of a few gaming industry heavy-weights—whether they are philanthropists, indie companies, or major studios—willing to dedicate some of their $67 billion toward consciously funding great games for social good.

G4C has given root to the movement of games for social impact, and I hope it will eventually move to the mainstream—that is, be available on store shelves and the Internet, in homes, and wherever gamers play. Let’s start tapping this media’s potential to impact youth and society in general by tipping the scales (and the dollars) toward commercializing gaming for good.

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