Games for Change: Play Your Way to Making the World a Better Place


Who knew that fighting global warming could be so fun? Just ask Al Gore, who was announced yesterday as the opening speaker for the 8th Annual Games for Change Festival, a three-day event dedicated to exploring the potential of games for social impact.

“Vice President Gore is a significant global advocate who has effectively used popular media to bring issues of pressing concern to mainstream audiences,” said Co-Presidents of Games for Change Asi Burak and Michelle Byrd in a press release. “His presence at this year’s Festival underscores the immense potential of pairing social impact with the increasing accessibility of games.”

Other speakers at this year's festival, which will be held on June 20-22 in New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, include game designer Jesse Schell,'s Laura Hartman, U.S. Department of Education’s James H. Shelton III and Half the Sky co-author Sheryl WuDunn.

The Games for Change Festival features a lot of other fun stuff, open to the public (register here.) Here are the highlights:

Games for Change Awards: The awards will be presented in four categories: Direct Impact, Knight News Game, Learning & Education and Transmedia. (All of which are giving me great ideas for future blog posts!) Nominees will be announced on May 6. If you're lucky enough to attend the event, you can play all the nominated games on June 21-22.

Demo Spotlight: Six game developers will have a chance to get feedback from the audience about their creations. I, for one, would love to check out "Climbing Sacred Mountain," which re-envisions the male-dominated Mount Everest expedition narrative by allowing players to choose strong female climbers as the protagonists, instead. Seems like a great example of how gaming is also storytelling—just like Choose Your Own Adventure books, some of my favorite things to read when I was a kid.

Inspiring Digital Kids Through Game Design: Sponsored by the AMD Foundation, this workshop will include panel discussions and hands-on activities that show attendees how to engage students in designing digital games while learning social science, civics and news literacy. One of the case studies that will be examined is Globaloria, the first social network for learning how to make educational Web-based games.

Outdoor Game (Public Event): When was the last time you went out and actually played in the streets? Now's your chance! Join hundreds of other New York City residents and tourists for a "mass participation" outdoor game that leaves "an actual positive change on the physical environment where the game was played." No word, yet, on what the game will be. The lucky winners of the "Real-world Games for Change Challenge" will be announced this Thursday, April 28. The winner(s) will get $5,000 to execute their idea on the streets of Manhattan on June 19 (Father's Day), as part of the Come Out & Play Summer Series and River to River Festival.

For more information, visit the official event website:


I've been really impressed by Jane McGonigal's case for how "gaming can make a better world." "Reality is broken," she says. "And we all need to tap into a collective sense of urgent optimism—as well as the ability and capacity to act now—to make the future."

( has tons of other content on games, by the way, in case you're interested. Some key talks: Tom Chatfield on "7 ways games reward the brain" and Will Wright on "toys that make worlds.")

Blogger, toymaker and superstar mom Jennifer Cooper compiled a great list of resources—the "Playvolution Library"—explaining why playing is so important, in general, but especially if you're a kid. But adults should join in on the action, too. Gaming can be used to ignite passion for reading (yay, literacy!), as the New York Public Library demonstrated with its smartphone-based scavenger hunt. It can also "communicate complex ideas differently and better than writing and pictures and film," as Ian Bogost wrote in a post about the game-changing (har, har) potential of "news games" to change the way we view and digest current events. Other games can help build support for worldwide campaigns, as exemplified by Darfur is Dying, which increases awareness about genocide in Sudan. Games can even inspire world peace, as shown by PeaceMaker, a game inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

GOOD magazine highlighted some other "social games," like the role-playing video game, "Fate of the World," which shows how players can find solutions for global warming from the comfort of their controller, and Yoxi (meaning "game," in Chinese), a creative competition that pits problem solvers against each other to deliver the best solutions to social issues, like increasing cycling in cities and re-inventing fast food.

On, where I serve as Managing Editor, I've written about games as a tool to help build sustainable cities. A few examples: The toymaker LEGO released its new "Public Transport Station" set last August, "allowing children (and the young-at-heart) to envision cities with high-quality transit, including buses, level-boarding platforms, bike racks at transport hubs, and low-floor trams." I've also covered cool initiatives like "game jams," a series of events that gather game developers, graphic artists, and local youth to produce video game prototypes that encourage healthier habits for kids, which I suggested should include getting them excited about biking, walking and mass transit. I've also geeked out about IBM's CityOne computer game, "which is kind of like SimCity but for sustainable cities, where players act as city planners, dealing with real-life issues related to banking, water, energy and retail." Games can even help real-life decision-makers improve the city's master planning process, as shown by the "Participatory Chinatown" online project in Boston, as highlighted in a post by fellow blogger Jonna Mckone.

Business Insider predicted that 2011 would be the Year of Social Gaming, with playtime being driven by entertainment and social media, totally de-bunking the notion that gamers are loners. But I also see a simultaneous trend toward playtime being driven by social impact, with people motivated to save the world because of the increased understanding and engagement that comes from creative gameplay.

There you have it. A smattering of case studies about the importance of gaming, which I hope to explore in more detail in future posts.

So, go out and play!

Or at least leave a comment and let me know where else I should be looking for fun.