Video Games for Social Change

It’s no secret that we are overwhelmed with media. We feel guilt that we’re not using our Netflix subscription to its full potential. We feel guilt when we haven’t taken our turn in Scrabulous in a few days. And columnists keep telling me that I have 500 channels of cable programming (even though I only have about 100). Through this noise, an altruistic subset of the creative class attempts to bring our attention to the issues and causes that desperately need our attention.

We know many of the causes already. We’ve been asked to sign the petitions, to write our representatives, and to dig deeper than the nightly news dares to. And for a while it worked. When I was 8, I made my dad call the phone number in the credits at the end of Free Willy and adopt a whale (I sincerely hope the nation of Japan respects our $20 pledge). After a certain number of appeals, though, we learn to put up a wall between the few areas we feel we can do something about and the vast array of causes that cry for that attention. But documentaries have a way of inspiring the jaded and engaging the blissfully ignorant. Who would have ever predicted that a film about Al Gore’s slideshow could serve as the catalyst for a global movement?

As our media landscape changes at the speed that earthquakes change physical landscapes, social changemakers are keeping up. Online, a short video conveys what a cluttered homepage cannot. An emerging catalog of “games for change” are attempting to bring the real world significance of documentaries to a medium best known for Italian plumbers and hijacking cars. But video games for social change have upped the ante. Several speakers at the Making Your Media Matter conference I attended last week posited that the immersive nature of rich simulations allow the player to gain new perspectives and understand the complex systems underlying so many of the world’s problems in far less time than reading about them in the news.

Every entertainment medium, from the novel to cinema, has initially faced accusations of hastening the end of civilization, and conveying difficult messages in games has awakened plenty of detractors. The creator of the Columbine game was present at the conference, having survived the media firestorm that followed his creation a few years ago. He offered an important perspective he had picked up along the way: “Art doesn’t take exit polls”. This is an extreme example, but given that so much of our existing entertainment is escapist and video games are such a new part of our media culture, we are certainly still having trouble swallowing real-life examples being used in video games.

Except it’s already being done. In the ultimate dystopian fusion of our ever-expanding military and entertainment options, game producers are moving into current conflict zones. Besides causing diplomatic rows with the countries serving as the background for quasi-fictional CIA invasions, these games don’t appear to do much to progress our understanding past the classic “kill the bad guys” model.

It’s time to accept the place of video games not just as an entertainment product rivaling Hollywood’s box office, but as a medium with unique capabilities to make the world better.*

And because they can be hard to find, here are some games for change:

World Without Oil – Simulation of the alternate reality that might ensue in the event of a global oil crisis – lots of neat user-generated content: videos, blogs, images, comics, faux newscasts of the fallout of gas hitting $8 a gallon.

ICED: I Can End Deportation – teaches players about harsh US immigration laws by putting the player in the shoes of an asylum seeker, Green Card holder, student with an expired visa, and so on. Here’s a tip: if you report that domestic abuse you’re going to attract unwanted attention. Launches online on 2/18.

PeaceMaker – Takes the “play the news” angle and applies it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although as the name states, does so with loftier goals than most shoot ’em ups. They distributed 100,000 copies have been distributed in Israel and Palestinian territories. The makers of the game have opened the engine up to a Play the News platform where you can set up your own scenarios and predict what will happen in reality. If you want to join beta community, email

A Force More Powerful – Single player strategy game where you are the leader of a nonviolent movement. Like Sim City but with strikes, boycotts, street protests, and hunger strikes. You can create your own scenarios and import JPEGs of politicians from your country! This one has seen big demand in North Korea and Myanmar, where people can use it as a (thinly-veiled) tool for other plans.

Darfur is Dying – 2 million players in its first year.

*A stronger lobbying presence in Washington, DC probably won’t hurt either.