‘Social good’ games can do so much — from teaching players about issues such as poverty, civic participation and the environment, to helping them become creative problem solvers or make healthy choices.

The opportunities to engage audiences are as varied as the types of games available, and funders are increasingly interested in supporting game-based elements in their work. On February 25, Media Impact Funders and Philanthropy New York presented a special preview session of the annual Games for Change conference to learn about how game developers and funders are working together. This year, Games for Change has partnered with the Tribeca Film Festival (April 22-26), reflecting the increasing interconnection between film, games, and social issue campaigns.

Media Impact Funders Executive Director Vince Stehle moderated this vibrant discussion — see  the Storify from the event for a sense of the in-person and online buzz. Afterwards, Stehle reflected further on how nonprofits use games to connect more viscerally with audiences in a column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “For grant makers and media makers alike,” he writes, “the power of games may be the deeper engagement they deliver.”

During the event, we heard from several experts on how games are being used to explore human rights, immigration, sustainable agriculture, community development and other urgent issues, and how funders are supporting their development and distribution as an innovative new way to help fulfill their missions.

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Asi Burak, the executive director of Games for Change, offered several observations on the burgeoning gaming sector, and the possibilities for collaboration across platforms and disciplines. Games are “winning the competition on revenue, time and eyeballs,” he said. The $66 billion global industry boasts a player base that’s 47% female, with an average age of 30. There is a growing body of research around the capacity of games to make an impact — they serve as communication tools as well as platforms for learning, civic engagement, behavior change, health and collective organizing. A new “games for good ”ecosystem has emerged, encompassing NGOs, foundations, government, corporations, media companies, universities, game and film makers, and authors. Games for Change is building this field further through its festival, curation of relevant games, collaboration on demonstration projects such as <i<>Half the Sky, and advising such groups as the AARP, World Bank, and UNDP. “It’ a watershed moment,” Burak said.
Jeff Curley, the executive director for iCivics, spoke about the evolution of this game-based learning platform, founded in 2009 by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The iCivics team has developed a suite of games, tools and curricula keyed to state and Common Core civics standards. Curley noted that like gaming, civics involves grasping complex systems to “get things done.” Developing clear learning objectives is central to keeping iCivics developers on task, he said, as is constant iteration and hands-on play testing. One challenge in working with a range of schools is making sure the tech functions within the limitations of different educational environments. The 20 iCivics games cover the three branches of government, and have been played more than 15 million times. Games plus lessons are more than twice as effective than games alone, Curley stressed, according to researchers from Baylor University. More than half of the country’s middle school social science teachers have adopted iCivics, and researchers are finding an equal impact for players across gender, race and socioeconomic status.

CyberChase_smallerSandra Sheppard, the director and executive producer for Children’s & Educational Media Thirteen/WNET, described a range of effective games that her public broadcasting station has developed. MissionUS immerses players in historical settings, and allows them to interact as young characters who are swept up in issues of the time, such as the revolutionary war, the fight against slavery, and the westward expansion. Cyberchase, for younger kids, ties into a PBS series that tracks the adventures of three characters who use math and problem-solving to fight a villain named The Hacker. The development team is now experimenting with tablets and augmented reality as a way to tap into players’ emerging media habits, and with support from the NSF, tracking impact. Next, Sheppard says, they will be launching a challenge that encourages children to create their own math and environmental games.
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Robert Torres, a Senior Program Officer at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke about how the foundation is evaluating the educational power of games. Their metric, he said, is the degree to which games can accelerate learning at a 1.5x rate. They are also funding R&D labs, and innovations in assessment of this growing field. They track the application of Common Core standards, acquisition of complex skills, and in-game engagement and feedback. A Gates-funded meta-analysis conducted by SRI International found a “moderate to strong effect in favor of digital games in learning cognitive competencies,” he said. Torres came to the field after his own work as a filmmaker, education reformer and principal convinced him that gaming could be used to help counter the dropout crisis by providing young learners with “another route to mastery.” While games are not a “silver bullet,” he said, when only 8% of low-income students complete college but 97% of youth are playing video games, they seem like an avenue worth pursuing.

Ken Weber, the executive director of Zynga.org, provided perspective on how funders and nonprofits might partner with commercial game designers to ramp up their impact. He showed this video featuring one Half the Sky player to demonstrate the relationship between documentary, gaming and action.

Can games make the world a better place?” he asked, and “can tech companies have a positive impact?” It’s still a bit early for answers on both, Weber suggested, but the “ROI” for games as a vehicle for advocating around issues is “compelling.” For example, 60% of the “Holiday Lights” extension of FarmVille reported giving to charity through the game, and 32% said they have learned about a new cause via FarmVille. Zynga can command the attention of tens of millions of players with popular games, and audiences spend more time gaming than they do on other online sites — an average of 40 minutes per session vs. 5 minutes for news sites. Nonprofit and educational developers can license older game IP from commercial companies to save time and harness existing networks. Weber commended organizations such as Games for Change and the Institute of Play for pioneering new models, and serving as “glue” in the games-for-good sector.

The discussion was followed by a demo session where attendees played various games and had a chance to see firsthand how they effectively combine fun, education and positive impact. We’ll be following up this successful event with a West Coast discussion in the coming months— stay tuned.

About the Author

Sarah Armour-Jones