Games for Change is one of the leading global advocates for supporting and making games for social impact and host to the 9th Annual Games For Change Conference, set over a sweltering three days in New York City on the 18th-20th June, 2012.
G4C is one of the few conferences we've found which focuses purely on the importance of games that educate, engage and ultimately change lives. This focus is firmly allied to our 'games with purpose' approach to game development so a great fit for us to both attend and speak at. With an impressive line up of speakers, and an awards evening to boot, we knew it was well worth featuring in our 'must see' conference calendar.
Using games to inform, engage and educate is fast becoming mainstream, with institutions, financiers and governments all now beginning to see the value so G4C felt important. Everyone from Zynga to E-Line Media, Rockerfeller Foundation to representatives from The White House were there. The right people were taking notice of the right issues and themes.
The White House: People in power take interest
The first over subscribed day of the conference was a pre-festival summit with a series of talks emphasising the importance of games in education. The Federal Games Guild opened the discussion, explaining how interest in the use of games in education goes all the way to the top of US government now, with the White House taking an active interest. A number of federal agencies were in the audience, looking to engage with developers and educational bodies and starting to incorporate games into their policy decisions on everything from national security to health, science and technology. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), the top three government departments in the US who are already using games in their learning strategies are the military, health and education.
Summit day: Getting with the program.
The summit was attended by a wide group of people, from educators and writers of curriculum through to games developers and publishers. The aim of the day was for everyone to see the value of games with a string of talks about the importance of games, best practise, state of the industry, commercial opportunity and even a practical demonstration of the value of game design.
The day's Keynote was by Jessie Schell of Schell Games, starting his talk by referring to John Locke who was advocating learning through play over three hundred years ago and going on to explore the meaning of play as manipulation that indulges curiosity, and games which are fundamentally a series of problems that need to be solved.
His 7/11 list of things games are bad at and good at was nicely considered with observations relating to game design and human nature and marshmallows, underlining that games with purpose are powerful and beneficial.
Scott Rigby from Immersyve talked about the psychology of engagement in games, explaining the positive ways getting people to learn by applying the three main tenets of self determination theory - Autonomy, competence and relatedness. All things that games do really well.
If anyone was in doubt that games with purpose could only be non-commercial endeavours, Alan Gershenfeld's hugely informative talk about how commercial success is also important for sustaining educational games. Alan is a former Activision executive, ex chairman of Games for Change and a strong advocate of games with purpose so well positioned to talk about 'double bottom line businesses' namely those that can generate both income and social impact, as well as the important differences between games as products and games as services.
Practical advice came in the form of Nick Fortugno of Playmatics who defined the fundamentals of game design, explaining the process and theory behind it, followed by a hands on workshop in which the audience was invited to design a game 'safe in the knowledge it was going to suck', 'cos that's how iterative game design works.
Show Me The Science: Brainpower at play
Day two was the first day of the festival proper, and focused on practical examples of games with purpose.
Jane McGonigal was keynote speaker for the day, coinciding with the announcement that she had been newly appointed to the Games for Change board of directors. Her talk focused on the idea that games provide emotional and mental resilience backed up with a wealth of scientific data . She referred to the Guardian article which listed the five main regrets people had on their deathbeds, and how games could be used to avoid all of them.
After suffering a brain injury in 2009, McGonigal used game theory to convalesce and recover, resulting in her new game, Superbetter, which helps people who have experienced life changing trauma in their lives achieve 'post traumatic growth'. Fortunately the game has also been designed so that you don't actually need to have had a life threatening trauma to play it.
The other highlight of the day included Ian Bogost's talk about news based games and how digital mini games are the new newspaper crossword puzzle. He also demo'd Game-O-Matic, his game engine generator which spits out game mechanics depending on the subjects you plug into it.
The British Are Coming
The afternoon sessions were a primarily British affair, hosted by Hide & Seek's Margaret Robertson, and featuring some great examples of games with purpose. Simon Parkin from Little Loud presented Sweatshop, managing to mention Ludonarrative Dissonance in the process. Sharna Jackson from Tate Kids took the audience through Preloaded's Wondermind project, and The End was presented by our very own Phil Stuart.
The final day featured some big names in educational games. The charismatic James Gee told us not that good games are good for learning, but that Good games (with a big G!) with social interactivity are the best for learning.
Valve talked passionately about their Portal 2 level builder and how it has been adopted by both students and teachers as a valuable educational game tool, helping kids learn in different ways, and encouraging creativity and investigation of complex physics formulae. Teachwithportals is a framework of resources provided for free, and Steam for Schools is likely to become a significant player in the educational games market, although when asked by someone in the audience whether they would be featuring non-Valve products, they noticeably avoided the question.
This year was the 9th Annual Games for Change Festival, and whilst it was the first one we have attended, it is likely to be the first of many visits we will make to the conference. We have to thank everyone involved for such a great conference, especially Michelle Byrd and Asi Burak who worked tirelessly to make it happen. We're already looking forward to G4C 2013!