029: What’s the role of games in making social change?

Service icons_podcastGames are fun and social change is serious. Right? We talk with Asi Burak, the president of GamesForChange.org an organization that leads the sector in thinking about the intersection of games and social change. Their annual Games For Change conference brings together the leaders in the gaming and social sector fields to learn about cutting edge advances in the field.

Our conversation covers some examples of successful games and how nonprofits can start exploring gaming for social impact. Creating games can be very expensive, though there can be great upside when it comes to engagement with a target audience and potential growth to a new one.


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Episode 29 – What is the role of games in making social change?

Speaker 1: This is Using the Whole Whale -a podcast that brings you stories of data and technology in the non-profit world. This is George Weiner, your host and the chief whaler of wholewhale.com. Thank you for joining us.

Speaker 1: Games are tremendously powerful and I think most of our interactions with them come in the form of tiny little candies that we slide around and help companies make, you know, billions of dollars crushing those candies. Today I am excited because we are talking with an organization called Games For Change and Asi the president there has lot of insight on how the field has developed and some of the amazing work being done around games that actually impact social change, make behavioral adjustments in the way we think about topics and how those experiences can be designed. We’re gonna jump into an interview with Asi and find out how he thinks about the industry and the true impact that games can have.

Speaker 1: And I’m here with the president of Games For Change. Asi, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do at GFC.

Speaker 2: Sure, thank you George, thank you for speaking with me. My name is Asi and I am running Games For Change almost for the last 5 years. And Games For Change is a non-profit and it’s a non-profit that’s all about the positive power of videogames and the idea that videogames are not only kind of the media of the new generation. They’ve really, have great attributes that traditional media doesn’t necessarily have and some of those could be really related to learning, education and social change, really. And you know we feel it’s untapped. And it was untapped for sometime. And you know we are kind of moving the needle on how many more positive games and games that should make a difference in the world are being published.

Speaker 1: Interesting. So you’re sort of a convener. Can you talk a little bit about how you are actually helping this community? How you think about it and what are the metrics you look for as you try to create more games that change?

Speaker 2: Right so that’s a great question, because especially in the non-profit world, how do you measure your success when youre not necessarily the one that is directly helping an underserved community and can watch it at all times. We’re just like you said much more of a convener, we’re much more of the hub and we’re much more of a platform for others to shine. But over the years you know we got pretty sophisticated on that. It took us 10 years, but what started as a conference, you know, and grew up to be much more than that. So, you know, we obviously measure how many people we convene together and this is one of our best opportunities to bring the best work being done. And to bring together people from different communities, so obviously we know how many people attend, how many people engage but then we started to do calculation. So for example every year, which choose the best games out there and right now we have on the website more than 130 games. And we know how many people view them, how many people play them and we’re really trying to bring kind of the best tools. So we are helping here the players, but you’re also helping the developers obviously to get more eyeballs. Then another new thing we started recently is to do the public arcade. So again though we’re the convener, we’re the hub, it’s actually putting us in a great position to take out some work and put it in a physical location. So we did it with the Smithsonian in Washington DC, we did it obviously with Tribeca in New York city. But the idea that we actually can get work and put it on almost like on the strip for people to access. It’s almost like, you know, to put it kind of a, to frame it, its moving from a place of advocacy in big type, in big slogans into a place where we’re actually reaching consumers. We’re letting developers reach consumers and we’ve a very good idea on how many people we’ve reached.

Speaker 1: I love this. The idea of look we’re gonna get the players, we’re gonna get the creators and we’re gonna get the non-profits all together, helping them in unique ways and setting up these like pop-up arcades sounds brilliant but you know, I’m like, pac-man fighting hunger. I don’t get it, Asi. Can you give me an example how one of these games is making a real impact on the world other than,like give me like a good time?

Speaker 2: Yeah, you know one of the .. it’s interesting, you know, another thing that’s got much more sophisticated is also you know the nature of the games. In the beginning it was really kind of what you described,almost lets take something that was really successful in real life, in the commercial world like Candy Crush Saga and lets put it in a new skin and it’s going to be around the nation. You know its kind of the first level. The people started to be very sophisticated, started to work with better game designers. So one example I want to give you is Never Alone. Never Alone is a game that is this year’s nominee in two categories in Game For Change. And it was done, it’s a pretty unique partnership between a company in New York – a game company and non-profit organizations that represent the tribes in Alaska, Native American Tribes. And the non-profit you know, they had a very clear mission of can we connect our youth to the stories of our elders. Can we preserve the culture, can we make it more, can we give it the spice and compelling nature of new media, you know. So you take something that is so old and so traditional and so deep in the culture and can we put it in a video game. Huge success and not only did they sold real copies, I mean the game just won slew of awards including the Bafta last month. And it’s a very, very compelling platformer with great music, great art.


Speaker 1: You were just telling us about the it’s got great music, it’s got great art. Can you talk a little bit about the game like, what is the Never Alone game like? What am I doing?

Speaker 2: Right, so you’re playing a 2 characters. You can play them solo or you can play them someone else, in kind of the coplaying mode. You’re playing a little bear and you’re playing a fox, which later on you discover that it has some magical powers. But the idea is that you kind of going through this story, the real elder’s story about the struggle of this little bear and the struggle is around the enemies of the community but it’s also against the forces of nature. You know the storm and the snow and the winds. And she goes and discovers how the storm is actually created by this giant hammering the snow mountain. And it’s beautifully done. I like all those stories in a way I think probably the people who commissioned the game didn’t even imagine it’s possible. And there’s something about the perspective, that there is something you enter shoes that otherwise you wouldn’t experience.

Speaker 1: Yeah so as we are talking about, you know, I had it, you know, going through this mystical landscape. I got a magical fox. You know you’re gonna have a good time. What is some of the like as we move into evaluation, you know like, nice but so what? Like that’s nice but so what? Like how does this particular game approach that?

Speaker 2: Yes so in this case it’s definitely a game that is, there is a scale of how much preachy you are versus how much entertaining you are. It’s definitely more on the entertaining side. And it’s good to see those examples as well, you know, because we also have the other examples of the house, more like the Broccoli example. And in this case you know, what they did for example, which is very smart, is they made you unlock documentary – many documentaries throughout the game. So one of their measurements is, when you make progress in the game itself, you actually unlock those educational pieces and watch them. And they know exactly how many people complete them, and how many people watch them. And they actually got great results by that. But they also added layers of traditional evaluation, so if you think about it, we treat those games as any other program. So you measure in weather it’s pre and post, weather it’s A versus B control groups, you can actually measure how people are influenced. And what do they think, how does it change their perspective? It’s a pretty new game so I don’t have the latest metrics. I’m happy to share metrics of other examples, that have bit more, kind of depth in the market.

Speaker 1: I think that really helps to say that alright look you know this is somewhere on a spectrum between really just entertaining versus preachy. Right like just these watch documentaries which no one gonna sit there and watch them all. Can you talk a bit more about why package it in a game. Is there something you need to a game play experience rather than some other dynamics to get people to watch you know documentaries to make a behavioral change afterward?

Speaker 2: Yes, so it’s a great question and a question that we’re thinking about a lot and one of the projects that we’ve done, so you know we said we’re convener but let’s put in a star next to it and say there was one exception that we worked with Nicholas Kristof and shared [within around the Half the Sky] and made the series of games. And that was a great example because there was a documentary. They wrote a book, a non-fiction book and there were games. And then we could actually compare over time to what the games do that the other media doesn’t. And again it’s not about being better, it’s about being different, right? And sometimes we actually say that the full package is stronger than the sum of it’s parts, you know the components are actually making each other stronger. So the game lives in a larger context. It’s much stronger than if it was a standalone. Most specifically I would say that the game reached people that the other media didn’t. Just by their nature of games they reach all the youngsters that are not necessarily interested in the cause. So it’s like reaching beyond the converted. And many people that came into the game after sky never have heard about this book or this documentary. Didn’t necessarily care about women issues. So you really came to people that just want to play a game and kind of got them into this, excited about this. You know the list is long but it’s all about the fact that games are interactive and movies and books and stories are not. And what happens when you use interactive is that you’re actually making decisions, you can understand consequences, you can play different roles and you’re making the story. You’re basically influencing it. And if it’s a good game, you know, it’s not just a quiz that tells you this is right, this is wrong, if it’s a good game, it actually gives you the boundaries. It gives you kind of a sandbox to play in. And this is how the world is, right. The world is full of trade-offs, the world is full of tough decisions, it’s not only about do this, don’t do this. And this is great in games, there’s place to explore, there’s place to test, place to fail, you know safely. And that’s why they’re great, so great for learning and learners, because, you know you don’t have it other medias. In other medias you’re telling some people, and here you actually showing them.

Speaker 1: So it sounds like when we embark down the, should I create a game, the upside here is, look you can expose yourself and your content to a new audience and also a whole other depth of experience. It’s not passive, it’s active. And when you’re active it sounds like you’re talking about making decisions, consequences, provides us opportunity to fail, to test and to learn at a unique level.

Speaker 2: Absolutely, I mean second everything, everything you just recapped. I think it’s also about, what for me is exciting about games. It’s almost like it’s an evolving medium. You know it’s still relatively young and because of technology, it just like what happens two years from now is going to be so different. You know if we talked 5 years ago, the context was- “Wait you want non-profits now to make games for you know, PCs and compete with commercial companies?”. But in 2015 the context is now everybody plays games, you know people play on their mobile, people play on Facebook. Games’ become much cheaper to make, distribution is becoming much easier. Indie game makers are coming along and then you know you don’t need necessarily a big company to make your game. So even those changes in the medium, I think are working really, really to our benefit. The idea that they’re becoming more social, they’re becoming more out there, they’re becoming more connected to reality. You know many non-profits in our community are starting to explore the what wasn’t there 5 years ago but is in 2015 makes more sense is how the virtual and the physical are connected. How can you make donations but even more than that you know we have a game nominated this year that it’s about heart beats. It’s actually connected to your biofeedback from the heart you know, the game itself is responsive to your heart rate. So you start to see those things that to me are even more exciting because they are breaking the screen and they’re taking out to the real world and to action. Right?


Speaker 1: You had me at hello. So I’m a non-profit and I want it, I want to start creating a game, I have no clue where to start, I feel like you’ve been talking about nominated for things. Is there some sort of conference, that I could may be check out?

Speaker 2: Oh, good that you ask about it. So it’s actually a great timing because our annual event is happening in April. It came a long way since it started. Now we’re talking about a conference that is over 4 days, 3 of those days are for professionals. So 3 of those days when I say professionals it’s not necessarily game makers, I mean, more than 50% of our audience are actually coming from the non-profits and education side. And people that usually don’t have experience with games. This one thing that’s kind of unique about this conference that you know people that are coming from games meet the people that are coming from the causes. And you need both to make a good project. The 3 days event, I mean you can obviously look at online at Game For Change, Games For Change festival but just to give you a few bits you know, we’re going to have to chief scientist of Oculus Rift, talking about the future of virtual reality. We’re going to have Nicholas Kristof talking about his experience with games. We’re going to have Morgan Sperlock, you know the filmmaker of Supersize Me, talking about media and impact. We’re going to have game companies like the creator of Angry Birds coming to do a keynote, coming all the way from Finland to speak about how they moved into education and doing a lot in learning with Angry Bird. You know just few examples, but this is the type of top leadership we bring in. And then the fourth day is a public day, it’s open to the public, it’s part of the Tribeca Fair and then it’s not only 900 people, it’s just thousands and thousands of families that are coming to this fair and we’re on a street, we literally have a block and we put the games out there and everybody can come, it’s on the 25th, April 25th and anybody can come and experience first hand. By the way there we also do some non-digital, so there is a whole section of our community that are you not necessarily doing things with technology, doing very interesting things with physical playing. I can give you some examples of the idea is really about, you know, people playing industries.

Speaker 1: Alright, so I’ll come out and say ask you, Asi we have a bit of a history. We worked together, so is there any sort of discount I can get out of you for our audience?

Speaker 2: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. For many reasons I would say yes and I would love to, you know, work offline and give you some code that will be very unique to the people who listen to your podcast and part of your community, maybe even we’ll be able to send something message and then it will give people you know, at least 10% off the tickets and all the information they need. And again I mean this our mission. Our mission is to spread the news and give people a good experience.

Speaker 1: Awesome, so we’ll have that on our site now covered that for folks. As we move and wrap up here Asi I think there’s lot of not for profits listening to being this sounds like something like that may be in 10 years we will get to it. Like how would somebody even begin to explore what a game would look like for their organization?

Speaker 2: Yeah, so this is interesting. We had to deal with it for a while because we get 5 inquiries a week. People come to us, large or small non-profits that say you know I want to make a game, or where do I even start. And what we did, we developed a methodology that I am happy to share with you, it’s obviously public. On how to approach it strategically, what are the right questions to ask. We call it the 8 step methodology. So we kind of condense it to 8 steps of what you need to define very well. And you know we kind of guide non-profits through that. And sometimes we actually work with the organizations. We either direct them to the right places, like in matchmaking, or in some cases we even engage in some advising and this is to say, you know, that you don’t necessarily need to make a game, to recognize that you need to add game thinking to the organization. And to unpack it what I mean by that is that, it’s one thing to say that oh I have nothing, let’s make a huge game and it would take us a year, then to say, let’s do a workshop, let’s see maybe we’ll do something that just is about gaming elements added into something we already have. Maybe it’s just about, you know, training our communication people in what games are and how to think about games. Our experience is when ever we did any engagement with a non-profit it will always coming back as “Wow, it’s a whole world I never thought about.” And I see so many connections to what we do, beyond just thinking about making a new game.

Speaker 1: Oh this is great, I think GFC is doing some amazing work in reminding not for profits working on, you know, sometimes very serious causes, that it’s ok to use elements of fun to engage and access a new audience. Bring it to deeper levels of engagement. Asi I love what you’re doing over there. Can you please finish with just how people find you online, how they reach you?

Speaker 2: Thank you George, I enjoyed the conversation. So you know its pretty easy, its gamesforchage.org and the festival would be gamesforchage.org/festival and you know, anyone could and should reach us by writing to our contact email and you know we are very busy producing this festival and a lot is going to happen there in April. But we’re all year around really in the business of helping the non-profits to navigate this territory, you know, so that’s what we are here for.

Speaker 1: Great. Thanks Asi.

Speaker 2: Thank you so much man.

Speaker 1: Thanks buddy.

Speaker 2: Bye. Bye.

Speaker 1: Alright so if you are anything like me, you are now like, oh my gosh, like I kinda want to go out there and create a game. Let’s go and feel this thing out. And I ended the conversation with Asi there deliberately saying like look how do we get started thinking about this. Because I’ll be honest you know, going out and creating a game is expensive. It’s not just like the initial startup cost of alright let’s figure out our gaming platform and the strategy and the impact modelling that says, alright if you do a game experience like this we would get this type of result. It’s not only that but it’s then the maintenance of it. Like if we get into mobile gaming, are you ready for the different platforms. So I don’t want to scare you off from this but let’s just say there is tremendous upside but also go in with your eyes open. I strongly recommend talking to folks that have done it already. Go to this conference, look for the resources online, you’d just know what you don’t know about this topic because there is a lot of strength here. We’ll have that discount that Asi talked about, that 10% discount if you go to wholewhale.com/podcast and look for this episode number 29. And you know what, happy gaming for change out there. Hopefully this is helpful. Thanks for listening.

This is been Using the Whole Whale. For more resources on today’s show please visit wholewhale.com/podcast and consider following us on twitter @wholewhale and thanks for joining us.

The festival will be from the 21st to the 23rd and then on the 25th (of april) in New York City. Again you’ll find some details on our site for this podcast episode number 29, Games For Change. Hope you can make it.