The Feel-Good Trap: Games for Change vs. Games for Awareness

Raising awareness with games is all well and good, but does it actually do anything? Perhaps the future of games that improve the world will be found in smaller communities, says Kellian Adams.

Since Jane McGonical’s and Jesse Schell’s 2010 TED talks and the release of their books, games that can change the world have been a hot topic. There’s now the Games for Change conference, Games for Change sandbox get togethers in most cities and the Games for Learning Institute – and this is only the beginning. The question that social gamebuilders need to define now is what do we constitute as change? When we build a game, can we measure the change it inspires? Can we prove it? Can we replicate it? Can we test it?

The dream

Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal, designer of games for change

Recently, I learned something amazing. There is clear, documented evidence that playing a game can change a cancer patient’s adherence to chemotherapy. There’s research on this in the pediatrics journal of medicine. You’ve probably heard of it: it’s called Re-Mission by Hope Labs and if you haven’t heard about it,  you can read about it right here.

It raises the bar and asks us all: what is a real game for change? There are plenty of well-meaning games in the public eye that tackle being environmentally conscious, about understanding poverty and talking honestly about death. But do many recent “games for change” have these laudable characteristics? The game:

- Starts a dialog

- Creates awareness

- Is more about a concept than a goal

- Is a game for everyone to learn from

- It has no political or philosophical bias

The characteristics listed above describe a wonderful game, but one where a socially conscious person somewhat vainly expresses their world views. This is an indie game, a game for art. It may get lots of press. It may be popular, it may be fun, but I think we’re being a little self-congratulatory to call it a game for change. It is a game to change games… not to change the world.

The reality


Grim decisions to be made in SPENT, a game about poverty

Games are very specific tools that ask people to do very specific things: make decisions, tell stories and respond in a very specific way. In light of this- and knowing that games can work to do things like, for example, cure cancer – does creating a game that “raises awareness” and “shows things in a new perspective” really cut it?

The trouble is that a game for real change often has these ugly characteristics.

- It’s created for a very specific community or demographic- so it can’t be picked up and played online without context

- It has goals that can be tested and replicated, which means a possibly narrow scope

- It may not be beautiful, express opinions or even appear to be deep

- It may be played by a thousand people rather than a million and may not get any press at all

- It will probably be created in collaboration with an expert group of caregivers, educators or community leaders that a gamebuilder has to cede some creative control to.

Sounds messy, right? More often than not, there’s not a lot of glory in building games that actually change individual lives and I think we need to be very aware of games for change that look a little too good to be true. As games designers, we need to be even more vigilant about feeling really great about ourselves as a community when a game with an apparent good cause is popular.

This is the trap where we build fluff, tack a cause to it, call it “change” and congratulate ourselves – the kiss of death for any artistic community. The more of these we build, the less we’ll be taken seriously as social leaders who believe that this is a viable way to instigate change.

One key example is SPENT, an online game that allows you to assume the role of a single parent on minimum wage. You need to work, pay your bills and have money at the end of the month. Here is a game-builder’s dream: beautiful, fun, dramatic, factual, emotionally loaded and controversial. Reported by NPR and the Huffington Post and Mashable and played by LOTS of people. It’s award-winning and applauded as one of the first games to really help people to understand poverty.

BUT, before we communally pat ourselves on the back, what is the actual final player goal for SPENT? The player should have some empathy and donate money to Durham Ministries. So the actionable goal is for you to feel a certain way and give money. Otherwise known as… (drumroll please!) advertising.

It’s hard not to feel manipulated


Dys4ia tells the story of a transsexual’s struggle with identity via simple puzzles

It’s a fantastic ad and a very creative approach to advertising but is SPENT a game for change? Does it deserve awards and attention and all of our fawning? Is this what we’re aspiring to? Not to pick on SPENT, there’s a million like it. Unmanned raises awareness on the life of a drone pilot. Dys4ia talks about gender politics. These are all pretty and edgy. They express someone’s opinions and have gotten a lot more press and players than games that are changing people’s actual habits.

Perhaps the solution lies in games with a smaller scope. Take a look at Picture the Impossible in Rochester. This was a community game for the city of Rochester built to test new tools of engagement, generate money for local charities and spark community collaboration to solve problems. Very clear goals, very clear end items and they nailed every one of them.

You may not have heard about this game since only 2500 people in Rochester NY played it. It was messy. It was complicated. It involved multiple points of access, partnerships with Bing, with the local newspaper, local charities, scavenger hunts, brain teasers, clues, live events. These games can be expensive. They’re hard to replicate but it’s real change. As gamebuilders, are we willing to put the time and effort into building a thankless game where we won’t even be talked about in ARGnet?

Liz Lawley was the lead on this game and she posted player testimonials online. As she says “I can’t imagine it gets any better for a game designer than watching videos like these.”

These are testimonials of a family drawn together through the game, a community feeling prouder of their heritage, older people connecting with younger people, a shut-in finding a way to communicate with the world outside. Oh snap, SPENT. This is what a game for change looks like.

Games for change are games for community


Unmanned looks at the moral complications or remote drone warfare

There’s more. Macon Money, a community game in Macon Georgia was another great example of a game for change with real-world deliverables. Here’s a game where the goal was to build community: introduce people to strangers, get them familiar with the downtown and encourage them to shop there. Ghost of a Chance is the classic museum game from the Smithsonian’s Luce Foundation. Through a compelling storyline, people interacted with the museum itself. They went to the space, talked about art online, created and submitted their own art, made friends and not only that, this game encouraged the entire museums community to embrace games as a way to engage visitors.

All of these games had thousands of players, not millions. Not one of them was written about in Penny Arcade. They may not be sexy for gamebuilders, they may not be political or get a lot of attention from Mashable but they do build real communities and affect real people.

SuperBetter, a game which encourages health and fitness but also plans to aid recovery from illnesses, is a game that has a chance to do both of these things. It seems to have real-life, clear, testable deliverables and builds real communities while at the same time is accessible and could potentially be played by millions of people. It’s already being written about on Cnet but it has the star power of Jane McGonical, which helps in terms of press and funding. Still, it’s hopeful.

Fixing the problems


SuperBetter is a game geared around recovery

How could SPENT have been a game for real change? Could we have used it to get people to volunteer their time? Could we have used it to recruit mentors or allies for people who are struggling? How could that game have had lasting power beyond the part where you lose, feel bad that people struggle and then click open the next window to move on to your next task in your busy day? If the problem we wanted to address was poverty and homelessness, how could the game have actually helped solve that problem?

It got people to donate money, which is great. But we need to take a closer look at what we define as a game for change as opposed to documentary games, indie games or advertising games. As gamebuilders, we need to pay attention to what we’re delivering when we say we’re building games for change and make sure we’re building things that can make a real difference. Raising awareness with games is all well and good, but does it actually do anything? Perhaps the future of games that improve the world will be found in smaller communities.