Given the preeminence and brand power of shoot-‘em-up franchises like Call of Duty and Borderlands, it’s hard to think of video games as potential tools for understanding. The industry that created Trump surrogate Duke Nukem, after all, has not always prioritized empathy. But that is changing, as game makers diversify, bringing different goals — political and financial — to their work. Video games are becoming catalysts for social change, preparing players to emotionally handle heavy realities like love, bullying, and suicide, while bridging certain gaps. The nonprofit Games for Change has been quietly overseeing this renaissance, rewarding innovators and attempting to gin up more interest in games with positive real-world application.
And it’s not the uphill battle you might think. In fact, war metaphors need not apply.
Now in its 13th year, the Games for Change festival, which is about to roll into New York, is all about networking, talking, and sharing research, which increasingly demonstrates that so-call “serious gaming” can profoundly affect the minds of serious gamers. The idea is not to create a crunchy E3 or to aggressively eschew brand marketing. The idea, according to Games for Change president Susanna Pollack, is to talk about a revolution in entertainment that hasn’t yet arrived — to talk about games that allow players to level up.
Inverse spoke to Pollack about her work and the idealism of the video game generation.
You’re an ex-BBC person with a lot of media experience under your belt. Why games?
To me, games are the forefront of innovation and storytelling — such a creative and kind of natural way to connect with audiences in a very playful, but at the same time, meaningful way. That’s what really drove me to wanting to join this organization. To me, it’s one of the most exciting forms of entertainment out there, and to marry that with social good, where else would I want to be?
Why do you think social impact and serious games are having such a moment right now? From an outsider perspective, it seems like there’s been this meeting point of rapid technology advancement along with research proving that these games really work.
I think there’s also third factor: We have a generation now of young people who really believe that they can have an impact on the world. I think there’s a natural appetite for entertainment and engagement opportunities that have meaning and value. Using general entertainment as a platform to raise awareness on issues is not anything new — film, namely documentaries, has been a medium that has embraced social issues as fodder for content and connecting people. I think now with games being as ubiquitous as they are and the demographics of who plays expanding, that you have half the population playing games and who are interested in more than just entertainment.
Games off this interactive experiences for audience members that is more dynamic. All this new technology definitely impacts the growth of social impact games, but I think it really comes down to the idea that people have an interest in being engaged with the world.
What is Games for Change’s role as an incubator of new games?
We engage in that process as being a kind of conduit for new games. We run a series of challenges on behalf of partners who are interested in creating games concepts around issues, who then very often find a project that they’ll then go and fund. We are currently very close to completing a challenge about climate change on behalf of Autodesk. Intel, Dell, and NVIDIA are also involved, as well as a not-for-profit organization called Polar Partners. And what they wanted to do was encourage a conversation within the gaming development community around climate change and help support some great ideas so that these game concepts can ultimately be made.
We did a similar challenge with N Square, a collaborative that are involved in the interest of nuclear security — we ran a challenge with them around nuclear issues. That games concept was actually made by a woman who worked within policy, had a great understanding of games, and wrote this fantastic games concept. She won the $10,000 prize and then we connected her project with a known gave developer who built a prototype around that games. We’re helping N Square now finding the funding to make that game a reality.
Do you ever find that it’s a challenge trying to communicate the work that you are doing with the general audience?
I think we’re in the same boat as all the other independent developers who are launching games. We do very much benefit from our partnerships with companies like American Express and organizations like the National Park Service, which can leverage these communication channels in order to build awareness around these games. But I also have noticed that some of the platforms, publishers, and hardware developers are developing social good strategies as well — which is really encouraging. You’ve got “VR for Good” by Oculus; you’ve got Google’s service initiatives. So it’s encouraging to see that these platforms are not only going to support social impact content, but also with its distribution.
You have the Games for Change festival coming up, June 23 and 24. Is there a part of the festival that you’re most excited about?
Oh, there’s so much I’m looking forward to. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to interview Sid Meier from the Civilization series. He’s been such a force and such an inspiration to gaming developers and players for decades — he will be our closing speaker on our first day and talk about the impact that Civilization has had. It wasn’t made as a social impact game, yet there’s so many aspects of that game which have contributed to society.
We also have really interesting speakers who are not even from the game space — that’s what so interesting about the Games for Change festivals. These are stakeholders and funders who are realizing how important games are to their audiences. We have the chairman from the National Endowment of Humanities coming and who will talk about ways to get Americans to engage in the humanities. We will have the president of the Girls Scouts of America who will talk about STEM and games they are developing to get girls to think about coding. Another exciting speaker is Graeme Devine, the Chief Game Wizard of Magic Leap.
Oh wow — what a title.
I know, right? The best title ever. Magic Leap has been so secretive for the past several years and they’ve just started to come out and tell their story. We’re very excited to have him on the stage and talk about the opportunities with virtual reality and education.
This year the festival is focusing on three specific tracks: civics and social impact, neurogaming and health, and games for learning. How did you whittle down the different social impact themes to get to these?
I think it was a natural progression to the kind of programming that we were curating in a single experience. We’ve always had civic and social issues as a focus for Games of Changes — I think that’s been the heart of what Games of Change has been. We had some focus on learning typically in each festival — two or three sessions would be about games in the classroom. But the health and neurogaming focus really kind of exploding this year because of the recent explosion in technology and research going into these games, particularly when it comes to neuroscience and cognitive development. There’s so much to say in that space and I think it’s just really cutting edge and cool.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.