The Complicated Truth Behind Games That Want To Change The WorldS

If you listen closely to those who advocate for games as a worthwhile medium, you can sense the hope that games will change the world. Either society becomes enraptured by the possibilities that interactivity presents, or games become another avenue for making a difference—if not both. We stand on the precipice of public awareness when it comes to the merits of interactivity. Everyone and their grandmother plays games now, after all. The second hope is more complicated, but no less achievable despite constant allegations that games are a shallow medium or worse, may negatively affect our kids.

And why wouldn't it be attainable? Throughout history, media has had the capacity to profoundly change public perception if not catalyze change. A video helped win an election. A book is said to have started the civil war. An image pressured a country into reform. A game, hypothetically, could join such a cadre. The potential games hold in this regard isn't unique, though the medium does have special strengths. Games are media, and they can have a message, so they can be agents of change. Unconventional ones, sure—but I can't help but recall MTV's Stephen Friedman once saying, "Activism needs to be rethought and reinvented with each generation."

Last week I got an email from Last Pick Productions, a studio from Vancouver, B.C. that, despite having a small development team, boasts talent that has worked on the brutally violent Shank. Like many cities, Vancouver is a bustling, wonderful place...which also happens to have a homeless problem. Recent government cuts have caused homeless shelters to go unfunded, allowing for the unfortunate doubling of the homeless population.

Predictions for the improvement of these conditions are grim, which is unsurprising—and not just because of lack of governmental support. Homelessness suffers from an invisibility problem: not only does the average person dislike dealing with homeless people (aggressive panhandlers! crazy, scary bums! get out of here!), the fabricated appearance of homelessness is so specific, we often don't realize the true face of the demographic it affects. Single mothers. War veterans. Mental health patients. Refugees. Children. Entire families.

Where Games Stumble On Representing Issues

Traditionally, outreach and awareness efforts for a complex problem like homelessness have taken forms we are acquainted with: volunteering, donating, and producing media. Last Pick Production isn't doing these things. Instead, they want to make a game. It's called iBeg. Kind of a flippant name, eh?

Still, the studio echoes the same confidence I expressed earlier about the power of video games in progressive efforts, their Kickstarter noting that they can be "tools used to spread awareness of social issues and foster people into taking action." Chris Worboys, lead designer at the studio, came up with the concept earlier this year after witnessing homelessness on his daily commute.

The same Kickstarter page says the game aims to put players "in the shoes of someone down on their luck, so they could experience the struggles of life on the streets," and in email correspondence Worboys told me he hoped the game would make people "look up from their phone and think twice about the person sleeping on the sidewalk, and the hardships they endure on a daily basis." Should they succeed, the mobile game features microtransactions that will be used to help people who struggle with homelessness.

The Complicated Truth Behind Games That Want To Change The WorldS

That all sounds swell, but taking a closer look at the game, I felt uncomfortable about it. The name alone is wince-inducing, yes—why can't we let the whole "i__" die? But beyond this, I began thinking about other possible issues: does the game's cute pixel art detract from the bleak reality of the issue? "There is a balance that we have to maintain between keeping the game engaging enough for players to want to keep playing it, but also introduce them to all of the negative things that homeless people have to go through," Worboys explained. Then I began wondering: maybe such a concession was necessary, because it helped make the game more palatable for people who may not want to deal with the full weight of the issue. Games like to function as escapism and feel-goodery, after all.

And looking at the alpha of the game, the mechanics seemed to not capture the complexity of homelessness. It seemed like a normal game where you manage a few stats (happy, healthy, clean) and the ways to do that were straightforward and simple. You can game them. Play guitar as a homeless street performer for long enough, for example, and you "level up" and manage to take in 10% more income than before. Did I mention that when you start playing an instrument, nearly everyone stops and at least jams to it? If only it was that easy!

I polled Twitter to see how they felt about iBeg—maybe I was being unfair and harsh on an uncompleted game, even though I don't think criticisms erase the fact that a title like this can still do good. Whenever someone tries to make a difference, the first criticism that arises is that they're not doing enough. Still, the overall consensus was that there's little value in diffusing the message in important issues, and that trivializing the elements of homelessness does not actually help them. "People are dying this very second," said a friend, which, though dramatic, is entirely correct.

The Wider Issue: Politics, Publishers and More

But ultimately the problems that iBeg faces, surely, are not specific to iBeg—and I don't want to skewer them in an issue that is actually larger than the game itself. Making a serious game that confronts real-world issues is difficult enough, nevermind a game that tries to actively make a difference. How do you do that with a game? How would you even measure the engagement or impact, especially in the age of slacktivism? And does the prospect of enacting change like this have the same pitfalls that technology-centric if not social-media-centric solutions typically have?

Recalling a collective that deals with games like iBeg, I ended up speaking to Asi Burak, the co-president and spokesperson from Games For Change. The purpose of the group is lofty: to support and create social impact games which can be used in humanitarian if not educational efforts. Think games that could help feed someone in a developing country, like in FreeRice. Or games like iCivics, which was thought up by ex Supreme Justice Sandra Day O'Connor after watching her grandkids play video games and realizing that while kids don't understand government, they do understand media. "Compare a game to a textbook," Burak posed to me, "What would a kid want to do?"

Games for Change advocate for games because they don't think games should be perceived any differently or any less seriously than other media. "[Games are] interactive, they're engaging. Compare a game you can play for two days to a documentary for two hours," Burak posed. Put that way, the possibilities are eye-opening: if we are willing to spend hundreds of hours shooting aliens and tending to farms—if a game was good or interesting enough—we could spend that much time doing some tangible good in the world while playing games. With games where the rewards correlate to direct benefits to specific causes, like the microtransactions in iBeg, the impact is immediately clear.

Asi Burak, a co-president of Games for Change, does not have the background of a typical games industry person. Before he attended Carnegie Mellon eight years ago, he grew up in Israel, where he ended up serving in the Israeli Intelligence Corps during the Gulf War. What exactly he did while he was there, he's not allowed to say—but it's likely related to gathering if not analyzing information. [Correction: Initially this listed Burak as a founder for Games For Change, not a co-president. Michelle Byrd is the other co-president.]

Despite growing up playing games in the 80s, he didn't necessarily know he wanted to make games. "But I've always had a passion to combine entertainment with meaning," Burak clarified. He enrolled in a program called Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon, which aimed to bring art and science together, a marriage that was novel at the time. "The idea," he explained to me, "was that you put together people who do projects—you don't write a paper, you go out there and do things." He didn't foresee it, but the result of this program would put Burak on the path to eventually joining the Games For Change non-profit—though before this, he created a for-profit company called Impact Games.

I initially reached out to Asi over email, where he told me that my concerns were on-point for games like iBeg. "Some of the topics you raise are at the core of what developers and funders of social impact games face every day."

Bringing It Together In A Game

Later, when I spoke to him over the phone, he told me about two of the most common missteps in progressive games that he's seen during his ten years at Games For Change—where he sees hundreds of submissions that seek the group's endorsement. "Sometimes, the content is too thin: it's fun to play, you get a developer that knows how to make a good game, but the impact and subject of the game is very light." On the other extreme were games that "are too heavy, almost like a PSA where the game is the afterthought."

What I feared with iBeg—a compromised message—isn't typical, Burak told me. Usually a title is more likely to overlook the game part than it is the message. The message is the easy part, people come in knowing what they'd like to say.

Balance is nonetheless difficult, and few games nail it. "I'll be very honest about it," Burak sighed, "we have about 150 games on our website since 2004. In a year we have up to 100 submissions, and we select up to 15 nominees...that's probably the amount of good games for change out there every year. They're great, they're getting better, but it's not enough. Ten games a year is nothing." Still, the games that do come to the surface, like Mollieindustria's Unmanned, are nothing short of remarkable—but imagine if it wasn't just a handful of games every year. Games could be a force for change that couldn't be ignored.

Making a serious game that confronts real-world issues is difficult enough, nevermind a game that tries to actively make a difference.

Fascinatingly, the people most involved in this space aren't the typical players that you and I might know. For all the clamoring and pleas to take games seriously, to recognize games as media with potential, gamers are often the least supportive of games being embraced by the wider public, or games that could make a difference.

"They think that the games are low quality, they treat it as a lesser...they say they're not games, they say they're garbage, just because they're not as sophisticated. But I think that they're unique, they can reach different audiences, that's valuable," Burak said. Typically, the arguments surrounding "it's not a game" are nothing but eye-rolling semantics—but what happens when we disown efforts that seek to make the world a better place through the medium? Is that really something the industry doesn't want to be a part of?

Perhaps what the hardcore gamer thinks doesn't matter, because that's not really who these games are targeting most of the time, Burak revealed to me. What games for social change want to capitalize on is the opportunity to reach people that couldn't be reached any other way—that's not necessarily the average gamer. "How can we reach people who never read, people who don't care about the New York Times?" Where traditional media fails is where games can come in, Burak hopes.

Publisher Hesitancy

Publishers, meanwhile, are similarly aversive—and when these entities dare not touch serious political issues, much less take a particular stand on anything controversial, perhaps this is predictable. Still, Burak found this out the hard way when Impact Games pitched PeaceMaker, a game that simulates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Publishers rejected it, though his development group went on to make the game happen anyway.

"In the commercial game industry, you know that if you want to get to the audiences, you get a publisher. You have clear cut channels. You got to steam, for example. In our space, we don't have that. You need to figure it out yourself, you need to make all those partnerships," Burak lamented.

Most of the people seeking to make games for change aren't people who play games, either. This is why games for social change sometimes stumble on the "game" part, the people coming in sometimes don't know what a game designer is or even why they're important. It's like bizarro game development, where the writers are the linchpins and the designers may not even be considered as a part of the process, not the other way around.

It's like bizarro game development, where the writers are the linchpins and the designers may not even be considered as a part of the process, not the other way around.

Even those who get involved in this space who are acquainted with games sometimes also have trouble thanks to how different the process is. "Commercial companies are often surprised, because they have their process for making a commercial game, they have their own craft. They come over here and it's like no, the content you make for a game like this can't work like that...this involves real issues and people not some, say, sci-fi fantasy stuff."

The key to being loyal to the subject matter, to do it justice, Burak told me, is to carefully construct the goals of the game. "Will play might run counter to the aims? Yes. But we ask, what are the goals you're trying to achieve? Behavior change? Awareness? Can you make sure that the gameplay is lined with those impact objectives?"

"For people outside of games, it's all about story, script. And it's one of the things we say right away is that no, games are mostly about action, about choice and feedback. Those actions need to align with what you're trying to achieve."

Again, This Is A Game We're Talking About

It's not enough for a game to be thematically or ludically about an issue, it has to engage people in ways specific to the subject. When even triple-A games like BioShock or Uncharted famously have trouble matching narrative and gameplay, one can only imagine how difficult this might be for an unconventional game that has no precedent. You can't just take inspiration from something else in your genre, because it's possible that it doesn't exist!

The Complicated Truth Behind Games That Want To Change The WorldS

I spoke about these concerns with Mattie Brice, social justice activist and game critic, and she told me that part of the issue was that games, social impact titles or no, approach topics as themes to dole out through dialogue and cutscenes, but not through actions—methods which do not take advantage of the medium's strengths. She figures the best way to fix this is through design, like Burak suggests.

As an example—because some games do manage to nail harmony between ideas and mechanics—she brought up the tower defense game Sweatshop. The game aims to educate players on workplace conditions around the world. "I think its strength comes from putting you in the role of the manager, someone who is still a guilty party but has some capacity for empathy," she explained. "The game forces you to be efficient and min/max to keep profits high, and usually has you doing some unethical things to your workers. Instead of having an artificial story put on top of a detached mechanic or so, the game twists how you already interact with tower defense and uses that to create a connection to what's going on."

Finding The Balance Between Game Developers And Social Activists

Beyond harmony between the elements, another important element to the development of social impact games is that the process cannot be detached from the people and issues it serves—in fact, they have to be involved in the development. I'm reminded of a panel at Indiecade, where game designer Anna Anthrophy urged developers to stop assuming identities and to instead seek consultation from the people depicted—which is to say, having more women, queers and minorities involved in the development process.

It's a simple solution, and yet one that developers seem to continually trip on as evidenced by the bevy of "other" characters written by privileged straight white dudes. Inclusion is worth little if the depiction is not faithful, and it can't be faithful if the game's perspective is filtered through someone who at best can only pontificate the experience.

The last crucial element in the development of games like iBeg has to do with evaluation. The efficacy of the projects should be measured—how else will you know if your ideas are working? More importantly, in a nascent field such as this, any knowledge on how to improve in the future is invaluable—it can help pave the way for more strategic, if not bigger campaigns. Regrettably, most projects don't budget any money for this research—be it professional or in-house.

Inclusion is worth little if the depiction is not faithful, and it can't be faithful if the game's perspective is filtered through someone who at best can only pontificate the experience.

"They burn all their energy on development" Burak elucidated, "They are focused on making a good game, or in being sensitive to the subject." Those who do include it end up conducting what is basically scientific research through professional groups such as HopeLab, with control groups and everything. It's not common, and from what Burak told me, part of the problem is that the research isn't cheap.

Ultimately, "a game is not a standalone," Burak explained. All media is a part of a larger conversation, which may have keystones—but they can't have impact without having the groundwork and precedent beforehand. "There's almost the expectation that games will do everything by themselves," Burak remarked, "but transmedia goes after everything: books, a movie...all these things together will reach different audiences." It's not that games are better than other media for the purposes of social justice, but that they provide another avenue for the cause to advance.

As an example, Burak told me about his latest project, which is a transmedia venture for the best-selling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book sparked an ambitious movement that seeks to end oppression of women and girls worldwide, and the game is a part of other efforts, like a PBS documentary. The outreach does not begin or end with the game, but it is nonetheless furthered—and that's the important part.

Like I suspected, games in the vein of iBeg show huge promise, if done right. "People need to be serious about how they approach [development of social impact games]" Burak declared.

Thoughts From Skeptical Homeless Shelter Employees

Still, I couldn't shake off the feeling that there's something wrong about arguing what may or may not be best for a group of people I'm frankly detached from in my day-to-day life. I decided to visit a homeless shelter in downtown Berkeley, California.

"Hippies" and "Berkeley" go together like daisies in hair, and Berkeley is still famed for being a radical city with politically spirited citizens. Walking through Shattuck Avenue it becomes obvious that Berkeley is the perennial West-Coast college town, with no shortage of eateries, bars, movie theaters and trees that shed auburn leaves that could grace the cover of any college pamphlet.

But for all the hoohah around progressiveness, the city is not welcoming to the myriad of downtrodden homeless that populate its parks and streets. Police cars like to circle areas of interest like vultures, making many of my park visits feel high strung despite having no malicious intentions. As I looked for a coffeeshop to write this, I walked by a number of bright orange posters colonizing storefronts, arguing for and sometimes against "measure S." Currently the birthplace of the free-speech movement is in the middle of controversy surrounding changing policies regarding the homeless, some wanting to enact measures that would number the homeless in an attempt to better dictate when the homeless can be in the city.

The gradient of people buzzing through downtown Berkeley is remarkable. You've got your bevy of yuppie hipsters that gravitate to Berkeley culture. Then there's the students, who are sometimes difficult to tell apart from some of the homeless wandering the streets thanks to lack of personal upkeep and questionable fashion choices. This isn't helped by the startlingly young age of the homeless, who are often college-aged. Though downtown is bursting with the homeless, passersby somehow manage to walk by as if the homeless were no more visible than a lamppost, a trashcan, or gum mashed to the pavement. The fact that this is possible is astonishing, as to me it seemed impossible not to notice.

They had no idea what Gawker was, much less Kotaku, and they seemed bewildered by the idea that I was there for a video game of all things.

Walking to a local homeless shelter, I passed by a defeated-looking man who idly sat next to a sign that said, "Too lazy to rob people, too ugly to prostitute," a young man who had tarot cards that would read the future of those willing to donate, a girl no more than eight sitting atop blankets clutching a laptop, and a bright young woman with a downtrodden dog beside a sign that said, "testing human kindness."

The shelter itself was just a couple of blocks from this scene, in the basement of a city building only accessible through an obscured back door. Had a lady from the shelter not caught me staring at the building blankly, unsure of where to go (all the front doors are mysteriously locked), I'd never have been able to find where I needed to go on my own.

Down there I found an office that seemed too large for just a few people, but it was also near the end of the work day. I entered a cubicle with a couple of case workers blasting 2 Chainz and a lightbulb that couldn't decide if it wanted to be fully on or not. They had no idea what Gawker was, much less Kotaku, and they seemed bewildered by the idea that I was there for a video game of all things. Unsure of what to do, it was decided that I should see their supervisor instead, so I sat down and showed them the video on the Kickstarter page of iBeg while we waited.

"They're making...a video game?" the caseworker chuckled. I asked his name, but he mumbled it while we watch the video, so I didn't catch it.
"Yeah! Or, well, raising the money to make one."
"That money is going toward a video game?" He pointed to the four thousand dollars iBeg has raised.
"Yeah. What could that money do if it went toward a homeless shelter?" I wondered.

He seemed to briefly go into deep thought before shaking his head, then told me he'd finish watching the video at home and that it's likely his supervisor wasn't coming back for the day. I left with a phone number and the feeling that they thought it was silly that a game like this exists, and that once I left they could get back to the real work.

The next day I finally got to chat with the supervisor, named Jo Ferrlette. He told me that their agency does a number of services for the homeless (largely African American men), ranging from helping them manage money, helping them look for living spaces, washing their clothes, and providing them with lockers to store things. Aside from this, they are active on campaigns that raise awareness of the issue of homelessness.

I ask him if he would use a video game for the purposes of raising awareness. He responds sternly, despite telling me that he does like video games and that he enjoys titles like FIFA and Madden.

"No. I don't think you could accurately express the experience of homelessness through a video game. A video game would make light of the situation. Homelessness is very serious. If someone has fun playing that thing, it may do more harm than good."

He then spends a few minutes methodically telling me of all the good the money raised for the game could do in the hands of a homeless shelter like his. It seemed to me that the gameplan for extra money is one he's meticulously thought of before, but he hasn't had the opportunity to make those plans a reality. Lack of funding, I assumed.

But if there's something I learn from this exchange, it's that both critic and activist alike agree: though concessions may be taken, there's always just a little more that could be done to further a cause.

Like Jo, there's bound to be people who are wary of using games to tackle issues that they think are too serious for a game to properly handle. Unfortunately this is but one of the challenges that games like iBeg face. If they manage to pull off the politics, overcome publisher adversity, and the seemingly disparate notions of a solid game with a good message, then maybe games can change the world. Until then, developers will struggle to find that balance.

(Top photo: Shutterstock)