Gaming For Good: How Social Games May Change the world

Mark Stephens

Gaming means many things to many people: dexterity, brain power, strategy, fun, downtime, relieving the boredom, competition…the list goes on. But there is a growing category of social games aimed firmly at something larger: improving the world. Social games designed to promote specific positive change in the world are appearing more in the game charts, again demonstrating what a powerful medium gaming is these days and how the perception of it has gone through a “makeover” in recent years.


Social Games for Social Change

Helping the people of Haiti after the earthquake; the people of the Philippines after the typhoon; saving the people of Darfur; working for peace in the Middle East; combating racism or sexism; promoting human rights and environmental awareness. These are just some of the topics tackled by social games in recent years.

Evidence of this growing trend was again seen this week with the announcement of the recipients of the ESA LOFT Video Game Innovation Fellowship awards. This is jointly awarded by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and Leaders on the Fast Track (LOFT), who provide grants to 20 minority teens and adults, aged between 16 and 24, who create games addressing social problems in their communities.

These grants are part of a larger movement around the world called Games for Change, which aims to promote social good through social gaming. While the above awards were for US minorities there is a global push along similar lines, recognising that the way to engage people these days, in the age of social media, is by speaking the language that they speak: and many people speak the language of gaming.

The Games for Change Organisation

The Games for Change organisation (G4C) is a worldwide community, based in New York, dedicated to “Catalyzing social impact through Digital Games”. It started in 2004, but the recent explosion in social games has made its work more prominent.

As well as designing and distributing games itself, the organisation provides support, visibility, and resources to other individuals and organisations aiming for similar positive change through gaming. Government agencies and NGOs, such as NASA and the U.N, have benefited from the organisation’s work. Corporations teaching employees how to find solutions for political, social, and financial issues have also benefited.

A previous blog post looked at how the perception of games and gaming has changed over the years. Once shrugged off as rather “mindless” entertainment, gaming has played an important role in learning down the years (think about how children learn) and it is now seeing a resurgence in positive recognition about the good that it does.

On the Games for Change homepage the following statement sums up what a diverse “vehicle” gaming has now become:

“At least two generations of people have grown up with games and … it is part of their DNA to want to express themselves in that form. The bandwidth [of videogame emotion] is usually tension and competition—a sense of aggression. That’s changing.”

Games for Change sees its work as using entertainment to engage people and provide “critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts.” The medium is increasingly accepted but much depends on how the educational system embraces gaming as a learning tool, as pointed out by President Asi Burak:

“Right now, it’s almost like students go to school and go back into a time machine….Someone will close this gap. I think when we see games in the classroom, we’ll have a major breakthrough.”

Entrepreneur and founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell (the “father of the video game industry”), recognises the huge potential that gaming offers for educators:

“Kids don’t like to learn abstract things out of context. A video game presents that context in a very serious way.”

The Game Has Only Just Started…

As well as Games for Change, other prominent organisations like Institute of Play, and the Games for Learning Institute promote games for educational and social action purposes. The Global Gaming Initiative is another interesting development where games are made to incorporate the work of specific charities and fifty percent of the proceeds go to those charities.


The website Purposeful Games lists 170 titles in topics such as Culture, Gender and Race, Global Issues, Human Exploitation, Human Rights, Immigration, Politics & Conflict, Poverty, and Social Environmental Risk.

One New York school has already been founded on the idea that learning needs to be based on the digital needs of the youth. The Quest to Learn school incorporates a video game-based curriculum where students problem-solve in virtual world simulations.

Games are becoming a more natural extension of people’s learning methods, because they play them every day on the social networks. The potential for this is huge – and the feeling is that it has only just started.