This past week, I’ve been enjoying the Games for Change Festival – highly recommend it to anyone thinking about how to use technology for positive social change. The festival brings together a vibrant, creative community of game developers and researchers that have a lot to say not just about how games can change societies, but more generally about what change is and how it relates to the human condition.
And yes, inevitably, I had a peacebuilding hat on. There’s a lot we can learn from games and gamers. Here are some of the threads (and games) from the conference that really stuck with me.
Impact of games, impact of tech4peace
Before you try to measure what impact a game is having, you need to be clear about what *kind* of change you’re looking to make. One panel proposed a framework to articulate these different kinds of change, and identified five key areas where games can make an impact: learning, behavior change, group empowerment, civic labor and communication.
This taxonomy doesn’t just apply to how games have impact; it works also for how other technologies (information, communications, networking) have impact. And the areas of change it defines match up well with the kinds of change peacebuilding programs are trying to make: learning about peace values; changing behaviors towards other groups; empowering groups to change a conflict narrative; engaging civic labor to respond to a conflict crisis; better communicating peace process or alternative peace narratives. Next time I set out to define a theory of change and indicator set for a tech-enabled peace program, I may well turn to this framework.
Gone Home: immersive story-telling
A great feature of the festival are the talks that provide commentary on a game that is up for a Games for Change Award. In one such talk, Tracy Fullerton described the powerful story-telling techniques of Gone Home. Gone Home is a story exploration video game: you play the role of a young woman who comes home after a year abroad. She’s expecting to be met by her family, but instead finds an empty house, with a haunted feeling. At the start, the game plays like a murder mystery – the player opens drawers and doors, in search of what happened to the family. As the game progresses, it emerges that there is a drama, but it’s no crime scene: the player’s younger sister has recently run away from home after coming out as gay to her parents. By the time the story line fully emerges, the player is immersed in the story, creating a strong emotional reaction to the events.
Whatever the final resolution of the game (I haven’t played it, so wouldn’t know), what Gone Home shows is that video games can be powerful tools for communicating difficult messages to a young audience. Could immersive story-telling games be used to share perspectives across conflict lines, bringing us closer to the “other”?
Papers, please: the ethics of difficult choices
Nick Fortugno delivered the commentary on another award-winning game: Papers Please. The game takes you to a dystopian country – Arstotzka – where you play the role of an immigration officer at a newly-opened border post. Your task is simply to decide whether to accept or deny entry to people at the border, following a set of government rules. You get paid by the case, you might get some bribes, and at the end of the day you decide what to spend your money on (heat, food, medicine, rent), which affects the well-being of your family.
Simple, right? Except doing what’s best for your salary (and your family) may mean denying entry to someone who would face a firing squad at home. Or letting through a pimp who is about to force a girl into prostitution (you just let her in, and she asked you to deny him entry). As Nick Fortugno explained, the difference between Papers Please and other games is that good acts are not instrumentalized by the game mechanics: what’s morally right does not always correlate with the highest game pay-out. Thus, the game is true to Kant’s maxim:
“A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself [...]“
But contrary to Kantian ethics, Papers Please has no notion of an absolute moral good. What’s morally right is contradictory, messy and emotionally painful: your son needs medicine, so will you take a fine to save the girl from prostitution? This subtle exploration of the ethics of difficult choices points the way for an application to peacebuilding. Can games expose conflict parties to the ethical choices of the other, breaking the game of positions that many mediations turn into?
Buffalo: empathy, stereotypes and counter-stereotypes
Mary Flanagan is the founder of Tiltfactor, a laboratory “focused on the design of and research on computer games, board games, urban games, and other software that fosters a joyful commitment to human values”. Her talk discussed the design features of games that are proven to change hearts and minds – and specifically the stereotypes we hold about women and science. One such game is Buffalo, where players are given two cards – a person card and a descriptor card – and asked to call out someone who meets the description. Do you know a latino lawyer? A blind scientist? A skinny superhero?
The game has been proven to change players’ views about certain types of people, reducing prejudice and encouraging greater inclusiveness in representations of social identity groups. The psychological research behind it hinges on one key finding: experiences that build empathy towards people who suffer discrimination do not change our views; being presented with counter-stereotypes that challenge discriminatory views does. Flanagan admitted in her talk that she had previously focused on empathy too (see this article for example) and has only recently started focusing on exposing players to counter-stereotypes. This is a critical finding for those of us working in peacebuilding, where programs that focus on bringing conflict groups into contact are often designed to emphasize building empathy. Could peacebuilding programs be re-designed to focus on presenting counter-stereotypes rather than on building empathy? And could games play a role in these re-designed contact programs?
Let’s get games into peacebuilding
The Games for Change community has a lot to teach those of us thinking about technology and peacebuilding, especially about how we frame questions of impact, tell stories that have an emotional impact, present real ethical dilemmas, and challenge stereotypes in a impactful way. Beyond the research on impact and human psychology we can share, I also think it’s time we start investing in getting digital games into peacebuilding. Digital games are immensely popular and their reach expands every year. The examples above point to some of the ways in which games can be tools to increase our impact on tough social issues.
There are a few people already thinking about digital games and peacebuilding. Games for Peace uses Minecraft to bring together young people from different sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A few months ago, UNDP Cyprus and UNDP Kosovo held a workshop on games for peace that may result in a prototype game. Last year, the US Institute of Peace began a PeaceGame series (not digital, but a very interesting initiative). And of course, Asi Burak, the President of Games for Change, designed the award-winning PeaceMaker game.
Do you know of other groups or organizations using games in peacebuilding? Please leave a comment below!