Lessons for "games for change" creators and funders

For the first time at the Games for Change Festival, we introduced an opportunity for producers and designers of games in development to get live feedback from experts on the main stage. The 2011 “Demo Spotlight” invited six upcoming games to present their work in front of a stellar jury: Frank Lantz of Zynga New York and NYU, Ken Perlin of the Games for Learning Institute, and Connie Yowell from the MacArthur Foundation.

We realized that reflecting upon the event could offer our audience with some valuable resources, and chose to distill the best of what was shared that night in a way that would be relevant to any similar projects.

Here are the six games and their take-aways:

 

SOS_SLAVES is part of the transmedia project “Sands of Silence: Fighting Sexual Slavery and Trafficking.” Presented by filmmaker Chelo Alvarez-Stehle, SOS_Slaves aims to raise trafficking awareness in teens while empowering them with the tools to take responsibility and speak out against this issue. The online game will also integrate a micro-documentary that will give players a greater context to the game’s storyline. Fusing current and historical human trafficking tales, players of SOS_Slaves will take on the roles of both victims and social activists.

What we can learn from SOS_Slaves and its feedback

1. The judges liked Chelo’s inclusion of direct action elements inside the game, like being able to send an email or learn more about sex trafficking after each level. They suggested she could enhance that component by having embedded assessment to see how players are actually using the direct action tools.

2. The jury also helped Chelo think about ways to simplify the gameplay by asking her to look into more traditional styles of gameplay like “point and click” adventures games. While this may make the game seem less dynamic, it allows the story to take center stage and create a more emotional experience.

 

Ludwig is a game for educators and students alike. Created by the Vienna-based studio, Ovos, Ludwig is a physics game about renewable energy sources. Since most educational games struggle to find logical ways to be integrated into a classroom, Ovos took a different approach by creating a game based solely on curriculum-based material.

What we can learn from Ludwig and its feedback

1. Outside of its polished look, one of Ludwig’s potential advantages is that the game’s goals are tied directly to the learning objectives in a standard physics curriculum. This strategy could make Ludwig and similar projects easier to integrate into classroom settings.

2. However, the advanced stage of the design and look concerned the jury in regards to the funding and distribution process. Our panel pointed out that in some instances, funders may have specific requests for your game and those requests may influence changes to the design. A game that is far into production may come across difficulties in making those adjustments. The jury suggested that it’s key to get funders and distribution channels involved as early as possible so they can actively become a part of the design process.

 

The team at Goldextra took a different approach to awareness building with their game, Frontiers. They used an existing game engine that is popular among the PC modding community (Half Life 2). Despite their low expectations and lack of support from the original game engine creators, the game was downloaded over 40,000 times. Frontiers is a “first person shooter” style experience surrounding Europe’s migration policies. You have the option of playing as a Sub-Saharan refugee or a border officer, both with unique game play styles. To create an informative and immersive experience, Goldextra took a documentary style approach in gathering data, conducting interviews, and learning about the challenges refugees and border police face.

What we can learn from Frontiers and its feedback

1. The jury liked the use of an existing game engine. As an alternative (or addition), they suggested that the studio also investigate the idea of “machinima”, the popular process of creating narrative films by manipulating existing game engines. Since Goldextra took a documentary style approach in gathering data for their game, the jury suggested ‘translating’ that method to also present their findings in a non-game format.

2. Considering machinima to spread the message,over creating a full-blown game was a provocative suggestion by the jury, but one that can help first time game creators with limited funding. They believed the team may be able to use machinima as a pathway, and reach their potential target demographics while foregoing the lengthy process of building a complete 3D game.

 

Climbing Sacred Mountain is another transmedia project – this time focusing on a documentary about the first group of Nepali women hoping to scale Mount Everest. Created by the Center for Asian American Media, this game hopes to empower young girls, ages 8 – 14, to look past the aspects of life that seem to be male dominated and learn important lessons about themselves and environmental awareness, cross-cultural engagement, team work, and gender equality. Documentary footage and stories that would be embedded in the game present images of strong women of color.

What we can learn from Climbing Sacred Mountain and its feedback

1. The panel applauded the designers for picking a timely niche, in this case, empowering women in the developing world.

2. After viewing the core game design they suggested a revision that may tie the message to the game mechanics with greater impact. While Climbing Sacred Mountain is a one-player game, you control an entire group of women as one unit. Instead, the jury suggested that creating thoughtful puzzles in the game that required each character’s unique skills would better enforce the message that a group of women can solve any problem they face if they work together.

 

Mother-Nature-Diane-Tucker

Mother Nature used the Xbox 360’s Kinect as an input device and the game’s designer, Diane Tucker, shared her unique approach on stage. Her game uses the human body to transform the verbs of nature into game play tools. Simply put, your body’s motion can create the clouds needed for rain or wind needed to pollinate plants. All of the game’s gestures were created to make logical sense with their real-world counter parts. This style of game play hopes to connect the brain and body to the game’s experience.

What we can learn from Mother Nature and its feedback.

1. Mother Nature was praised during the Demo Spotlight for taking some innovative approaches. Much of the game’s appeal comes from the level of work Diane Tucker put into understanding how the mind reacts to certain physical movements. These psychological concepts are tied directly into the game play, to create a much deeper experience.

2. At the same time, it turned out that because Mother Nature exists on a new platform, many of Diane’s play testers had difficulty recalling certain movements, regardless of how simple or intuitive they seemed. Constant testing, revisions, and data gathering are essential components in creating any social impact game, let alone one that explores uncharted territories.

 

Three-Generations-Simon-Wiscombe

This was one of the few board games presented at the Festival. Three Generations focuses on the California eugenics movement that was present during the early to late 1900s. Simon Wiscombe aimed to create a board game that would evoke intellectual discourse over a practice that was once considering standard and just. By pitting a pair of two player teams together in a series of quiz questions to decide their “societal worth”, Wiscombe created game rules that potentially, and intentionally, “break” the game. By setting up a situation where one partner becomes a burden to the team, players must wrestle with the moral decision of how to handle their team mate. While some press on with the increased difficulty, in Simon’s play testing, some quit playing the game altogether.

What we can learn from Three Generations and its feedback.

1. Some game designers take a unique approach by creating an experience where the game mechanics are completely tied to the message of the game. The jury noted Simon’s design concept and shared some examples of how successful and difficult it can be. A popular example is Brenda Brathwaite’s Train.

2. The panel also felt that if this daring approach is applied to a game with a real-world historical context, it could be used in educational settings. In such cases, the players could be provided with supplemental learning materials after the fact.

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We hope that this look into the creativity, challenges, and feedback of this year’s Demo Spotlight will help creators and funders in their projects. We thank all the presenters at this year’s Demo Spotlight for allowing us to share their in-progress works and receive critical feedback with such transparency.

You can view the full Demo Spotlight below:

To learn more about the Demo Spotlight, visit the Games for Change Festival 2011 website.

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