Games for Change @ GDC 12 wrap up

For the first time ever, Games for Change took an active part in the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco (a record attendance of 22,500 this year!). On Tuesday, March 6th, we curated a daylong summit bringing together some of the best game designers, developers, thinkers, researchers, and advocates for our space.

The Games for Change @ GDC summit discussed topics such as love as a game mechanic, successful postmortems, and major takeaways on effective game design for impact and learning. We were proud and excited by the turnout of our first ever G4C @ GDC Summit.

For those unable to attend, here is a wrap up our event…

Mini talks are a favorite of the conference scene. These fast paced talks by multiple speakers around a broad topic allow those in the audience to learn about a range of new concepts, from various resources. Our Summit hosted two engaging mini talks sessions…

Jane McGonigal and panelists

Kicking off our Summit was a panel on “How Designing For Love Can Change the World“. Moderated by Jane McGonigal and Jane Pinckard, their panel highlighted the work of six game designers who focus on understanding how certain game mechanics can evoke a strong emotional response. This series held in front of a packed room introduced such games as Hero Generations and The End of Us while citing leading research on the topic.

Later in the day, the “From Milan to Abu Dhabi: Mini talks for Change” session highlighted game designers whose projects have touched nearly every corner of the globe. Together they took to the stage to share what they learned about creating games for international audiences. Moderator Nick Fortugno introduced the audience to five projects. Whether it was teaching students and educators how to create games with the Activate! project in Abu Dhabi or learning more about financial literacy in the UK with International Racing Squirrels, attendees of this session had the opportunity to learn about best practices and challenges from games for change creators and practitioners all over the world.

Discussing best practices through specific examples was a major theme in our Summit. Leading the rest of the morning where two talks discussing successful titles and the processes behind their development…

Battlestorm’s “Hurricane” team

Sharing some of the secrets to their success was Lincoln Brown from Sojo Studios. Their social game, WeTopia, is garnering a lot of attention for not only being one of the first social impact games on Facebook, but also for their “hybrid business model”, that focuses on generating income through micro transactions from users, partnerships with NGOs, and leveraging for-profit investments from private investors. Attendees of his talk “WeTopia: Game Companies & Nonprofits Creating New Business Models” walked away with an understanding of how adopting unique business models can lead to sustainability and growth on platforms like Facebook, that are usually dominated by more commercialized efforts.

During the presentation, “Battlestorm: Games as a Powerful Tool for Community Engagement” the Knight Foundation and Zynga New York / Area Code shared how they created a physical game that not only provided essential skills for hurricane preparedness, but also helped mobilize a community. The game, Battlestorm, combined education, physical sport, reality show theatrics, and online games to educate and unite a Gulf Coast community. Together, Jessica Goldfin from Knight and Scott Hoffer from Zynga shared their design process but also explored what worked, what failed, and how they can create better games in the future.

One particular story mentioned in the Battlestorm presentation was how a positive, game boosting mechanic was “abused”. To support the goal of hurricane preparedness, Zynga invited participants to take photos of their “hurricane prep kits”, which allowed them to gain useful power-ups in the game. By encouraging players to create kits and gain powers, they hoped that the teams involved would actively create kits for their own benefit. However, if you quickly browse their photo gallery, you can see many players just reused the same kits to game the system. Stories like this echo the importance of fine-tuning gameplay and impact goals following the game’s launch.

Understanding how game mechanics could influence change was also an important theme at the Summit. After lunch, our attendees were treated with two talks that discussed how specific aspects of game design have the potential to create better games for change and learning.

Jan Plass of the Games for Learning Institute in New York spoke on the topic of understanding and using game mechanics from popular games to inspire learning. His talk “AAA Game Mechanics Inspiring Learning and Assessment Mechanics” focused on how games for learning are unique in that their design is often constrained by a need to embed game mechanics that foster learning and assessment mechanics that measure learning. Jan shared valuable research that supported the alignment of mechanics from the world’s most successful titles to “learning mechanics” that are proven and based on years of research.

In a “sequel” to their popular talk from last year, Michael Kim and Nicole Lazzaro took to the stage to discuss various successful and unsuccessful game mechanics that influence behavior change in their talk “Winning Behavior-Change Game Design & Engagement“. Through case studies, research, and practical design examples, this updated talk shed light on their latest findings since last year. In addition, they discussed some of the pitfalls of gamification and research that is being implemented to support effective behavior change.

One of the more popular examples in Michael’s talk was the discussion of the Fogg Behavior Model, a detailed framework for behavior change. Some minor examples of easy behavior change are websites like and Daily Challenge.

Phil Stuart of Preloaded shared insights from his award-winning studio and how they create games for change that receive tens of millions of plays. His talk “More Than Fun: Designing Games With Purpose” explored the design process behind some of their games, like 1066 and Wondermind while presenting many of the obstacles involved with balancing rich content with engaging gameplay. Attendees of this talk learned different practices, research goals, and design challenges involved with making games that are “about” something.

A particular slide from the presentation that garnered a lot of attention was this one. In his talk, Phil explained that an overload of educational content that is not balanced by appropriate gameplay could actually degrade the integrity of the game. This image was one of the most shared on social media.

Closing out our Summit was a keynote from the Life President of Eidos, Ian Livingstone. To illustrate how our growing industry is raising its profile and encouraging positive change, Ian’s keynote discussed the evolution of his own rich career and his current involvement in some exciting new projects that aim to create change through games…

Ian Livingstone

Ian’s early career success first came in the mid-1970s when he introduced the popular Dungeon and Dragons series to European audiences. From there and throughout the 80s, he worked on developing his career as an author and entrepreneur and worked his way from a company that was acquired (Eidos), to becoming its Executive Chairman. In his talk, “From Dungeons to Downing Street – How Games are Growing Up for Good!“, Ian shares how he is still deeply involved in strategic efforts, working on advancing and highlighting the work of the Next Gen Report, GamesAid, and PlayMob

The Next Gen Report, compiled by both Mr. Livingstone and Alex Hope of the UK government, details how the United Kingdom could become the leading talent hub for video games and special effects. It was embraced by the UK Prime Minister and already led to national curriculum changes to support hard-core computer science teaching in schools. GamesAid is a coalition of the UK gaming industry that raises funds for video game related charities and causes, which Ian strongly supports.  Lastly, Ian is an advisor and mentor for PlayMob, a start-up that has created a micro-donations platform to allow any game developer to integrate giving and donations through virtual goods.


To deliver an entire day’s worth of content to a world- renowned event like the Game Developers Conference was a complete honor and absolute pleasure.

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