By Patrick Feeney, R3D Pixel
The U.K. has produced a large number of games with strong social messages in recent years. Britain’s well-known public service media companies BBC and Channel 4 have been quite innovative in their mission to keep learning, youth education, science, and the arts alive in Britain. So it is fitting that a fair number of games on the G4C website have been produced by British developers. Yet the landscape for social impact games is a challenging one. As the founder of a British/Dutch learning games studio, I am particularly interested in hearing about the challenges and opportunities for making social impact games in the U.K. I therefore organized a London meetup earlier this month using Games for Change’s Meetup Everywhere website.
Most of the 40 participants were socially conscious developers eager to hear about past and present projects and the experiences of others with funding institutions, partners, and clients. We also managed to line up an A-list cast of speakers.
- Sharna Jackson, Hopster (previously Tate Kids)
- Jo Twist, U.K. Interactive Entertainment (UKIE), previously Channel 4
- Matt Watkins, Mudlark
Sharna Jackson, Hopster
Sharna kicked off the evening with a talk about her years with Tate Kids where she commissioned numerous games to promote science, culture, and the arts. Despite Tate’s size and reputation this was a tale of meager games budgets, attempts to cut corners without sacrificing quality, lining up private- and public-sector funding sources, and burdensome grant application processes that practically required dedicated admin staff. Games for change are often the passionate work of indie developers, but for Tate Kids, the ideal development partners were always studios large enough to weather the drawn-out process of applying for grants from private charities such as the Wellcome Trust.
Wondermind, one of the games released by Tate Kids to empower learning through interactive entertainment.
Despite these challenging circumstances, some wonderful games were launched, including Wondermind, The Secret Dancer, and Airbrush. The question is will those kinds of games continue to get made in the future?
Channel 4, BBC, and Tate seem to be making fewer games now. Philanthropies and large studios in the U.K. are not taking an active interest in educational games the way their American counterparts have been. (I’m thinking here of the Gates and MacArthur Foundations, GlassLab, EA and Zynga.org.)
Jo Twist, U.K. Interactive Entertainment
Jo Twist of UKIE knows all about the challenges for games studios and independent developers. She was here to tell us about the efforts UKIE has undertaken to help smaller British studios survive and also to push the idea of games as a socially transformative medium. This includes lobbying for tax credits and subsidies that will help companies that are too small to be of interest to venture capitalist investors and public relations efforts to counter the common perception that games are bad for society. UKIE also runs a Next Gen Skills campaign to reform the national curriculum and build competencies of the tech and multimedia stars of tomorrow.
When it comes to games with a serious message Jo is doing all she can to support their creation, but she wishes the term “serious games” did not exist. It implies that games that are injected with a strong societal or educational message are qualitatively different from “regular games.” Lots of games that are considered “mainstream” have social messages and educational value also, she pointed out, which is why she believes that games are such a powerful source for good. So why do so few socially conscious games get made and why do they struggle to find an audience?
The consensus among the speakers and the audience was that it comes down to analytics and data. There are no clear measures of effectiveness for social impact games. As a result, serious game designers don’t always know what defines success for their games. Yet the ability to show a body of evidence is key to legitimizing a media spend. Jo pointed out that a study was done on the impact of Channel4’s game hub SuperMe, but these studies are expensive, especially for individual games. The U.S. seems to be taking the lead here with the recent set of studies and subsequent white papers published by the Institute of Play. UKIE has actually been in contact with the Institute whose psychometrics platform for game-based assessment will be available globally in the future.
Worm Attack!, Nine Minutes, and Family Choices three mobile games which served as companion apps to Half the Sky Facebook game.
Matt Walkins, Mudlark
Global impact is indeed what Matt Watkins and Mudlark were after when they were asked by Games for Change to design three games for feature phones for Indian and African audiences. These are the well-known mobile companions to the Half the Sky Facebook game. They include 9Minutes (on healthy birthing practices), WormAttack! (de-worming awareness) and Family Values (highlighting the value of girls in families).
Matt showed videos of his trip to Africa and his work with NGO partners. In East Africa, simple Nokia phones are used to transfer money and get health advice but game narratives with very personal messages intended for both Indian and African audiences posed a whole set of complex challenges starting with cultural appropriateness and language variations. Despite best efforts to deal with these localization issues, there were still some problematic situations.
The Half the Sky games met with suspicion from certain groups who didn’t agree with the message or were wary of anything that smacked of western paternalism. These problems notwithstanding, the games have generated 80,000 to 90,000 play sessions since 2011 and they have been successful enough that Mudlark has now been asked to create a new batch of mobile games. A formal study of the effectiveness of the games has been published and clearly a lot of work went into distributing them and ensuring their proper use. The games are still being used quite actively as tools for NGO field workers who work with pregnant women and young mothers.
Off Grid, one of four games being pitched at the Games for Change Festival.
So the U.K. scene for impact games is alive and well despite the challenges of decreasing funding. One of our participants Rich Metson was just selected to present his game Off Grid (about privacy issues and abuse of power) at the G4C Festival in New York next month. This was the first well-attended Games for Change meetup to be held in the UK, with some participants traveling from as far as Sheffield and Doncaster in the north of England who expressed interest in hosting meetups “up North.” So far France and Germany have taken the lead in the European chapter of G4C but members of the London meetup have been invited by Katharina Tillmans of G4C Europe to participate in session proposals for the G4CE events taking place this summer. So look out G4C, the British are coming!
Patrick Feeney is an ex-teacher who is consumed by the idea of self-improvement through digital play. He is founder and CEO of R3D Pixel, a British/Dutch studio based in Rotterdam. R3D Pixel makes educational games for health, language, literacy, and mathematics and is about to launch the world’s first educational endless runner game.