UNLEASH Innovation Lab: Unleashing the potential of games on UN Sustainable Development Goals

By Sara Cornish


Last month, I proudly represented Games for Change at UNLEASH Innovation Lab, the first-ever convening of 1,000 public and private sector leaders from 129 countries to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals. We spent nine days going through a facilitated process of problem framing, exploring development challenges from different angles, international perspectives and support from UN facilitators and business consultants. The program culminated with nearly 200 potential solutions being pitched to investors — many of which, I was excited to see, involved games, gamification, or game-based learning.

I was part of the Education/Information & Communication Technology (ICT) group, one of seven SDG topics including Water, Sustainable Consumption and Production, Energy and Health, with 200 other entrepreneurs, educators, technologists, development practitioners, and researchers. We were tasked with addressing the challenge of ensuring an inclusive, equitable and quality education, and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all, or SDG 4. Over a week spent living at a Danish Folk High School, one of 64 unique educational institutions located in Denmark’s beautiful countryside, we collaborated in small teams and sprinted through an innovation process developed by Dalberg and Deloitte.


My team of five tackled the thorny issue of teachers’ mental wellbeing in post-conflict states, after researching teacher professional development, retention, and support in these fragile communities with team members. Due to stigma and lack of awareness, as well as scarce development aid for teachers (the focus of funding tends to be on children), teachers often lack the knowledge and support structure to understand and care for their mental health and wellbeing. After desk research and Skype interviews with teachers in Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Cambodia, we presented the concept of an SMS-based chatbot to provide daily coaching to teachers through anonymous, relatable conversation, and resource sharing. Other pitched solutions included a Hindi literacy game, teacher attendance rewards program that was gamified to encourage participation, and a role-playing game to teach and empower students in developed nations to address the SDGs in their daily lives.

The final three days of the program were spent in Aarhus, a Danish port city honored as the 2017 European Capital of Culture. We presented our solutions for peer review and top projects were pitched to a group of investors in a “shark tank” style event. Although our proposed solution didn’t advance to the final round, we remain inspired by this challenge after our concept was validated by a number of colleagues from post-conflict states in the UNLEASH cohort. A handful of pitched ideas will receive investor funding; and for the rest of us, a global fund is being set up to support further iterations and SDG solutions. It is an incredibly ambitious program, applying a venture capital model to developing business that can deliver on the SDGs — with the great majority of its impact “yet to come.”

With support from a group of visionary business leaders and companies including Deloitte, Microsoft, and Dalberg, UNLEASH plans to host an innovation lab in cities around the world until 2030, leveraging a network that grows by 1,000 every year, providing an innovation methodology and support system for remote collaboration.

Achieving the SDGs will take investment of an estimated $5 trillion to $7 trillion per year until 2030, meaning we need solutions that are not only socially acceptable but also commercially viable. Solutions that challenge the status quo of energy, production, consumption, education, food and water, governance and business. Games present an opportunity to reach massive audiences, especially youth, to help advance sustainable development. For example, simulations like World Climate, a role-playing UN negotiation game, and Games for Change Climate Challenge winner Eco, a global survival game where the players collaborate to build a civilization and balance its ecosystem support learning and build empathy. Last month, UNESCO MGIEP released World Rescue, a mobile game based on the SDGs, as the winner of its 2017 Impact Gaming Challenge.


Games can also raise awareness and public engagement about issues such as gender equality and women’s empowerment (Half the Sky: The Game), climate change (Habitat the Game), peace and conflict (Liyla and the Shadows of War), the ecological impacts of city-building (Block’hood), and urban planning and development (Block by Block’s use of Minecraft). In March 2017, a beta test of Hive Mind 2030 was run at the Global Festival of Ideas with nearly 500 players. Here’s a recap of the gameplay by the developers Free Ice Cream.

There was substantial interest in games for SDG impact at UNLEASH, but it seemed like participants had little knowledge, understanding or access to resources to explore game development as part of a project strategy. I had conversations about the potential of games in post-conflict states and government policy negotiations, and games to support training in vocational schools and at village council meetings, with creative and entrepreneurial leaders from around the world and was inspired by their passion and unwavering belief that games can and do drive social change.

With this in mind, I am pleased to share a shortlist of resources from Games for Change and partners that can hopefully point the UNLEASH community in the right direction, whether you are interested in applying a game-based learning approach to your curriculum, gamifying a healthy food program, using Minecraft for urban planning, or some other brilliant SDG solution:

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Changing VR at VR for Change

By Mitch Gelman

(This article is a cross-post from the Journalism 360 blog.)

The topics are big ones: How can VR storytelling engender change? What is the nexus of games and journalism? Where do new media require new ethics?

At the VR for Change Summit in New York City this month, the cafeteria at Parsons School of Design transformed into a salon with tables populated by students, technologists, journalists, game developers and entrepreneurs. They came to Greenwich Village from around the world to discuss these questions at an event funded by the Knight Foundation and organized by VR for Change Curator Erik Martin, as part of the 2017 Games for Change Festival.

The first table — facilitated by Amy and Ryan Green, whose work in virtual reality has helped children with cancer and their families cope with the illness — wrestled with the best way to use emerging media to impact how people think about issues and ideas. In large part, this group agreed that VR’s flexibility can lower the emotional barrier of entry to news stories that are traditionally difficult for people to focus on because of their subject matter.

VR for Change participants gather in the Parsons cafeteria

VR for Change participants gather in the Parsons cafeteria

One participant in that discussion had never been able to watch stories about animal poaching on television or in film because the images were so disturbing. However, during a VR experience about poaching, the viewer could look away at certain points while staying engaged in the overall story. Further, the group noted, VR allows players to explore the environments and discover the news in a potentially unsettling story at their own pace and with a comforting sense of control.

“We heard people say that they stopped watching the news because they hated seeing all the bad news,” Amy Green said. “In VR, an experience can be specifically designed to allow a player to look away from intense or hard moments without removing themselves from the story being told.”

That said, the participants at this table also talked about some of the design limitations of the new technologies. In particular, they identified the challenge of trying to design experiences that can be enjoyed easily by people new to virtual reality as well as by more seasoned players. In order to get through this, the group recommended faster and more concentrated efforts to establish industry-wide standards of play.

Summit Curator Erik Martin opens the event in New York City

Summit Curator Erik Martin opens the event in New York City

While all agreed about the innate power of VR to capture someone’s emotional attention, one challenge still remaining for many content creators looking to have an impact is identifying the right point — and right ways — to deliver a call to action, the group acknowledged.

At table two, Heather Chaplin, founding director of the Journalism + Design program at The New School, along with The New York Times’ Samantha Quick, led the group in conversation around the ethical questions that the new media have raised — from defining journalistically acceptable ways to present an experience to addressing some of the social concerns related to more shared VR experiences. Chaplin said that she was “struck by how little exists in terms of ethical or research guidelines” applied to the emerging practices.

The group was particularly interested in some of the basic questions that journalists struggle to apply to existing media, including how to present interviews with people describing traumatic experiences. One twist on traditional ethical questions includes looking at how to relate to people who may feel like an outsider when immersed in an interactive community. Another is whether allowing people to be flies on the wall could, at least in the early days of VR when there is an economic gap between those who can and cannot afford the technology, create a voyeuristic mindset in which more privileged viewers are watching less privileged subjects.

“We spent a lot of time discussing whether the issues around VR were actually new, or just the same kind of issues that always arise with a new medium,” said Chaplin. She noted that in the early days of film, when audiences saw a train coming at them on screen during The Great Train Robbery, “people ran away, never having seen a moving image before.”

Lindsay Grace, director of the Game Lab and Studio at American University, led the third table in conversation around the lessons that spherical experience creators can learn from game development.

Certain fundamentals were raised, including the importance of fast load times, establishing quick and intuitive mechanics and mastering the best ways to present overlays to provide context around stories. On a more sophisticated level, the group recognized the potential for using visuals as a common language to reach people at different levels of overall literacy. Its members also discussed the value of journalists becoming more familiar with techniques that game developers have learned about steering audiences.

Dynamic dialogue at the VR for Change Summit, August 2, 2017

Dynamic dialogue at the VR for Change Summit, August 2, 2017

This group recognized the nascent stage of journalists working with interactive and immersive storytelling. “A primary challenge is the need to train VR journalists. This is more than helping them understand the technology, and is also about incorporating the characteristics of the medium,” Grace said. “There are few people teaching how to handle a medium where control is ceded to the consumer.”

Grace noted that this is an area in which game designers have greater experience and can work with journalists to better grasp how the relationships between authors, viewers, readers and players change in VR.

In general, he said, the limits of 360 video being produced by news organizations today are “analogous to posting a PDF online and calling it a website.”

While the teams may not have come up with conclusive answers to the questions debated during these sessions at VR for Change, the spirit of the discussions was progressive and collaborative. Many of the facilitators, as well as the participants, walked away with fresh perspectives on the opportunities to work together to bring the points of view, perspectives and skill sets necessary to meet the challenges ahead.



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To learn more about Games for Change’s upcoming VR for Change activities, please consider joining our VR for Change newsletter here.

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See photos from the 2017 G4C Festival and VR for Change Summit

2017 G4C Festival

The biggest and best Festival yet!

Thanks to all who joined us for the largest and most energizing Games for Change Festival yet! We were thrilled to host a record-setting 1,000 attendees at Parsons School of Design at The New School. This was also the most diverse Festival yet — there was a near even 50-50 split between female and male speakers and attendees.

We’d like to give a special thanks to our curators — Amy Sterling (Neurogaming & Health track), Michelle Miller and Mark DeLoura (Games for Learning Summit), Naomi Clark and Lindsay Grace (Civics & Social Issues track), and Erik Martin (VR for Change Summit) — for bringing together an engaging, thought-provoking program.

Check out the Festival and VR for Change Summit photos on our Flickr, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for when we begin adding videos from over 100 sessions in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, be sure to check out what we have planned for VR for Change, the winners of the G4C Awards, and our free Game Jam Guide.


Subscribe here for videos 
See photos on Flickr here
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VR for Change Summit

VR for Change Summit was a success — stay tuned for more VR events

This year’s Festival featured the first-ever VR for Change Summit, with over 12 virtual experiences for attendees to interact with and talks presented by Planned Parenthood, NY Times, Samsung, Facebook, Emblematic Group, National Geographic, and more. Speed networking and breakout discussion sessions sparked conversation, debate, and new connections.

As the Summit and its participants demonstrated, VR is a powerful medium for social change, and we are committed to helping this special community grow. We will continue convening this community online and at year-round events. To learn more about these activities, please consider joining our VR for Change newsletter here. If you’re interested in partnering with us on VR for Change, please email

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Play NYC is less than 2 weeks away and it’s going to be games galore

Our G4C Festival wrapped up last week, but there are more opportunities to play great games at PLAY NYC, a new game convention hosted by our friends at Playcrafting.

Our G4C Festival wrapped up last week, but there are more opportunities to keep playing great games at PLAY NYC, a new game convention hosted by our friends at Playcrafting.

  • 100+ games featuring NYC’s best studios across three floors. See the full list.
  • Check out the hottest emerging game studios at the Indie Boost Pavilion
  • 10 interactive “game graffiti” installations 
  • Top NYC Twitch Steamers livestream all weekend: swiftor, FutureManGaming, and Bifuteki.

Get 20% off general admission passes with the code PlayG4C! To redeem, select the date you would like to attend and purchase tickets under “Special Orders.”

More Info and Buy Passes
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Support G4C by bidding in our charity auction and win amazing gaming experiences

G4C red banner

Our Charitybuzz auction ends in 5 days! Bid now through August 14 on these exclusive experiences to support our organization:

  • Get two tickets to next year’s E3
  • Lunch with Overwatch voice actress Anjali Bhimani
  • A voice-acting session under the direction of Senior Casting and Voice Director Andrea Toyias at Blizzard Entertainment
  • Visit 2K’s headquarters and join them for an NBA2K Twitch stream
  • A tour of Rockstar Games headquarters and swag, including a custom PS4 or Xbox One
  • Chat with Kickstarter’s head of games, Luke Crane, about games and crowdfunding


Bid Now
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Get your copy of the The Game Jam Guide

The Game Jam Guide

Get your copy of The Game Jam Guide

The Game Jam Guide e-book, which debuted at the Festival, shares over 20 flexible lesson plans and new ideas from experts who led game jams in NYC that were focused on real-world issues.

The guidebook is the culminating work of four Moveable Game Jams, funded by the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund through a Catalyst Grant in 2016. The game jams focused on three themes: climate change, smart cities, and immigrant history. The guide was developed and written by Kevin Miklasz from BrainPOP, Matt Farber, Alex Fleming from Mouse and Sara Cornish from Games for Change.

Game jam partners included Global Kids, Mouse, Institute of Play, Museum of the Moving Image, Brooklyn College Community Partnership, and CoderDojo NYC. This program reached over 1,000 students at events held in four NYC boroughs, which motivated NYC students to submit 400 original video games to the G4C Student Challenge.

Download the Game Jam Guide
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Congrats to the G4C Award winners and nominees!

2017 G4C Awards

Congratulations to the winners of the G4C Awards, especially Walden, A Game, which won Game of the Year and Most Significant Impact! A major thank-you to Overwatch voice actress Anjali Bhimani for emceeing the Awards.

The Awards winners are:

Game of the Year & Most Significant Impact awards
Walden, A Game: Walden, A Game, is a first-person simulation of the life of American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond. Players follow in Thoreau’s virtual footsteps, balancing their basic survival needs with a search for the sublime in the small beauties of the woods.

Best Gameplay Award
Tracking Ida: Tracking Ida is an educational ARG inspired by the pioneering journalism of Ida B. Wells and piloted in Watts in 2017. Players learned about Wells’ crusade against lynching by unlocking archives and solving puzzles. Connecting history to the present, they investigated police killings today and learned media making to spread awareness.

Most Innovative Award
Everything: Everything is about the quiet explosion of life going on all around us. It is a simulation of reality where everything you see is a thing you can be, from animals to planets to galaxies and beyond – you can be the Universe or create your own.

Best Learning Game Award
Dragonbox BIG Numbers: Dive into the world of the Nooms and learn big numbers, long addition and subtraction! Players are challenged to think strategically over the course of the game to trade resources and unlock new worlds.

G4C + Mashable People’s Choice Award
At Play in the Cosmos: At Play in the Cosmos puts players in the pilot’s seat, where they journey through space and time in a quest to solve mission challenges. The game helps students build an intuitive understanding of the scale of the universe, the tools astronomers use, and the process of science.

Vanguard Award
Constance Steinkuehler, professor of informatics at University of California, Irvine, was awarded the Vanguard Award for her contribution to the advancement of games for change.

Lifetime of Play Award
Bernie DeKoven, game designer and author, was awarded Lifetime of Play for his dedication to the conversation around play and games for over 50 years. Watch Bernie’s acceptance speech on YouTube.

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Last Chance: Get your passes! The Festival starts next week.


until the Festival starts!
Here’s what’s in store …

The Games for Change Festival starts next week! Don’t miss out on:


Buy Pass
Join us for a party after the VR for Change Summit on August 2 at the breathtaking spaces at VR WORLD, the U.S.’s largest virtual reality hub, with over 50 eye-opening content pieces spanning multiple genres. A G4C Festival or Summit pass is required for entry.
Learn how leading game studios have developed their business strategies at the Industry Circle Town Hall, and sign up for one-on-one consultations with them at Meet the Experts. Network with other Festival attendees at our Speed Networking sessions.
Congratulations to the finalists in the 2017 Games for Change Awards! Play these games and see who will win at the annual G4C Awards Ceremony. We are proud to partner again with Mashable on the Mashable + G4C People’s Choice Award, where you can vote for your favorite game! Cast your vote here.

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Announcing the 2017 Industry Circle

circle banner

Announcing the 2017 G4C Industry Circle members

Through our annual Industry Circle program, Games for Change recognizes organizations that have taken risks, developed sustainable business models, launched successful games, and are pushing the boundaries of the games industry in a positive direction.


Learn from Industry Circle members at the Festival

We are pleased to present the members of the third edition of the Industry Circle, who will share how they have developed their business strategies, what keeps them up at night, and the new projects that are driving their success at the Industry Circle Town Hall at the G4C Festival on July 31. If you will be there in person, we encourage you to ask questions during the Q&A session after the panel!

E-Line Media’s consumer games are designed to fire the imagination, catalyze curiosity, and create gateways to new ideas, themes and interests. Their game-infused learning programs enable pathways of learning from middle school through college and beyond. The company’s game-based-learning offerings have been used in over 10,000 schools and after-school programs with hundreds of thousands of students.


Classcraft reimagines any classroom as an adventure. Acting as a gamified layer around a teacher’s existing curriculum, Classcraft is positioned to meet students culturally while solving real challenges in education, like student motivation, classroom management, and bullying. Classcraft is used in 75 countries and 10 languages by over 2.5 million teachers, students, and parents.


Filament Games is a production studio that exclusively creates learning games. The company’s games combine best practices in commercial game development with key concepts from the learning sciences. They have an award-winning suite of science games that have been implemented in districts across the country.


Schell Games is a full-service game design and development company, which specializes in creating transformational games and innovative, interactive experiences. Schell Games has completed numerous projects for Fortune 100 companies, such as The Walt Disney Company and Microsoft Corporation, and have worked with some of the world’s most respected brands. 


Triseum’s mission is to inspire students to succeed through game-based learning. They pursue this mission by combining commercial game development experience with deep educational expertise to create revolutionary ways for students to learn. They grew out of the LIVE Lab at Texas A&M University which is why education will always remain at the heart of this gaming company. 


Yogome creates learning through fun and engaging game-based curriculum and captivating characters. More than 1,000 mini games and six different apps comprise this personalized learning platform certified by Yale’s Play2Prevent Lab. They are adding new content to the platform every month in eight different subject for grades kindergarten through fifth, available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Simplified Chinese. 

Festival passes still available online
The Games for Change Festival is just two weeks away! Buy your pass today to attend.

Buy Pass
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