Panel Discussion Summary by Yoriko Yasukawa*
Today, over 3 billion people worldwide play video games, which span a hugely diverse range of forms and content. The industry generates more than US$ 180 billion a year in global revenues – about seven times as much as the global music industry. On 29 June 2022, I had the opportunity to moderate a virtual panel discussion titled ‘Gaming for a Better World,’ hosted by the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). In this dialogue with leading figures in the video game industry and a peacebuilding specialist, we explored how video games can contribute to building a more peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable world. Here are some of the ideas and information coming out of the discussion.
Asi Burak: An award-winning videogame and digital technology executive, named one of the “Digital 25: Leaders in Emerging Entertainment” by the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and Variety Magazine. Asi currently serves as Chief Business Officer at Tilting Point, a world-leading game publisher, as well as Chairman of Games for Change (G4C), which produces the Annual Games for Change Festival, New York City’s largest gaming industry event.
Latoya Peterson: Named one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 rising stars in media, she is cofounder, Chief Experience Officer, and Director for the Culture at Glow Up Games, a game studio engaged in innovative storytelling about the lives and culture of people of color, particularly women, non-binary, and queer and trans people. Latoya has been a race and culture writer for major outlets like the New York Times, NPR, Jezebel and Kotaku, as well as a three-time judge for the World Video Game Hall of Fame.
Helena Puig Larrauri: A governance and peacebuilding professional with over a decade of experience advising and supporting UN agencies, other multilateral organizations, and NGOs working in conflict contexts and polarized environments. Helena is co-founder and strategy lead at Build Up, a global non-profit that identifies and addresses emergent challenges to peace, where she focuses on the integration of digital technology and innovation into peace processes and on the analysis of digital conflict drivers.
We were also joined from the audience by Matthew Farber, Associate Professor of Educational Technology at the University of Northern Colorado, and the founder of the Gaming SEL Lab. His research is at the intersection of game-based learning (GBL) and social and emotional learning (SEL). He studies how playing and making games can cultivate empathy, perspective-taking, and ethical decision-making. He also works in youth initiatives around game design as a form of self-expression.
There is enormous diversity in video games – they are not just about shooters.
Before entering into the discussion, Yorgos Dritsas, a FOGGS collaborator based in Athens, gave us a quick glimpse of a variety of video games. These games were all designed to promote empathy, but each had very different themes and stories and distinct mechanics of gameplaying:
- The Last Guardian is an adventure game in which the player takes the role of an unnamed boy who must cooperate with a half-bird-half-mammal creature to solve puzzles and explore. The player must learn to understand the animal rather than control it.
- Dys4ia (pronounced dysphoria) is an autobiographical video game that Anna Anthropy, a trans woman, developed to recount her experiences of gender dysphoria and hormone replacement therapy. The player comes to understand Anna’s experience by accompanying her on this journey.
- In Signs of the Sojourner, the player communicates their feelings to the characters through a simple card game. The conversation can lead either to a negative or a positive interaction, though neither is a loss or a win. The purpose is to see the different ways in which the relationship can develop.
- In Papers, Please the player takes on the role of a border crossing immigration officer in a dystopian country. The player will be faced with making moral decisions that will decide the fate of immigrants, as well as his or her own fate.
- Insecure, produced by the company founded by Latoya, is a game based on a TV series of the same name, centered on the career and relationship experiences of Issa, a young African American woman living in Los Angeles. The game lets players rap, create their personal style, and interact with the kind of friends
While none of these games fit the stereotype of the shoot ‘em up game, they are all commercially successful or aspire to be so.
Asi pointed out that while many of the successful games are so-called ‘shooters,’ many are not, particularly the mobile phone-based games which make up more than half of the video game market. ‘A lot of the games are about building or nurturing or crafting,’ he said.
Asi pointed out though, that many of the commercial game developers resort to shooters as an ‘easy solution’ and because it is a mechanic that is technically easy to replicate.
Video games provide a virtual space for people to come together.
One of the important characteristics that distinguish online video games from other media is that you can play with other people regardless of where they are. Hence, it is an ideal medium to bring people together.
Helena has used this function precisely to bring together young people in Syria as part of her peace-building work there: ‘We look for new ways to bring people together and to try and shift narratives or make conversations more complex and essentially build social cohesion. This is the area of work where video games are a lot more. Video games can be used as a place where conversations can happen. ‘
Latoya mentioned the game Sky, in which players explore a fantasy world above the clouds using a cape that gives them the ability to fly: ‘I love that game and I have a nine-year-old son who is now independently exploring on his own. One of the things that happened was, I didn’t realize there was a chat function and that he was talking to people all around the world. It’s so beautifully designed to be safe and to be an area of participation.’
There are many games designed to have a positive social impact. Some of them have also been commercially successful.
In addition to some of the games mentioned earlier, the better-known ones include This War of Mine, which focuses on the civilian experience of war, TerraGenesis, which animates entire planets with changing biospheres, based on real data from NASA, and Plague Inc. a simulation game in which the player attempts to control a contagious disease outbreak. Papers, Please, for example, was released in August 2013, and had sold 500,000 copies as of March 2014.
Asi pointed out that, in seeking to develop games intended for social good that are at the same time commercially viable, we should not dismiss the blockbuster shooter games but rather learn from them about what makes them attractive to players.
Games not specifically meant for social good can have a positive educational impact depending on the way they are used.
Helena spoke about the organization Games for Peace, which has used Minecraft, the bestselling videogame of all time, in which players gather materials to build whatever they want, and various esports to bring Jewish and Arab Israeli youths together.
‘There was a classroom full of Jewish Israeli kids and a classroom full of Arab Israeli kids and they were in the same Minecraft space and one of the children marched up a little mound and built an Israeli flag and then there was this kind of outburst of conversation of, like, “wait, hang on a minute, what are we trying to do here?” But it created this venue for a conversation to happen and they use esports in a similar way.’
Based on his teaching experience, Matthew pointed out, ‘You need to hook and engage students first. I think a really good narrative comes first and then the education comes second.’ He raised the example of Assassin’s Creed, a bestselling action-adventure game, in which players must carry out assassinations to advance. He felt that the moral dilemmas posed in the game were useful for teaching ethics.
He also stressed the importance of the ‘inefficient route’ to learning that games offer. ‘They’re inefficient on purpose and they’re playful on purpose. That’s where learning happens. It’s the same tension between teaching with PowerPoint and project-based learning. Project-based learning looks overwhelming to lots of teachers and it’s an inefficient route to learning but it’s deeper.’
Insecure, the game created by Latoya’s company, while not intended to be an educational tool, provides a glimpse into the lives and culture of strong and vibrant African American women – elements that tend to be absent in mainstream games. ‘We were also trying to reach a new audience that games historically haven’t spoken to,’ Latoya said, ‘which is women and players of color.’
There are interesting experiences of using video games in unexpected ways to further social good.
Asi created Peacemaker, a game that simulates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, back in 2007. In this game, players can choose to play the part of the leader of either side of the conflict, and deal with events presented using real-world pictures and footage.
‘We were a small team and compared to the technologies and the art that you see today, it was very simple,’ Asi explained, ‘but what we did succeed in doing is simulating the conflict, tackling something super-complex, so even though it was a lot of text and very simple, we took videos and footage from the news, and it was believable. People really got out of that game with the feeling that they understood more the dynamics of the conflict, and they understood more how the other side is thinking about it. So, that was pretty interesting and that was the first time that they felt, “oh wow, this medium has so much potential!” People came to us again and again with the same quote: “we played your game for two hours and we understand more about the conflict than by watching the news for two years.” It’s the medium, it’s the fact that people can actually have agency and they can try things on their own and connect the dots. That sometimes gets lost in the news when we just watch passively.’
Asi also mentioned that the former United States Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, created an online games-based learning platform for civics education called iCivics. The games are offered for free and are now used by more than 9 million students annually. While a good narrative can certainly draw young people into a game, Asi felt that when a game is created for an explicit educational purpose as in the case of iCivics, it is perfectly fine for that intent to be upfront.
Helena shared her experience of getting young people in Syria to create a game together: ‘In Syria, a lot of young people have had their identity shaped by the conflict and have grown to believe that there are really big differences between different people living in different areas of Syria. They wanted to tell a story about this, but they wanted to tell a story that also engaged people in a conversation. Another thing that they were saying is that there were a lot of gamers in their generation and a lot of people who went to games as a way of finding an outlet and a different narrative. I remember one of them describing it as a more hopeful narrative. So, they ended up creating a game that basically explores differences between different people in Syria and it’s a role-playing game with different possible ways that it can end. The game is structured so that you progress more easily if you show empathy and curiosity toward others. They would play the game and then they would have conversations with people about what that brought up for them, and it would always end up being about the conflict and how they had experienced the conflict as young people.’
Perhaps the clearest conclusion coming out of the discussion was that video games have proven to be an effective way to promote learning, particularly about topics that might otherwise be remote and difficult to understand. Games can also instill empathy for, and curiosity about those who are different from us. Given the enormous reach of the industry, we should probably be doing much more to harness this capacity toward building a more inclusive, empathetic, just, and sustainable world.