So, I got back from Manhattan a few days ago and I’ve been letting my experiences at the 9th annual Games for Change festival rattle around my brain for a while. There were lots of really interesting talks, some of which were truly amazing, and so I have lots of different reactions; more than I could feasibly write down with the hopes of actually maintaining a reader’s attention.
So, instead, I’ll give a general impression that I’m left with.
There’s a lot of room for both optimism and pessimism regarding the Games for Change movement. On one hand, the amount of attention that it’s getting, and the amount of legitimacy it commands, is rapidly growing. It’s obviously still small in comparison to commercial pursuits, but its trajectory is decidedly upwards. The festival’s audience contained just as many (if not more) federal agents and educators as it did game developers, and many of the pre-festival summit talks were directed at federal agents looking to fund game projects. So, hopefully it can be said that the fact that games can positively transform society is not so controversial.
The room for pessimism comes from what is actually being produced at the moment. In regards to quality and the actual ‘fun’ of the game, there is a rather large divide between impact games and commercial games, and this is indicative of a faulty perspective. You can model any dynamics, create anything, do whatever you want with games; and yet, transformational games often simply take rather trite and simplistic game mechanics from the arcade and slap an educational theme on top. This approach treats games as some sort of passive vehicle you can use to push your message, rather than for what it is: a radically new way to construct your message. With this approach, maybe with the help of federal agents you can get your game funded, and maybe with the help of educators you can get it into schools, but it will never truly infect the population the way commercial games have been able to.
However, without the faith and goodwill of educators and federal agencies to open the door, I don’t believe transformational games will become a lasting trend in the commercial world, and so while this partnership of disparate occupations is going to result in some serious misunderstandings and lack of unity in direction, I think its end result is going to be a rather radical thing. So in this sense, I think that there’s much more room for optimism than for pessimism.
I have to admit, though, that I’m still far more interested in impact games that are tied to the commercial market, rather than to federal funding: for instance, Navid Khonsari’s 1979, for which he apparently got accused of being a spy, looks to be an interesting historical narrative turned into a game.
I’m almost positive that this game will be very problematic in regards to its treatment of history, but it at least tries to turn history into something which can be marketed; which is, after all, the ultimate test of engagement and audience appeal, the two things which education sorely lacks at the moment.