Many parents and teachers have often wished that young people would find something more useful to do with their spare time and abundant energies than to play video games, especially those that make sport of violence, death and destruction. Soon, there may be less to complain about, as game developers and social activists collaborate on a new generation of games that are as compelling as virtual worlds, but which also encourage players to learn about, and solve, real world problems.
The movers and shakers in this exciting new hybrid world met recently at the "Games 4 Change" conference in New York, which was co-sponsored by The New School and by Parsons the New School for Design. "Video games are a part of life and they are not going away," said co-organizer Benjamin Stokes, as he looked out with evident satisfaction at the 300 or so video game designers, academicians, and social activists excitedly talking together, peering at each other's laptop screens, while waiting for the next panel discussion.
"We have got to talk to youth in the language they are already speaking. They are talking in video games. And I think it's really exciting for those of us who are trying to build civic education and civic engagement, because video games, when they have people lean forward and engage, that's just the sort of behavior we want to translate into the real world."
Negotiating ambiguous situations in which there is no one right answer is a difficult part of real life, but it can make for interesting gaming. Imagining, and trying to empathize with, your opponent's perspective is the basic challenge of the Peacemaker Game, a simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, developed by Asi Burak of Impact Games at Carnegie Mellon University.
"Many people [have] said 'War is challenging' and 'fighting is challenging,'" Burak acknowledged, "so we try to analyze it and we saw that, yes, 'A versus B' is very challenging. But to make A, B, C and D live together, this is a challenge, because every one of them has a different agenda, and different goals and sometimes they're contradictory."
Like many video games, Peacemaker is based on role-playing. Unlike many video games, changing roles is an important part of how one "wins." Players can act the part of the Israeli prime minister or the president of the Palestinian Authority, each of whom must deal with polls, opposing constituencies, and international pressures.
"So when you start the game, the world is very violent," explained Burak. "The world is filled with terror attacks or military actions by the Israeli Army. And as you make progress -- if you make progress -- those things will start to disappear and you see less and less violence, and you see that people start to support your concessions, and that the other side is responding positively to what you're doing."
Grassroots political organizers are already using video games to teach an essential tool of democracy -- so-called "door-knocking" -- where activists go to a neighborhood to enlist local residents to support an issue of concern. Doug Nelson, the president of Kinection, has developed a game called The Organizing Game. It offers players a risk-free virtual environment where they can learn, for example, how to know when someone who says they are committing to help is saying "yes" merely to be polite or because they mean it.
"They click 'Yes,' they click 'No,' and they click 'Maybe.'" Nelson said, demonstrating the game. With a quick move of the mouse, a part of the game called Get a Commitment appeared on the screen. "Can we count on you to come to the meeting we're having on Saturday at five o' clock?" asked the virtual activist. The responses from virtual residents: "It sounds great. Let me check with my wife. (a "yes" response), "Not interested (translation: "No.") and "I usually try to clean my house that day, but I could try to get it done by five." "That's absolutely a 'Maybe'!" chuckled Nelson.
The Games 4 Change conference also highlighted ways young people are being empowered to design their own game. At Global Kid's Playing 4 Keeps, an after school program in one New York City high school, students work with professional game designers to create a game based on a global issue of their choice.
In this project, students created a game set in Haiti that explored the relationship of poverty and education to human rights. It is based on five virtual family members who make a series of choices regarding work, education, health and other factors over the course of four virtual years. The group then studies the possible outcomes. said that creating games like that requires an understanding not just of the games but also of the complex global issues they portray.
"When you start developing a game you have to create a simulation or a model of the thing you are trying to demonstrate," he said, "[such as] how to look at a system and understand it as a system. What are the constituent parts? What are the elements? How do they relate to each other? What do you have to do within that system to push the system in one direction or another? Whether you're talking about poverty in Haiti or genocide in Darfur, games offer that kind of learning."
While it can be hard to measure objectively what impact these new games are having on the real world, Joseph said they are having a subtle but significant impact on the players themselves. He believes the games offer young people an important, positive way to express themselves and their desire to work for a better world. And by playing the games with their friends - and raising public awareness in the process, Joseph said young people can experience for the first time what it feels like to work for positive change.