Serious Online Games Are Creating Serious Social Impact

Imagine playing Grand Theft Auto V, (and maybe if you’re lucky, today you really are). You’ve just stolen a car, and as you’re racing down the street, you decide to take a phone call. A cop pulls you over for using a mobile phone while driving.

In the next level, your character must decide if they should use a condom before casual sex. The final level is when you become the crime boss and now run the city, with all the responsibilities and tradeoffs a mayor or legislature faces with competing interests and needs, yet a limited budget and resources.
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It’s not the thrill usually associated with the game, but these are example of the collision of agendas when education and development organizations try to harness the appeal of gaming to fit their objectives. As Asi Burak, the Co-President of Games for Change says in this article, it’s no longer “why” with games for development, but “how”?

The recent Technology Salon on Playing Online Games to Improve Development Impact, highlighted different thoughts about the best way for education, development, and gaming organizations to use games for social good.

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Is it better to collaborate on existing games, or create new games?

It makes sense for “games for good” efforts to integrate into the commercial game systems already in place to reach scale quickly and effectively. As one discussant pointed out, only a small percentage of new games are successful – Angry Birds was Rovio’s 63rd game attempt.

Plus, the start-up costs alone needed for designing and implementing a new game is daunting – GTA V cost $250 million to make. Also development organizations could gain from reaching the tens of millions of commercial game players who already know and love existing games.

Yet, it may be hard for the two sides to collaborate on social good implementations, given their different objectives. Discussants from the game community spoke about the need for authenticity and narrative of games. It may be difficult for development organizations to jump into the existing game scenarios, unless their idea blends well with the pre-existing narrative for that particular game.

Online games are an M&E bonanza
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Computer games generate massive amounts of data on player activity, which development organizations can use to understand the impact of their games. Everything from demographic information, to the level of engagement of each player, to their values and beliefs, to the ways in which those values and beliefs can be influenced, can be tracked and analyzed. And the impact is real.

America’s Army video game has become more effective at recruiting than “any other method of contact,” and an MIT study found the video game “had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined,” according to Brookings.

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Before you get too excited…

All the Salon discussants involved in game development shared the difficulty of producing a game that entices players, in content and design, even before designed for social impact.

One point of contention is screen size – should games be designed solely for “big screen” desktop or full-sized tablet play, or does the ubiquity of mobile phones in the developing world mean that we should be focusing primarily on “small screen” design? Each has tradeoffs in terms of design, versions, information transmission, and reach that directly influence impact.

What we all can agree on is that games for development is more than just play – its real social impact capacity building at scale, as we’ve found here.

Written by Asia Hege, a Kurante Associate and future development expert.

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