In anticipation of the 12th annual Games for Change festival, we spoke with one of this year’s speakers, Colleen Macklin. Colleen is an Associate Professor in Design and Technology at Parsons School of Design in New York City and Co-Director of PETLab (Prototyping Education and Technology Lab), a lab focused on developing games for experimental learning and social engagement. She will present Creating Games with and for the Red Cross, which she told us a bit about below. With our continuing interest in games promoting social good, we asked Colleen to shed light on a few of her favorites and give tips to others who are thinking about building their own games. And don’t miss her at the festival! Our friends at Games for Change are offering AdLibbing readers 10 percent off their tickets with code 10adc.
Ad Council: What are the top games promoting social good? Why are they so successful?
Colleen Macklin: This is a tricky question—because a game can promote social good in so many ways. Here’s a few examples:
Some games promote social awareness through their content. This is mainly how people think of games for social good–the game is about something. Molleindustria’s games are great examples of games that are about social issues–from The Best Amendment–about the futility of conservative thinking on gun control to Unmanned, about a day in the life of a military drone pilot.
Some games focus on promoting social awareness through the way they are played. Lim tries to express how it feels to try to “pass” in a trans/homo/you-name-it-phobic society through gamplay; with visuals that are simple abstract shapes.
Some games may not seem like they’re about the social good in either content or gameplay, but they are actually doing socially beneficial things. Foldit is a puzzle game that actually has players perform important scientific research. By finding patterns (humans are great at finding patterns), players help scientists create better computer algorithms to learn more about protein structures to create better medicines and treatments. This is a game that actually does substantial scientific research, even though to the player, it’s simply a series of abstract puzzles.
Zombies Run is an audio-based iPhone game designed to encourage players to run and stay physically fit, while providing an immersive narrative (set in a zombie-apocalypese, of course), to help you keep going.
And finally, some games are just good for a lot of things, and they’ve been here all along. Like Chess or basketball. Basketball was designed by a pastor to keep young men active in the wintertime and out of trouble. Chess clubs in schools keep young people engaged in learning and develop important social skills. I think society tends to overlook the important social good all kinds of games have been promoting, for thousands of years!
AC: Tell us about the Boys & Girls Club of America GameTech Program: how did it get started? What do you think organizations can learn from the program?
CM: My research lab, PETLab, partnered with Games for Change to create a curriculum in game design for Boys & Girls Clubs of America. We were approached by them to design something that could be used in the clubs–which are already spaces where young people play all kinds of games.
We wanted to encourage young people to not only consume games, but to learn how they’re made as well. We were also interested in the combination of technology an art skills, as well as the social skills making games promotes. When you make a game, you quickly learn a lot about people when you see it played by others. In fact, making up the rules for a game and seeing how other people interpret those rules is one of the first times we learn that others don’t always think the same way we do!
I think the most important thing organizations can learn from the GameTech program is the power of iteration. In the curriculum, we emphasize a design cycle of “thinking, prototyping, playtesting, and changing.” Learning that you can’t make a great game in one shot; that it involves learning from failure is an important lesson in game design and life itself!
AC: We love the idea of a non-digital game, and making that distinction, particularly for your “Games for a New Climate” initiative with the Red Cross. Can you tell us more about it? What are its greatest strengths? What can organizations learn from it?
CM: Well, not everyone likes videogames, and not every place has the technology to support videogames either. With the Red Cross, we’re working with communities in places where at least one of these things is true. We also wanted to design games based on a community’s traditional games–from tabletop games like Mancala to more active games like tag. And finally, we wanted to create games that many community members could play together, and that would spark conversations about disaster preparedness among many different members of the community.
In our time making and playing these games with communities from Africa to Asia we learned that one of the most powerful things about games is their ability to erase hierarchies and, both figuratively and literally, bring everyone to the table. This is important when you have an issue that affects everyone and needs the whole community to address, like climate-related disasters from flooding to drought.
AC: What has surprised you the most in the social good gaming space?
CM: I think the most surprising thing–or perhaps I should say interesting thing–is how much games are a reflection of society and how we feel about our time. Right now, videogames are society’s scapegoat for all kinds of social ills–just like rock and roll or TV before. But then you see a medium expand and explore new territory and it opens social gateways to become more acceptable. For TV the gateway was public broadcasting and educational shows like Sesame Street. For Rock and Roll, the music of the 60’s was an important vehicle for political action. Perhaps games for change–or social good–are the gateways for the acceptance and appreciation of videogames–and all kinds of games–as an expressive art form.
AC: What’s your favorite game?
CM: Thank you for this IMPOSSIBLE question! I can’t choose one. I really can’t. Zelda, World of Warcraft, Day of the Tentacle, Drop 7, Mountain, Kentucky Route Zero… But if I have to pick an absolute favorite, it would be hide and seek outside on a hot summer night.