Can Social-Change Video Games Tackle Divorce, Poverty, Genocide?

At two-day New York conference, one veteran designer raises some doubts.

NEW YORK — Some people think games make the world more violent.

Some think they cripple intelligence.

But on Tuesday and Wednesday in Manhattan, 200 game developers, social activists and representatives for international groups from charities to the United Nations discussed, debated and demonstrated games designed to do good: fighting homelessness, promoting world peace and helping children deal with their parents’ divorce.

Can it all work? It depends on which keynote speaker you listened to at the two-day third annual Games for Change conference, held at Parsons the New School of Design.

Bob Kerrey, a former U.S. senator and Parsons’ president, told the attendees, “I am very grateful that you all are trying to make games, create games that produce good change, that increase the amount of human beings that have sympathy and figure things out.”

That enthusiasm went hand in hand with positive reports about some of the games, including “A Force More Powerful” and “Pax Warrior.” “A Force More Powerful” is an ambitious $3 million game for resistance groups that want to role-play scenarios of citywide and even countrywide nonviolent demonstrations, walking through each step from marching to holding a fundraising party. And “Pax Warrior” is a Canadian project that lets users try to prevent the 1990s genocide in Rwanda. Its developers say it already has 250,000 users.

Those were the good vibes. The bath of cold water came from the conference’s final speaker, Raph Koster, who designed several major massively multiplayer online games, including “Star Wars Galaxies.” Invited to the conference for his big-gaming-company perspective and reputation as a sophisticated thinker, Koster questioned the convergence of the playful world of games with the world of social crisis.

“It’s almost like if you were a paper-airplane maker and somebody came up to you and said, ‘You know, paper airplanes, it seems like all the kids are into them at school these days. So we really want to make paper airplanes about Darfur,’ ” he said.

Koster discussed his childhood in international areas of poverty and conflict like Haiti and Peru, describing the wretched sewage system in Port au Prince, Haiti. “The kids would not only bathe and drink that water, but they would also eat the stuff that came out of the water even if it was the only thing they had to eat,” he said. “Putting this in a game: How? It begs the questions: How? Why? Can you? Should you? Does the situation like that stand in its horror when you put it in a set of pixels?”

The first knock on anyone criticizing games is that they possibly haven’t played them. It wasn’t clear if Koster had attended the Tuesday-night game expo and sampled some of the activism in action. Had he played “Peacemaker,” a strategy game that tasks players with settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by steering the leadership of either side? Had he tried “Earthquake in Zipland,” a cartoonish game that stars a moose trying to assemble a giant zipper to merge the separate islands upon which his parents are drifting apart, an extended metaphor about divorce?

Had Koster played the prototype of “The Organizing Game,” which is designed to teach grassroots activists basic skills like recognizing which doors in the neighborhood are the good ones to knock on? Had he tried “Homelessness: It’s No Game,” a simple game that challenges players to keep their homeless character alive and out of trouble for 24 hours of video game time? Did he harbor no enthusiasm for Ian Bogost’s anti-Kinko’s game, “Disaffected” (see “Game Lets Players Step Into Toner-Stained Shoes Of Kinko’s Workers” )?

And had Koster not been encouraged by the announcements earlier Tuesday, when mtvU General Manager Stephen Friedman announced his network will issue 10 $25,000 grants to college students making games for change? MtvU had sponsored the creation of the Sudan awareness game “Darfur Is Dying” and, Friedman announced, will launch a student-made game called “Squeezed” that depicts the lives of immigrant farm workers — a “first-person picker” — on mtvU.com in September.

Friedman’s emphasis on student-created games sat well with Games for Change conference founder Suzanne Seggerman, who said the MacArthur Foundation recently issued a $1.2 million grant for the creation of game-making tools designed for students. Such moves, she said, squarely position young people as the future of advocacy-driven games. Major game companies have largely ignored social-change games.

“I think the corporate games industry is risk-averse,” Seggerman said. “I think they’re very comfortable looking at us as outsiders.”

So there was the veteran of corporate games — the deep-thinking Koster — unloading his doubts in front of these outsiders. He has written a book called “A Theory of Fun” and played that card too, saying, “to be blunt, there’s an awful lot of academic work and social-change work where the user is not entertained enough to launch it in the first place.”

But he snuck some kind words in too — for his own work. He discussed a game about a hungry sea snake that he designed to help his diabetic daughter learn how to regulate her diet. So games for change have a slithering chance for success in his world after all?

In the end, Koster proved to be knocking the legs out from the Games for Change movement in order to champion what he cherishes most about games: their levity. It wasn’t a happy kind of levity he was praising as much as it was the fact that games are good at making no situation seem altogether dire — nor outright intractable. The problem with the world’s real-life issues, he said, is that the crisis of Darfur and the squalor of Haiti seem insurmountable. People throw up their hands in a way they don’t with problems posed in a video game.

“Maybe games teach us that we can actually tackle these monstrous problems bit by bit, pick them apart, disassemble them, turn each one into something simple that we can tackle,” he said. “Maybe the strength of games is that they trivialize the problem. Because in the end, we have the money. There’s piles of money in the world. We have the ideals. You’re by and large espousing them. We have the know-how. The biggest thing social change is mostly lacking is worldwide will.”

Games that encourage us to virtually tackle the world’s worst problems might just get give people the urge to tackle them in real life as well. That’s a change even Koster is ready for games to bring on.