Making a game for change? Don’t make it about the change

This week I had the good fortune to attend the Games for Change festival at the New School’s Parsons School of Design.  The festival opened with two statistics: over half of the presenters were women, and there was more diversity among presenters than ever before.

Games, many said, are at the center of the tech universe, making up a $90 billion + market. And we are just at the start of the game revolution.

Over two days at the festival, I was able to catch a variety of presenters, from an Italian protest artist to a virtual reality demo involving “fake news.” Below, I share a few lessons applicable to activism and specifically making change for a group of individuals I care about deeply.*

Play is useful because it’s useless

Have I professed adoration for Colleen Macklin yet? Rhetorical question.

Colleen, chucking Doritos into the audience

Colleen said the above (“play is useful because it’s useless”) among other wise words in her presentation at the Games for Change festival.

Though her statement “I used to be a vegan,” perplexed my activist side, which struggled to take action in the silence that followed her statement (“Should I cheer? No, wait, that would endorse the quitting … but a boo could be taken as being about the “vegan” part… [silence]”) she more than made up for it with a positive ending and a salient point that we vegans and others attempting to affect change should take to heart.

Colleen began by confessing she’s a chip-a-holic. And when she was vegan, she discovered that many chips have things like beef broth and chicken blood in them. Or maybe not blood, but you know, fluids. She was thereby quite excited to find that there was one species of Doritos that were accidentally vegan: Spicy Sweet Chili!

They were “accidentally vegan,” so not meant to be so. They were fun on their own crunchy, sweet, and spicy merit.

Everyone can agree, she continued, that a bag of Doritos is way more likely to be embraced by the masses than, say, a block of plain tofu (though she said she enjoyed raw tofu – many would not).

Engaging games, Colleen said, must be fun right out of the pack.  They can’t be about the change.

It’s timely that this point was such a strong one not only in Coleen’s presentation but mentioned by others at the festival, because the idea has interested me for years. One documentary project I considered was making a film not *about* animal rights or veganism or the animals’ plight, but one that includes animals as part of a larger context. With that approach, more people are likely to come out and see it — to care about it — and you are not hitting anyone over the head with that hammer you keep in the cupboard for Bad People. (Maybe that’s just me.)

Make your project about something broader than that which you are trying to drive home.  Wrap the main point in fun and engaging content that stands on its own.

There is a word in the English language that actually describes this concept, I found out, thanks to the next presenter Mary Flanigan.



Pronounced “OBB-foo-skate.” (Thanks, Google.)

People do not like to think you are trying to change them, and I can relate. It’s the kiss of death for engagement.  Literally. Remember that guy/gal who once asked you: “Can I give you a kiss?” BLECH!  No!  Just do it when the moment is RIGHT! (Unless of course you misinterpret that moment, that’s terrible too.)

So it’s about “intermixing,” Mary said. Not just about your change topic. Reveal the theme later: delayed review.

Following Mary, Constance Steinkuhler shared research findings on games for impact.

Constance said that data shows that games with paratexts are the most powerful.

<–Googling paratexts. 30 seconds or maybe even several minutes elapse…>

A paratext, as we all know, is a literary term to describe that which is written beyond/about the main text. This text can sometimes change how readers interpret the main text. How does this apply to games and engagement?

This brings us back to the main point: broadening context creates more intrigue and interest when the reveal eventually occurs. A bit like previews and trailers for a show, paratexts create excitement and readiness for that eventual point.

Constance also mentioned the power of disequilibrium (hi again Google!) the feeling that you have lost stability.


Creating this feeling in another is a more powerful change agent than, say, preaching to them. In fact, when people receive just a bit of new information that does not match their assumptions,they are more likely to reflect and change. But if they receive too much of this new information? It’s like preaching to them, and they don’t change.

Image result for cat preacher

What is this balance? There is no formula, but certainly it isn’t creating a game called “Save the Children,” if you’re trying to save the children. The charming Italian Paolo Pedercini of Carnegie Melon university also made this point, and raised it a notch: embed change in change that is already happening.

There is also an element of agency, and feeling in control versus an attempt to control you. Constance shows that teenage boys, for instance, improved their reading skills when they were able to choose the topic. In fact, the study showed the gap between struggling & non-struggling readers disappeared.  Interest is the key variable.

Anecdotally, this seems to be true of language learning, too. I’m reading my favorite book (Zorba the Greek) in Greek to better learn the language. Though it’s not quite as interesting as learning about little Kosta and Jane playing ball, it’s a close second.

Speaking of free will, the next presenter, Moran Cerf, spiced up the convo with a bit of neuroscience.

Moran contends that we answer questions not as who we are but who we want to be. Of course this is the danger that any data scientist faces when relying on self-reporting.

Interestingly, he also said that a choice actually happens way earlier than you experience it. An individual might be persuaded to reduce the amount of animal meat they are eating, for instance, but only exercise this choice in a future moment.

At another presentation about voting, obfuscating came up again. Historically, more people went to the polls. (Barring those who were barred, of course.) Was it because they were more committed?

The presenters argued this was not the case. Rather, voting was more of a community event where folks were expecting to see friends and hang out. In short, it was argued, they came out for the party.  They argue that if people are not inclined to vote, they still won’t even if you make it easy for them. Could this apply to food choices and the ability of omnivores to now easily choose comparable plant-based alternatives like the Beyond Burger?

Certainly to some extent. Intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than simply creating the opportunity for change. However, there is a reason retailers still position products on endcaps or next to cash registers: it moves product.

Still, creating a voting “party” is an intriguing idea that builds upon the knowledge that social influence is powerful. In fact, the presenters shared a study that showed throwing a voting party did increase turnout by way of nine parties thrown with local organizations. Anecdotally, and close to home for me as a member of a band, the same mechanism is at play with turnout for your shows. I still remember former Local 506 owner Glenn saying that crowds formed at shows when attendees knew their friends were going to be there. In other words, it wasn’t about the band, but the society they attracted.

Don’t argue facts: Tell stories

Keynote speaker Christopher Graves, who woke us all up quite effectively for his evening presentation, reinforced many of the points above with information that many of us who study behavioral change are familiar with and attempt to incorporate into our work.

Confirmation bias, he explained, means that more evidence does not change you but digs your heels in further. Arguing facts makes it worse — which again is relevant to how we approach individuals with reasons to try plant-based. “Ten billion animals are raised and slaughtered each year in the US alone” may be horrifying but not sufficiently so. More powerful is a story to drive that point home.

Repeating a myth also makes the myth “true,” since the increased exposure invokes the availability bias in people. If an idea seems to be everywhere, it must be true.

What does work, then?

Affirmation. I can attest to its power. One time, I was handing out samples of vegan food at a festival. An attendee said they would try it, and are trying to buy “humane meat.” A nearby animal activist immediately started feeding them facts about the non-humane-ness of humane meat (all true) until the attendee noticeably stiffened and began to retreat. Another activist (OK, me) said, “It’s really good that you care about animals and are taking steps to reduce their suffering. As so-and-so mentioned, the problem with “humane meat” is …” and so-on. We engaged. Likewise, Chris gave the example of prefacing your point with “Before I talk, just wanted to say that you are very skilled in this area…”

Chris continued by saying we can change minds through narrative immersion rather than a blatant attempt to change someone. And here is an incredible video to illustrate this point.

I love you, Mr. W.

But what about games?

Game design for change

Game designers Jesse Schell and Barbara Chamberlin led a helpful panel called, “The Secret Process for Making Games That Matter.” During the session, they reiterated that people remember emotions way more than facts. Doctors that inadvertent hurt their patients, for example, did not soon forget.

How does design go wrong? Typically designers simply do not allow enough time to design. Projects that work have three questions to ask:

1) What is the change that I hope is going to happen?

2) What are the activities that lead to that change?

3) What kind of gameplay leads to that change?

During the presentation “Design lessons from Glass Lab,” delivered with desert-dry humor by Erin Hoffman-John, she agreed that learning is emotional.

Speaking to earlier points about context, Erin also contended that designers for change should learn how to make a “real” commercial game first so they have the main aspect of game-making down before attempting to add elements of change. Build things fun and commercial.

Echoing earlier points, Erin said “Be intentional, but not too intentional (many learning games are).”  Make the kid feel like they learned the skill themselves instead of being taught.  Find the crucial competency important to learn, then teach it surreptitiously.  One literacy game did this beautifully.

The Dukudu word game taught literacy on the DL, building on research that shows that if you teach pairs of letters you decrease the illiteracy barrier by 95%. And yet, players felt they were playing something akin to Sudoku. It was fun, and it taught them language.

Later that day, I attended a 1:1 15-minute session with a few game designers of my choice.

Look at me! First to sign up. What a nerd.

The first was with Jesse Schell, whose book The Art of Game Design I loved and reviewed (in part) on this blog. Though he didn’t have too much advice specifically on how to make your app stand out from the rest, he did have sage advice regarding picking your audience as a designer.

Who is your audience? There are three but everyone always wants to pick the wrong one. First you pick those that are already with you, preaching to the choir. Then you pick people adamantly opposed to your cause, too far gone. Then, finally, they pick the right bunch: those ones in middle, ready for change.

Schell’s lenses though which to view game design are now available as a Deck of Lenses app. I highly recommend downloading this app. Schell said which lenses are  useful vary from game to game, but the lens of the “toy” comes up a lot. In other words: make the game inherently fun so that people want to “play” with it all on its own despite your intent.

For those creating virtual humans, the Kognito panel “The Five Rules of Virtual Humans” offered some interesting insight. You must make your characters real, but not too real. Characters will “creep people out” if they are too real. You are entering the uncanny valley. Then, if they see something slightly off it will be revolting. To avoid this pitfall, Kognito uses cartoon characters.

Interestingly, to be taken seriously, virtual characters must have memory, and  show they remember what you said. In other words, they must show they listen. (In even more other words, virtual characters must be better listeners than about 80% of people in my experience.)

Case studies: Games for Change

Below, I highlight a few interesting games that I discovered through the festival. Each explore creating impact in unique and compelling ways that can be applied to game design for change, and in particular games made to increase awareness of the plight of animals confined and slaughtered for meat/dairy.

  • Priya Shakti: “Priya joins forces with a group of acid attack survivors as they fight against the demon-king, Ahankar, and his tyrannical hold on them.” Ostensibly, this is what the game is about. But Ram Devineni, the game’s devloper, is actually using augmented reality to stop rape and the shame aftermath by creating empathy for survivors. His “aha” moment was the discovery that the problem of blaming (and assaulting) the victim was not legal but cultural. So he went about to change that cultural stigma by creating empathy for rape survivors through a strong woman heroine.
  • A Normal Lost Phone: “Explore the intimate life of an unknown person whose phone you have just found.” A fascinating mystery game created by Elizabeth of Accidental Queens, where the player reads a series of texts to discover who the person is. The rub: the owner of the phone is trans and the player gains an understanding of LGBTQ issues. The game has helped teens accept themselves, come out, or change those who are transphobic or homophobic. The lesson Elizabeth reiterates: She never sold the game as a social impact game, she sold it as a mystery. Peel back another layer: she did not target “gamers,” but the average person who could find themselves in the situation of just finding a phone. She doesn’t ask people to accept it: she just shows it.
  • Pry: “Six years ago, James returned from the first Gulf War. Explore James’ mind as his vision fails and his past collides with his present. PRY is an app hybrid of cinema, game and novel that reimagines how we might move seamlessly among words and images to explore layers of a character’s consciousness. Open or shut James’ eyes, pull apart his memories, or read his thoughts infinitely scrolling in every direction. Through these unique interactions, unravel the past and discover a story shaped by the lies we tell ourselves: lies revealed when you pull apart the narrative and read between the lines.”
  • Dollar Domination: Like monopoly, except not all players have equal amounts of cash.
  • Gotta go: How to find restrooms in North Carolina as a transgender individual.
  • Dr. Ellie Beagle: Therapy dog deploys active listening and deductive reasoning with a little bit of attitude.

Image result for dr ellie beagle

  • Four Horseman: A game about the immigrant experience, which is as varied as the individuals being played. In other words, not all immigration experiences are identical, depending on your country of origin. The player gets to experience this unequal treatment firsthand. Kevin Chen, the games creator, interestingly contends that allowing profanity in his game was a hit since it’s usually forbidden. However, one must be mindful of other cultures when making games for an international audience. For example, punching a perpetrator in an individualistic society like that of the USA may seem natural, whereas in a collective society this would be quite terrible.
  • Axon, A Social Media Showdown in Space: “Fake News! As our lives become increasingly overwhelmed by shared media, how do we handle it all? Project Axon is a live crowd-gaming experience using virtual reality to explore competitive social media. The game was created by a team of students at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center.”  These folks had to win for embodying “show not tell” for their presentation combating “fake news.” Players got to experience the world directly as either media or citizens, in trying to determine who was lying and whose news was real. The “ruler” then decided which planet would live or die. The engagement in the room was palpable. And, hopefully, players left with a deeper understanding of the need to be discerning when sharing news stories.

Fake news!

*Stardew Valley and a Mistake

There is another game I wanted to mention, but this time I’m highlighting it, special, with its own Heading 1 call-out.  I had never heard of Stardew Valley, but my favorite presenter, the Dorito Queen Colleen Macklin, mentioned loving this game in her presentation.

It’s a simple farming game, made by an independent developer, and has an incredible dedicated following. A description from their site:

You’ve inherited your grandfather’s old farm plot in Stardew Valley. Armed with hand-me-down tools and a few coins, you set out to begin your new life. Can you learn to live off the land and turn these overgrown fields into a thriving home?

Image result for stardew valley

Yes, yes I can, Stardew!

At one point, a few dedicated followers asked the developer to add animal agriculture (ability to kill animals for food) to the mix. After all, that would be more realistic, and, they contended, fun.

However, after the developer added the killing animals to the mix, this aspect apparently was widely disliked and a “downer.”  The ability to kill animals was removed by the developer (who is a vegetarian, Colleen said, by the way).

Though by no means a conclusive study, most people I have met are not comfortable with killing animals. We participate in a collective forgetting that allows others to perform this act without our direct participation, yet, the forgetting is because we care — not because we don’t.

And thereby our work as activists, advocates, and as artists is cut out for us. It is heartening to know that ours is not a lost cause: finding the path to change is a long one that requires building a game or experience greater than the change itself.

The Games for Change festival convened a diverse collection of insightful presenters and topics providing a powerful reminder that there is one important ingredient needed to improve the lives of others: others.

Let’s change the world, but make it feel like an accident.

Tofu + Doritos = change

Do you have a game idea for change? Please do get in touch. Sign up below to follow my progress on my game Kore: The Mysteries.