Saving the world through game design

edited June 2008 in Story Games
Thanks to Paul for the pointer to this video presentation by Jane McGonigal at the New Yorker's Stories from the Near Future conference.

I'd like to discuss some of the things Jane says, if anyone is up for that. She is talking about Alternate Reality Games specifically, but most of it is relevant to analogue games like story gamjes as well.

I noted down what she said about immersion: "Gameplay is about immmersion [but] it's not about immersing yourself in a story or character or graphics or fantasy, it's actually about immersing yourself in an interactive system and your engagement with that system, and your engagement with other people playing games, that's the core focus of gameplay."

About games in general: "Games can be a contructive response to social problems - we could create games that try to address a social problem."

And lastly: "We play them because when we play we are not suffering."

Now, the marxist deeply embedded in my mind is slightly wary of the last quote - this means games are a potential suppressive method, but perhaps that's over-reacting.

Comments are welcome, also examples of story games that actually address social problems and how (Steal Away Jordan and Shock springs immediately to mind).


  • Just a couple:

    Sign in Stranger is about inter-cultural (mis)communication and living together with people who are different.

    Dogs in the Vineyard is about how people use violence, the authority of a (supposedly) moral elite, and how communities work.
  • Perfect RPG is about society becoming more important than the individual, and what happens to those who don't fit the plan. I've not played the game, but everything I've read and heard about it sounds fascinating.

    carry also could be seen as that kind of game, about people struggling the keep identity during a time of war and incredible stress and inhumanity.

  • My only comment would be to ask whether the people whose world needs to be changed, or the people whose behaviour needs to be challenged, or the institutions that need to be regulated are ever really going to sit down and play these world-saving games? I think you can address social, moral, ethical and political issues in games - sure - but I also think that in the whole you are preaching to the converted. Despite the anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of people I have met through gaming have been balanced, polite, remarkably self-aware individuals without any obvious prejudices to be tackled.

    It's a problem I have for years in leftist organisations - the ability to sit in rooms and discuss how awful things are and how something simply must be done about something and how you have to understand the wrongness and then doing absolutely nothing about it in practical terms with the people who cannot see how awful things are, what must be done and ignore or perpetuate the wrongness.

    Or, to put it simply, I cannot see a group of BNP members sitting down to a game of Grey Ranks and then shakes their heads and going 'Nazis... what were we thinking? Doh..!'

  • Okay, I hate to be a wet blanket, but ... reality check here.

    Playing games doesn't save the world from anything except lack of games.

    If playing games helps you to build skills that you then transfer into other parts of your life, and that helps you take actions to save the world ... well then, great! But it's the actions you took, not the games.

    With that in mind, I actually think that a lot of games teach skills that you can use to make your life and the lives of those around you better. For instance, most games can help you to learn how to fully and passionately engage in conflict with another person, without demonizing them or hating them at the end. That's a skill in short supply.
  • If you want to save the world with games, you need to make sure more than just a few hundred - or thousand - people play those games.

    If you just want to make life better for your friends and their friends, that's something else.
  • Before we all collectively jump the wrong cliff - "Saving the world through game design" was the title of the presentation, not an opinion of mine. FWIW I don't think the world needs to be saved.

    I was interested in the bit about being able to address social issues in games, how we can do it and if it has any validity at all - should we do it, can it be done, or is escapism the true purpose f.ex.

    Besides, I thought Jane's take on immersion made sense to me, at least it made me understand why I don't have a clue when people talk about immersing in a character and don't fx. want to engage with a game's mechanics because they [insert own words of choice here].

    Bear also in mind that I quoted bits and pieces out of context (I'm a journalist, that's what we do), if you are interested in the world-saving aspects I guess you'll have to watch the video.
  • How do you influence the big streams of consciousness in the world, if not by expressing your views, f.ex. through thought-provoking games? There is no reason for humans in a democratic system to create an illusion that humans don't rule the world. We do, by a multitude of means. I find the idea quite realistic, and beautiful, and I think Jane McGonigal makes a good speech on it.
  • edited June 2008
    Posted By: TonyLB
    Playing games doesn't save the world from anything except lack of games.
    I was about to post the same. The best way to save the world through game design is to design a game, sell it, and give all profits to an organization which is actually saving the world (United Way, NPOs, etc).

    But then:
    Posted By: Per FischerBefore we all collectively jump the wrong cliff - "Saving the world through game design" was the title of the presentation, not an opinion of mine. FWIW I don't think the world needs to be saved.

    I was interested in the bit about being able to address social issues in games, how we can do it and if it has any validity at all - should we do it, can it be done, or is escapism the true purpose f.ex.
    Ah, ok. Sorry about that. However, based on the pullquotes/ideas from the lecture, I'm still nor sure that people are going to help make meaningful changes in anyone other than the small group of gamers (3-4 other people) who are playing the game... and those are the people who are going to be the most receptive to that change, anyway. Otherwise they probably wouldn't be your friends.

    And that's the real problem, isn't it? That the problem isn't the people receptive to that sort of change, but the ones who absolutely won't change (racists, facists, sexual deviants, misogynists, etc)... You won't be able to change them through a game, will you? If anything, it's not going to be through a tabletop game (maybe a console game, or something?). I don't play with racists, womanizers, bigots etc (well, one dude in one of my groups is bigoted against organized religion, but that's a minor thing IMO), so if I bring them a "social/life-changing game", they're going to be receptive to it, because they're already going to be receptive to that sort of thing. It's not going to be a "jump" in behavior, more like a shuffle one foot to the left.

    It's the people NOT receptive to positive change that we have to worry about:anti-black, anti-Jew, anti-Muslim, anti-whatever-we-don't-like-these-days, etc. And I don't think putting carry or Steal Away Jordan into game stores is going to change, or even have any opportunity to reach, some racist fuck in the Ozarks, or some frustrated young Palestinian in the Gaza Strip.

    EDIT: Ultimately, I believe (and this is my own opinion, mind) "gaming"/"game design" won't have any more social/life changing effects that we wouldn't also see in other idle passtimes like:
    Chainsaw cutting competitions
    Mah Jongg
    Posted By: Per FischerNow, the marxist deeply embedded in my mind is slightly wary of the last quote - this means games are a potential suppressive method, but perhaps that's over-reacting.
    That's what they are. The cold glass of vodka for the tired day-laborer after being in the factory working his body all day, has been replaced with the light-hearted session of roleplaying (or console gaming, which is far more pervasive, but it's the same effect) for the white-collar worker after using her brain all day. It's not a "tool of control" or anything like that, though.

  • Ummm, I think I missed something,,, I thought the thread was asking about games that addressed social problems. Not games that could solve social problems. I didn't take the thread title literaly.

  • Michael, you are right - adressing issues not necessarily solving them, and I did ask for game examples and got a handful of good ones, cheers :)

    So, Andy, games can be a replacement for religion as "opium for the masses" - that's possibly the exact opposite as being able to raise people's awareness. I guess they can be both, depending on the game and what you want from it.
  • Posted By: merb101"Games can be a contructive response to social problems - we could create games that try to address a social problem."
    Doesn't "address" = "solve/work towards solving" in these dialogues?

  • Posted By: AndyPosted By: merb101"Games can be a contructive response to social problems - we could create games that try to address a social problem."
    Doesn't "address" = "solve/work towards solving" in these dialogues?


    Hey, I don't think I typed that.

  • I don't think those are exactly the same, Andy.

    Of course, if you address an issue in a game, you are bound to reflect and possibly come up with an reaction to it, your own or on behalf of the human race perhaps - and you can fail and act wrongly and try another approach, because it's a 'safe' environment, ie. it's fiction.

    That's what art enables us to do, and why it's different from knitting or chainsaw cutting.
  • I think you can quite easily take real world issues and explore them around a gaming table - I'm mulling over a series of ideas for Malcolm Craig's upcoming 'Hot War' using the current farce in Zimbabwe as an 'inspiration' (although there is nothing inspiring about it). I think historical games can be used to put history (and therefore attitudes and politics) into a context that might be at odds with the received wisdom of the event. The ability of games to zoom in on a situation, place you in the middle and then say 'what would you do?' is a very powerful tool.

    Of course, one of the problems that you might face is that the player isn't the one facing the situation, rather than the character they are playing. Its almost like you need a suspension of the suspension of disbelief. For example, in my Hot War game all three players descended into quite right-wing totalitarian mindsets from the off. At least two of the three are very liberal in their views (and the third is a tory, so for the Americans in the audience, thats still left wing, right? *wink*). The characters they were playing were divorced from their own views and therefore I can see how that distance can take the impact off the personal explorative part of the game. If you play a game like this thinking 'It doesn't matter what I do, its only a game...' then you will have that disconnect from the 'learning'

    And thats a very easy mindset to slot into - after all, how many times have we resorted in games to 'invade the homes of sentient beings, massacre them, steal their belongings and then return home to triumph!'?

    As for games, in their wider context, being used as a soporific tool to becalm the population .. you never know, you might be right? I remember being told by one of my trot college friends that he could never like football, because the popularity of the game amongst the working classes in the 1920s and 30s was cited as one of the main reasons that there was never a socialist revolution in the UK. Throughout history people have sought distractions to take their minds off the shit that is presented before them - games, especially console games - could just be this generations overwhelming 'hit' when it comes to that distraction.

  • Posted By: merb101Hey, I don't think I typed that.
    Ooops, sorry I was trying to quote twice (your quote, plus the one I actually quoted from the OP), and they became one bizarre super-quote. Sorry about the confusion.
    Posted By: Per FischerI don't think those are exactly the same, Andy.
    I went to my friend, Dictionary Dot Com, and he told me (for address):

    13. to direct to the attention: He addressed his remarks to the lawyers in the audience.
    15. to deal with or discuss: to address the issues.

    So it looks like we might be speaking about two things, it sounds like you're using definition 13, and I'm thinking definition 15. Frex, when we hold a meeting to address a problem, the idea is that we deal with it; we fix it. That's the baggage I was bringing into the conversation, hence the confusion on my part.

    If you're just looking to point at/bring light to/direct attention to social issues, then yeah I can kind of see that, for the people you have at the table and all that.

  • edited June 2008
    I have not saved the world through my game design yet, but will try. Will try!

    Eh, I'm at a loss how, though, so I will have to think about it.

    Looks funny, or what? Well, I'm still in earnest, and at the same time I smile at my vain ambition. I will certainly do my best to be a positive force in our lives, through my game design (in other respects too, of course, but my games are a way to reach more people ...). I found the talk by Jane McGonigal to be very inspiring, and very much a pointer toward games for change, aside with other phenomenons surfacing nowadays, especially among Norwegian designers. There is a surge of new, serious design, both interesting and promising. I believe RPGs are on the brink of a development-leap, actually.

    And I want to be among the first leaping off the cliff! It has to be a leap of faith, of course, as there is nothing out there to land on, yet ... ;-)
  • Honestly I'm surprised at reading this thread, because I thought more people in this community would be receptive to the idea that games can "save" the world.

    I think they can, and there are many game designers--video game designers, at least--who are seriously intent on saving the world.

    But of course, "saving the world" sounds awfully ambitious for a "mere" game, so I'll write a bit about merely changing the world. I personally think that believing the world needs to be changed for the better implies the word needs saving, but I won't really get into that here.

    The world is really just the aggregate of people. So changing the world involves changing people: changing the way they think, they way they act, they way they treat one another. Even if you only succeed in affecting some people, you've made a mark on the world! Thus changing the world with a game doesn't mean publishing a game that is a huge success, sells millions of copies and causes people to stop exploiting the third world etc.

    That's just absurd.

    But games are ART, and is anyone going to seriously deny that art has an impact on people? If games are art, and other kinds of art have had a major impact on people's lives, then why would games not? If anything, the impact or import of games is potentially FAR greater than other narrative arts because of the high degree of interaction one has with the art. One does not passively read or watch an RPG. One *participates* in an RPG; ideally, one can't be passive. The whole process of role-playing--of assuming a persona that is consciously not one's own--is essentially an experiment in moral thinking. For the first step in being moral at all is empathy, of putting yourself in another's shoes. And this is exactly what one does when one roleplays. Really roleplays as opposed to mere acting.

    And of course, games in general *are* persuasive in how they go about modeling events and how they guide the player through a set of behaviours. There is an academic field called Game Studies which examines this sort of thing. I HIGHLY recommend that you all read at least the first chapter of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames by Ian Bogost. Although the book is about video games and not tabletop games, the theoretical framework he lays out in chapter one is applicable to any game. You should at least read chapter one.

    The claim is that, just as speeches employ verbal rhetoric to persuade an audience, and films and documentaries employ a visual rhetoric to the same end, so games employ "procedural rhetoric."
  • edited June 2008
    Thinking aloud here:

    Games are generally perceived to be for fun. This may have to do with us letting go in a game, immersing ourselves in an interactive system. It is conceivable that such an interactive system may be made to empower us. So games made for fun, may be made for change at the same time. It may be perceived as great fun to immerse yourself in real world politics, within the frames of a "game".

    "Game": if we are gaming real world politics; is it still a game? Does it matter? (would not thinking of it a game, reduce the fun in it?)

    Why would we like to make real world politics into fun gaming? Wouldn't that be stupid or laughable? Well, it may be conceived that way, but consider; fun is linked to the brain-centers producing our happiness-stuff. Things are "fun" due to the fact that they produce happiness. Happiness is a state with its own qualities. It makes for infectious enthusiasm (useful), more energy (useful), better social-skills (useful) and improved empathy (useful). These qualities may be decisive in relation to the solution of political problems in a positive way. Politics are very much about relations and communications, when you boil it down. So that is one reason to pruport the use of gaming techniques for political change.

    Another reason we may want to make politics into fun gaming, or make use of gaming techniques to engage people in politics, is indeed the lack of engagement in lots of people, when it comes to politics. The lack of engagement in politics is so severe today, that it threatens the foundations of democracy; the electoral process. If the ruling organs are elected by a minority, they lose authority. Still, more than this; the lack of engagement and lack of will to do anything with problems plaguing us or our neighbors, are as big a threat. People have a mounting feeling of being powerless in relation to both small and big issues of today. It is conceivable that we need a lot of "happiness-energy" to make a difference on war in the middle east, famine spreading in the world, pollution destroying our weather-systems, the pestilence of aids rampaging many Arfrican countries.

    That's all fine, but how do we make games to change this? What gaming techniques may we use to empower ourselves? How do we relate to real world problems through a game? For sure; we must make "games" of a very different kind than we are used to. We need to change our thinking as game-designers to do that. I believe we need to make some kind of "agenda-games". And these "agenda-games" need to empower the players, not make them follow any premade idea of what politics they shall make. The game must let them make the politics.

    "Agenda-games": games with an agenda, made to address some issue, and to make players use their energy finding solutions (or investigating alternative takes on the issue).

    That's enough for now. Hope this all makes sense.
  • edited June 2008
    I'm naturally suspicious of statements about what games are: games are art, games are just for fun. Games are different things to different people.

    It reminds me of arguments on the Forge, where people wanted to explain what Paranoia was and why everyone else was wrong.

  • Thomas, those are ambitious goals for your games - I like it!

    Luke, I agree, but am wondering whether our sub-sub culture of artistically charged story games (let's face it, they are a teeny weeny corner within an already small community compared to the number of people playing video games fx) can muster any impact worth mentioning. I guess it can.

    You are also right regarding people. When I said the world didn't need saving, I also meant that I think humans DO need 'saving', or changing. But people have to change themselves, they cannot be changed by force. When we engage with art, or express ourselves artistically, we change, or may change. But not everyone plays games with that in mind or with that preference. For me personally, it's essential.

    Apologies for the high rambling factor.
  • Ah right, now we're talking.

    I *know* that games can be used as a catalyst to change people. I can cite a number of kids who entered our CCG community site (and UK playing community) as aggressive, offensive, insulting little assholes. Many of them have now graduated college, got married, found good careers and they openly attribute part of the change in their lifestyle to the schooling that they were given on those messageboards, the examples that were made for them of the older players and the freely given aid that we provided when they had to make some difficult life choices. OK, it wasn't the actual content of the game that helped these young people develop into level-headed human beings - rather it was the community - but the exposure to that community wouldn't have come around without the game.

    I still maintain however, that if you are using the game rather than the people around the game as the agent of change, you are going to run into a number of self-omission issues. You can make the very best game ever for exploring the importance of democracy and the consequences of a disenfranchised population from their political masters BUT if the only people who play it are people who understand those concepts anyway, it's worthless. As I said, preaching to the converted.

    Schools have used these techniques for years. Today, as it happens, my daughters' entire school is running under Victorian rules (with optional Victorian dress as well) to illustrate their school-wide history topic. Lessons will be done in a Victorian style, games will be Victorian etc. The school has gone to great lengths to make this as realistic as possible. The 'good' kids are, I imagine, going to come away from the experience with a deeper understanding of how their lot in life has improved. The 'bad' kids however? I highly doubt that it will provide some sort of Road to Damascus moment for them where they recognise the subtle benefits of authority and discipline in learning and suddenly become less mouthy and naughty.

    In essence, I don't think the answer lies in the games - moreover in the people who play the games, the atmosphere that is generated in the gameplaying communities and the standards that are held around the gaming table and beyond. I think those are far stronger factors in influencing change than the rules or the situation in a game because in essence, they have a chance of engaging where needed.

  • Of course games can address social problems. Games can also be conduits through which we can express and articulate our beliefs around social problems. To toot my own horn, Full Light, Full Steam exists as a means to address modern social issues through a "safe" fantastic setting (which just happens to involve imperialism, crushing class and economic distinctions, conflicts between duty, honor, and pragmatism, and the ever-present "Woman Question"). Sons of Liberty allows players to play with historical figures and events, and the resulting games are full of interesting interactions that only happen because it's "just a game." Conquer the Horizon has never resulted in a game that didn't hit social issues fast and hard, and Agora goes full steam into that brick wall.

    In fact, I can't see how games can avoid addressing social issues, especially if you consider complete escapism (this subject is distressing, let's elide it) to be a telling response.
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