Social Change and Digital Games

Village The Game

Using Serious Games for Peacebuilding is a topic that I’ve written on quite extensively, so news of a debate surrounding an initiative called Village through the email newsletters of Incommunicado was welcome reading.

Lisa McLaughlin, Ph.D., Director of Graduate Studies, M.A. Program in Mass Communication at Miami University-Ohio had these interesting thoughts to share:

As I understand it, ‘sim’ as in ‘simulation’ refers to a most often simplified representation of something that is ‘real’. If the topic is ICT4D or world hunger, or any number of other ‘development issues’, what is to be gained by simplification in the form of a sim game? Even worse is to think that what is on offer is a simulacrum, in Jean Baudrillard’s sense: a copy of a copy that no longer bears much, if any, relationship to the original. This is supposed to bring us closer to, and increase our understanding of, the lives of persons less privileged than us? Susan Sontag, in On Photography, wrote something to the effect that, while the circulation of images is often thought to bring us closer to war, hunger, poverty, etc., they are more likely to make the more privileged feel exempt from these circumstances.

One other consideration: if we are speaking of ‘the real’ being simulated, whose reality becomes incorporated into the design of the game? I suspect that the worldview of Darian Hickman, computer scientist from the city of Pasadena, California, will become a feature of the game well before anyone from Nigeria is consulted or even aware of its existence. Note that his interest is in presenting the point of view of an entrepreneur promising to lift thousands, perhaps millions, out of poverty through “building companies.”

And, then, I’m wondering about virtual/representations of malaria, AIDS, and hunger, along with those of community celebrations and successful campaigns against corporations which have more rights than do the persons whose lives they touch every day. Difficult to build into a game (even with computer technologies that are imagined to be capable of simulating nearly all of our realities), especially if one wants to avoid contributing to yet more distorted representations of places like the countries of Africa.

Darian Hickman is the brains behind the Village game.

Lisa’s points are interesting in that they force us to question the assumption that these games, which portray a reality far from our own, actually work in their intention of “bringing closer to home” the realities of conflict, poverty, violence, disease etc.

I don’t think, however, that comparing games such as Darfur is Dying to Sontag’s comments on photography is useful. For sure, Lisa’s point that these games are often made by Western minds, for Western audiences is valid. On the other hand, a game like Darfur is Dying, after I posted it, resulted in many emails that have told me that simply playing it opened the eyes of those who had switched off to news of Darfur when shown on other news media. The game itself isn’t just a portrayal, but asked “players” to work through conditions and parameters that mirror the context on the ground. Of course, once the web browser is closed, Sontag’s comments may well come into play, but even here, I think more research is needed to explore just how many people clicked on the Take Action link.

As the Games for Change Annual Conference in 2006 points out:

Videogames are increasingly ubiquitous. More than half of all Americans play them and for college students it’s more than 70%. Games have surpassed Hollywood box office revenues for the third year in a row. Last year’s figures: games’ $10B to Hollywood’s $9.4B. And as this technology matures, there is a new trend emerging: harnessing the power of this popular medium for more “serious purposes”. Fighting poverty. Educating and inspiring young cancer patients. Training protesters in peaceful resistance to oppressive regimes. Fostering leadership skills in inner city youth. Exploring the tricky terrain between civil rights and airport security. Treating debilitating childhood diabetes. Understanding the human rights crisis in Darfur. The list goes on.

Addressing some of the questions I posed for the development of games for peacebuilding, Social Impact Games has a wonderful list of games on socio-political issues that look really interesting (Escape from Woomera caught my attention, since I closely followed debates on Australia’s “detention centres” during my sojourn at UQ from 2004 – 2005).

There is also growing international recognition of the power of games to influence real world change, as the inclusin of a session on Peace Games & International Efforts proves in the Games for Change Annual Conference in 2006.

Another interesting discussion is one hosted on Social Edge here. The comments to the original post lead to a lot of interesting resources, including Games of Peace and War.

Coming full circle, the potential for the development of games that support peace, reconciliation and democratisation initiatives on the ground is increasingly. Already, we see games that have emerged that take up very serious political and social issues. We must be careful in what we hope these games achieve. While the games themselves may be engaging, there is a need to ascertain through research the connection between an increase in social and political activism in a given scenario that is portrayed through a game world – say on Darfur for instance.

We also need to be careful of the ideologies and assumptions that feed into the development of these games. Driven often by Western interests and developed for Western minds, some games may well heighten attention on an issue or conflict, but may create the foundation for the exacerbation of conflict through the promotion of methods and frameworks that work well in-game, but terribly when applied in the real world. In other words, the design of a game on conflict for instance needs to necessarily involve those affected by the conflict, those working on the ground, a range of experts who help explain the root causes of the conflict and importantly, peacebuilders themselves, who know best how to engender change.

Games for peacebuilding holds much promise, which is why I hope that Peace Tools (and indeed, other initiatives on similar lines) results in some groundbreaking games that strengthen conflict transformation at all levels within the next decade.

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