Thursday, June 5, 2008

Change Games

In his 2004 book, "The Wisdom of Crowds," New Yorker columnist James Suroweicki offered the world a simple but profound idea: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few—no matter how brilliant—and are, therefore, much better at problem-solving, innovation, and even predicting the future.

In the four years since Suroweicki's book, the phrases, "the hive mind" and "crowd-sourcing" have entered the lexicon: those inventing the next, "2.0" version of the Web are testing ways that companies, educators, and social change advocates can tap into their thousands of new and expanding social networks—on demand—for better ideas, more money, and greater influence.

Facebook's popular Causes application is already demonstrating what a cause-wired group of colleagues in multiple social networks can do if they share a common goal, like Pave My Street, Elect John Doe, Save the Whales. (Since it debuted a year ago, Causes has some 12 million users supporting more than 80,000 nonprofit causes worldwide.)

Barack Obama's campaign is tapping its "hive mind" of supporters to drum up new bucks and ideas. (OhBoyObama, reports ReadWriteWeb, is an "outsourced think tank." The site asks people to submit policy ideas for a vote by the "crowd" that logs in.)

And at this week's 5th annual Games for Change conference in Manhattan, about 350 video game designers, educators, and change advocates are meeting to create, debate, and demo new types of "cause" games. Suzanne Seggerman, Ben Stokes, and Barry Joseph founded the emerging "games-for-change" movement to enliven public debate and tap players' vast array of social networks for solutions.

Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City , launched yesterday, explores New Orleans' stubborn housing crisis. Created almost entirely by students at Brooklyn's Canarsie High School with Global Kids, a New York City urban youth nonprofit, the game aims to "draw attention to residents' continuing fight for housing in 2008." Players follow the fictional character, Vivica Water, and relive her battle during the 2005 storm to save neighbors from rising floodwaters. (See sketch, below, from an early set design; note the watermark.)

ICED: I Can End Deportation, by the human rights nonprofit Breakthrough, lets players "walk in the shoes" of five teens facing deportation, including Marc of Haiti, who is seeking political asylum; Suki of Japan, who is living in New York on a student visa, and Anna, from Poland, who "thinks she's a (U.S.) citizen." The goal: to show players "how immigration laws deny due process and violate human rights."

But after the role-playing ends, do games like ICED and Tempest really have the power to solve anything?

Designers say that's probably why the most popular (and promising) games stress collaborative problem-solving for the real world. World Without Oil, for example, a year-old game from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has so far logged 60,000 visitors and 1,800 players from 12 countries who prefer to speak up and share their own views about how an oil shock might impact their real-life jobs, housing, mobility, and relationships—a "play it before you really live it" experience, Seggerman says. Peacemaker, a game about the Middle East conflict, lets players take on the role of either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader (or both, ideally), so as to better understand the kinds of decisions either one of them might be forced to make. UNICEF's Ayiti: The Cost of Life, out this month, transforms poverty into a type of strategy game that asks players to "manage a family of five over four years and keep them healthy and alive, educated and out of debt," says co-creator Barry Joseph of Global Kids. It's tough: winning isn't easy without innovative, collaborative problem-solving.

And what do players think? Are they having fun yet? In a recent survey of ICED players, a majority said they liked the adventure of evading immigration police and then having to maneuver themselves out of a detention pen. But a like-sized majority of players said they also "felt a little manipulated" because the game seemed "a little one-sided" and overtly political, says Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology, which evaluated the game. "Games like ICED represent a good start," Pasnik says, but game content will need to evolve to represent more varied viewpoints and trigger more offline activism.

Viva the evolution. Says MIT professor Henry Jenkins, an expert in youth media and an enthusiastic supporter of crowd-sourcing social change: "We have to think of ways to use games not just to escape reality but to re-engage with reality."

What do you think?

For more on this week's Games for Change festival , see the video below:

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