Using Video Games to Solve Problems

The 26th annual Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) that recently took place in San Francisco, CA included over 19,000 attendees in a multi-billion dollar industry that has established itself as a leader in fostering individuals’ use of creativity and technology to solve problems and entertain audiences world-wide. Each year, the GDC brings together thousands of artists, programmers, sound designers, producers, and business people from across generations and from around the world to share their knowledge of and passion for creating games. And while most focus solely on entertainment , some games, like Valve’s Portal 2 and that game company’s Journey, highlight the growing number of titles in this space that resonate with educational and national goals such as STEM education or collaboration.

One thing GDC highlighted was the fact that parts of the video game industry are becoming increasingly self-aware of the ability for games to engage and empower players and wrestling with the implications thereof. One result of this is that a small but growing number of commercial game designers have begun to develop games for positive social outcomes. For example, Eric Zimmerman’s Game Design Challenge Upgrade Humanity in 60 seconds flat required participants to create a game that could be played in less than sixty seconds and that measurably improved the lives of its players. The games that Richard Lemarchand, Noah Falstein, and Jason Rohrer created addressed issues of happiness and self-fulfillment, the celebration of everyday heroes, and economic inflation respectively. These games serve as a testament to the potential that games have to make positive contributions to the world, addressing issues of social importance through play.

They also point towards another reason as to how games can have a positive impact - through their creation. Game design and development offer new and valuable avenues through which young people can engage technology. Young people like Hannah Wyman, for example, the eleven year old 2012 Kodu cup winner who was recently celebrated at the White House Science Fair, exemplify the potential for a new generation of developers to leverage creativity, technological savvy and game creation tools to create engaging and expressive games. Hannah’s game “Toxic” is not only an example of an outstanding accomplishment by a young developer, but includes a positive social message as well - in “Toxic”, players ask non-player characters to plant trees that help clean the air before time expires.

As the video game industry and academia, and philanthropic sectors continue to explore new and effective ways to both entertain and educate players, individuals and companies must continue to lend their expertise and participate in these challenges, to provide feedback on how we might improve them, and take initiative in developing positive social impact games. Only by working together can we overcome the technical, institutional, and design challenges associated with creating games that make the world a better place.

Matt Gaydos is a Student Volunteer at OSTP

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