Games for Change and Dismantling the Gamer Trope - Easy Week


By Sophia Polin

Photo courtesy of Michael Coghlan.

It’s 2014. It’s time to start living in the virtual world. Gaming is not only on the menu; it’s a standard downtime activity for anyone with a smartphone. For many, it’s a committed lifestyle.

Gamers have occupied an insular universe far removed from the physical world for more than a decade. While they were well versed on the intricacies of many a simulated sphere, popular culture painted an uncomplimentary portrait of the gamer as an unhygienic, asocial, sexually arrested male–a convenient trope for mainstream entertainment, but clearly misinformed. The image is proving toxic now that progressive engineers are attempting to make “serious gaming” (gaming for reasons other than solely recreational) part of every Millennial’s lifestyle. Asi Burak is one such engineer and arguably one of the most influential currently in the field.

He wrote on his website, “Just like books, theatre, TV, or cinema–games will one day lure all tastes and players of all ages. But first we have the dismantle the notion of the ‘Gamer.’”

Burak is the president of the nonprofit organization Games for Change (G4C) and co-creator of PeaceMaker, a conflict/resolution strategy game about the Israeli Palestinian Conflict. G4C was founded in 2004 and has since been producing digital games that encourage young players to engage socially and politically with the world. This is the first year the organization’s annual event was a part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

On April 22nd through 24th, G4C held panel discussions, presentations, and Q&As about the year’s most innovative “serious games.” Among the games that garnered the most public attention were Burak’s PeaceMaker; Block by Block, an urban planning game born of a partnership between the producers of Minecraft, Mojang, and UN-Habitat; and Half the Sky, a part of Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky Movement, inspired by their Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name.

However, Victoria Abrash, the director of the G4C festival, tells BTR the most exciting part of the festival is the variety of games featured.

“There was such a range, from SoundSelf, a meditative experience played on an Oculus Rift, TyrANT, an iPad game that teaches everything you could want to know about the ant kingdom through great gameplay, to Start the Talk, commissioned by a government agency to help parents deal with underage drinking,” Abrash explains. “Subete al SITP is the most practical game you can imagine; it actually helped the city of Bogota, Colombia learn a complicated new bus system, and enjoy doing it. And The Migrant Trail is probably the hardest of the games to win–appropriate, since it’s about the challenges facing migrants and Border Patrol along the US-Mexico border.”

Impressive as the collection is, it’s all heavy stuff. Not in the way of the traditional war game, which removed game players enough from reality to offer at least a modicum of escapism. And isn’t that the appeal of video games, the escape? For dedicated gamers, maybe. But casual gaming is so widespread that most of us don’t make the conscious decision to game.

“There are so many kinds of games and so many ways to play them. We play games on our phones, online, with our friends, on the subway,” Abrash says. “There are many people who might not think of themselves as ‘gamers’ who play digital games.”

Abrash cites data that has found the average age of those playing games is 31 and continues to rise; additionally, half of gamers are female, and 54 percent of overall gamers play on their phones.

In regard to Burak’s stance on the gamer trope, Abrash agrees that it should be obsolete.

“I think Asi’s point is that we have preconceptions about who is a ‘gamer’ that we have to let go of because the preconceptions don’t match reality,” Abrash explains. “Games will soon speak to all of us because these days almost everyone is a gamer… the term stops being meaningful.” According to Abrash, 25 percent of G4C festival attendees came from gaming backgrounds, 25 percent came from non-profit organizations, and about 20 percent were in academia and education. The closeness of the numbers suggests that Burak might be right the industry is diversifying, probably for its own good. But would a gamer agree?

On the Super Joystiq Podcast, Anthony John Agnello interviewed Asi Burak and game designers Robin Arnott and Gregory Trefry–both finalists at the G4C festival this year–about marketing their “hard selling” ideas to players of mainstream console games.

Arnott’s response was heartening, and informed by experience: “I think the truth of it is that gamers really like innovation. I think more so even than moviegoers or readers, gamers are looking for what’s next, what’s new, surprising, and I think that when you create something that is really surprising that appeals to that question, ‘How can you surprise me?’”

Honesty and personal integrity, he added, will always help you reach your core audience.