Impact Games Saving World

Impact Games, the Heck?

Instead of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos tag-teaming, is it actually games that will save the planet, its inhabitants and the human spirit?

If you’re a gamer, you already know that all games make the world a better place, because they are fun – or at the very least, aim to entertain. Entertainment cushions the hardness of life, it can rescue a human mind in distress, or at minimum, turn a few minutes of boredom into happy dust.

Still, I’ve convinced myself that games can be more than entertainment. Mainly because I’ve played games, made games, written about games and thought about games all my life, so I have to justify all the wasted time with some high aspirations, but also because it just makes sense that an immersive, interactive experience would be an effective force for good.

There are pre-existing terms, such as ‘meaningful games‘ and ‘serious games’, to try to do separate fun-and-games games from games that try to do more. Because the cool venture capital kids like the term ‘impact investment’, I’m just went ahead and stole the first word and labeled the whole good-doin’-games sector as impact games.

To me, impact games are an umbrella under which you can tuck many things. At one end you have a polished triple-A product, which speaks to people through it’s theming, sometimes even without intending to be an impact game. The classic example of this is the Civilization franchise, which is a dreamy combination of extremely interesting gameplay and real world learning. The Civs secretly teach you about real human history, the principles and struggles of societies, diplomacy, and of course how much Gandhi loved nuclear weapons.

At the opposing corner of the impact games umbrella are no-nonsense tools with a very specific goals, folded and wrapped into a game. They can be a VR game designed to help deal with psychological traumas or phobias, i.e. a gamified therapeutic tool. (One respectful example of very specific impact game is EmpowerStars! which was created to help kids cope with a cancer diagnosis, and the scariness and pain of the treatments. Can’t get much more worthy than that.)

Everything the light touches!

An impact game can be a lightly gamified app like Litterati, which uses competitions and digital rewards to nudge people to pick up trash around their neighborhood. It can be the 2007 game PeaceMaker, which strives to build mutual understanding in the Israel/Palestine conflict by helping the players see the situation from a new perspective by having them make decisions based on the situation of the “opposing” side.

I count kids’ educational games teaching math, literature or programming as impact games too. Well, it’s not only kids – adults can game their way into learning new languages with apps like Duolingo – which is by the way one of the rare examples of an impact game making a bunch of money too for the developers. Combining impact and revenue as a combo goal is not simple – a topic I’ll touch later.

The struggling fourth estate has also dipped their toes into the impact game waters. There’s a sub-genre called ‘newsgames’ which intends to level up journalism with games that make complex, even tedious subject matters more interesting and easy to grasp via gamification. Perhaps it’s not clickbaiting that will save journalism, maybe it’s clicking around in quality journalistic games.

A sub-sub-genre of newsgames are ‘activist games’, like the quirky Democratic Socialism Simulator, which tries to shove the idea of Nordic happiness societies (which I do like) down the throats of people in the US with “slightly” sardonic style. Such activist games differ from newsgames in that they balance objectivity and agenda differently, sending a message based on the developer’s morals and opinions. That, by the way, is very cool with me – as long as they don’t try to pretend not to.

Finally, impact games don’t even need to be digital. Gamey elements have been successfully used to help revitalize a community in a small US city, using mostly cardboard instead of digibits. The idea behind the gamification of building communal connection was still game design, with elements like “goals”, “rules”, “playfulness” and “rewards” luring people into helping themselves and the community. The tech does not really matter when considering an impact game.

Making friends

I’ve been a gamer on five decades, spent one-and-a-half of that in the games biz professionally, and most of that time has been just about spreading the gospel of fun. But, like the famous rap philosopher Coolio prophesied, you gotta face responsibility one day, my brother”, it caught up to me: I heard about the idea of impact games a couple of years back, and ever since I’ve been mentally staggering toward them.

This probably is a first in a series of on-and-off-again posts where the journey is more important than than arriving anywhere. (And that sentence is more likely a way to avoid responsibility than to take it.) I’ve decide to look at impact games from different angles, and hope to uncover more perspectives along the way. Hopefully those perspectives have little perspectives tailing then, and it’s gonna be perspectives all the way down.

It’s possible that at the end of the journey we’ll notice the treasure was the friends we made along the way, or, maybe, the treasure is a HUGE PILE OF GOLD DOUBLOONS. (Which incidentally enables one to buy new friends, and possibly a rocket ship to escape the burning remains of an unsaved world.)

Or, maybe there’s a impactful gaming product at the end, who the heck knows at this point.

Because the impact games sector is quite the barren tundra when compared to the other, more hypey and more money-makingey sectors of the games business, I’m especially happy to receive any comments, questions, ideas and/or dueling challenges via this blog, email, Instagram, Twitter – and naturally via faxes from my contemporaries.

PSPS. The development of the non-impact game Moonshot Mission is also going quite well, thanks for asking!

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