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Impact Games Saving World

News as Games

For journalism, the glory days of having a viable business model went away as the internet became mainstream. People got used to having news for free, but Google and Meta grabbed all the ad money. The tailspin has become increasingly chaotic, but the hunt for new models is still on.

One potential angle is games as news, and news as games.

Journalism is about uncovering truths and sharing them objectively. Fact-checked nuggets of truth enlighten the people, strengthen free nations and keep unruly powers-that-be in check. There’s common trust. Decisions can be made based on facts.

The bad news is you realize the value of quality journalism only after you’ve lost it, and found yourself living in a society gone insane. A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on, but now even the pants are being flooded with shit by the stevebannons of the world.

Well, bad actors gonna bad, but there’s more: it takes time to find the hidden information, to explain complex wholes, to endlessly fact-check, and wrap all the knowledge into an understandable package. It costs money to inform people, but the people don’t want to pay to be informed.

In the olden times, before the web, we had journalistic programming on radio and TV, and wide selection of quality newspapers, small and large. Subscriber fees help, but most journalism thrived on ads. Now, that money is pocketed by the few biggest tech companies, i.e. the ones with the most expansive ad network, powered by the best machine learning. The moat protecting the ad revenue dug by the few tech giants is too wide for anyone to cross anymore.

As the last of the journalistic Mohicans are fighting to defend the search for truth, every now and then, they have stumbled upon games, and tried to combine journalism with them.

The thinking behind combining games and journalism goes thusly:

  1. People like to play games
  2. Games make gazillions of tasty dollars
  3. Immersive interactivity is a more powerful way to convey information than linear text, video or audio
  4. Bonus: An undefined hope that maybe something unforeseen – but awesome! – will be born when you smush together old and new forms of media (it’s a possibility) (one believes)

Now, that four-step winning formula still remains largely unproven, but what has already been born, at least, is the concept of a “newsgame”. It popped up along with the first manifestation of that genre, a game called September 12th, released by Gonzalo Frasca in 2003.

What makes a newsgame

One way to zoom in to the definition of a newsgame is through newspapery lenses: a newsgame can be a report, an opinion piece, an editorial, or tabloid-style shock journalism.

Even top quality journalism is a balancing act between accuracy and accessibility, but good, honest journalism always gravitates toward objective truth. An opinion piece can be, for better or worse, just your opinion, man, and if you go off the deep end, you’re peddling propaganda and “fake news”, otherwise known as just lying.

The newsgames progenitor called September 12th commented on the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks of 2001. As a newsgame, I think it hits the sub-genre of an opinion piece. In the game, you survey a middle-eastern market square through targeting cross-hairs, and shoot missiles to try to kill terrorists. But, the missile strikes are not 100% precise, and you end up killing also civilians and destroying buildings, which turns some civilians into new terrorists.

You can’t win the game, and the message is clear, but journalistically simple – which is naturally alright for an opinion piece.

The original newsgame, September 12th, is not widely available anymore, but you can check out a gameplay video on YouTube.

Another scale to define a newsgame is its topicality. Daily events require a wholly different approach than slow-moving complex phenomena spanning months, years or more. Newsgames usually go for the middle or the end of the scale, because it’s technically hard to create a game in a day to be able to react to daily events – excluding the simplest games like quizzes.

A broader view

In the sidelines of the newsgames concept, there are games that aim to inoculate people against fake news by teaching how modern online propaganda works, and, for example, the nifty The Evolution of Trust, which explains how trust among people is created and/or lost. There’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram between newsgames and edutainment. Also, some might want to call agenda-driven activist games newsgames, some might not.

Nicky Case’s The Evolution of Trust explains the birth and death of trust in fun 30 minutes. Try it out at: ncase.me/trust

Backing up further you can completely detach from the idea of newsgames as separate products. The umbrella of newsgames also covers mini-games slipped into text-based articles, with the goal of activating the reader. For example, instead of a static graph depicting the yearly trend-line of poverty, the reader can first be asked to draw their own estimation of the trend, after which the actual graph is revealed. The purpose is to nudge the reader to focus and to think a little harder, while simultaneously providing a fun little challenge.

Games can also just live next the articles, supporting journalism. The classic crossword puzzles are still popular. Before the overabundance of entertainment, for some, they were a reason to buy a newspaper: one might buy the paper just for the fun puzzle, and as the paper lay on the living room table, some of the articles would get read too. Either way, the newsroom got paid and could live to create the next issue.

Media companies are naturally interested in if the side-hustle of games can fund the core business of journalism. For example, one of the oldschoolest paper of them all, the New York Times, has a separate crosswords app on the App Store – and it’s not there just for the love of puzzles.

The future on newsgames is still undefined

During the 2000s, a bunch of newsgames have appeared, struggled and died, and the holy grail remains buried.

The biggest challenge is the fact that making games is work-intensive, as is journalism. Piling them on top of each can double the challenge, but does it double the return and rewards too? Most published newsgames pale in comparison to pure games-for-entertainment, and a slightly scrubby newsgame is unlikely to woo players and/or news addicts on a level that would justify to the effort.

Gamified news can activate and engage a certain group for deeper dives into news – they might spend more time and thought on an article or a topic – but the large masses still prefer to stay on the beach, i.e. newsgames have not been able to draw in large enough crowds of new people willing to pay for the content.

Today, the hope lies in technological advances that bring about new innovation.

The problem of low resources can be helped by the advances in AI-generated content for images, videos and 3d models. Text generation can enable creating branching and more personalized narratives. New low- and no-code tools will empower technically impaired journalists to gamify their own creations. VR and AR will be utilized for immersive and contextual reporting in a way that has thus far been impossible.

Due to the technological convergence, I see a new dawn of newsgames rising, just in time to defend democracy in trouble.


Some examples of newsgames to try out:

The Uber Game, depicting the life of a gig worker, is considered to be the one of the more successful newsgames. [Link]
The New York Times has experimented with gamified news, like making the readers guess the political views based on the content of real fridges. [Link]
Endgame: Syria was a game that intended to explain the Syrian civil war, but was stomped on by Apple, and eventually forcibly stripped down to a generic Endgame: Eurasia. In the end, the developer felt that it’s not a newsgame anymore, just a game.
Can You Travel from Glasgow to London as a Wheelchair User shows how that journey would go for you. A humorous and informative multiple selection game from Buzz Feed. [Link]
The hard life of working for a tech giant is covered also in the The Amazon Race, published by ABC News. [Link]
Another New York Times experiment had readers draw trend-line graphs. [Link]
With a dab of gallows humor, Bad News teaches people how the fake news propaganda works. [Link]
Categories
Impact Games Saving World

Pixels against Totalitarianism

In vogue today: truth-twisting, hate-mongering, intolerance, and demagoguery. If left unchecked, they’re a sure-fire combination for dark times. To turn back toward the light, we need to remember the history of evil – and there are games for that.

Defending and spreading the truth leads to a better world for all, and impact games are well suited to do just that. Games can empower understanding when they make a conscious effort to be meaningful.

The union of audiovisuals and interactivity, when successful, makes learning about our shared reality more enticing and, I do believe, holistic.

All games teach you something: “The button makes the mustachioed plumber jump” is likely only relevant inside a certain game, but “exactly how deep, overbearing and multifaceted is the suffering caused by totalitarianistic systems” has meaning. Meaning for the real world, meaning for humanity.

Flirting with fascism has become disturbingly normal in the west. In China, the government is already running concentration camps. Russia went straight off the deep end and viciously attacked and brutalized Ukraine.

Forgetting history makes us repeat it, so let’s fight the onset of that dementia while we can.

From power fantasies to stories of powerlessness

A twisted hype for totalitarian rule kicked off the Second World War. In games, that time is usually handled through the pixely iron sights, by virtualizing battlefields, putting you in the shoes of a heroic soldier in glorious firefights. War is an easy context for thrilling action games, they’re an easy sell. Shooting at skull-adorned hats and swastikas do not call for rationalization or deep thought.

The evil of totalitarianism is not limited to war of aggression, nor the ramifications to bullet holes and explosions. In the backstage of the theater of war we destroy truth, liberty, diversity, and in the end, humaneness. Regular, good people are sucked into a maelstrom of suffering without end.

The horrors of Nazi Germany begun slowly, and ended even slower, if at all. This enduring pain is the topic in today’s double-feature of games Through the Darkest of Times and My Child Lebensborn. They both are award-winning indie games – one from Germany, one from Norway – and complement each other with their chronology and the subject matter.

Darkest fades in early 1930, when Hitler is just about to seize power. The game depicts the resistance of decent people during the ever-increasing desperation. The events of Lebensborn happen a bit later, in a post-war Norway, and it deals with a misguided retaliation on innocent children and their caretakers.

In both of the games you play the oppressed underdog. The games are similar in how they make you experience a desperate state of humanity without power, where only grit and hope against logic can compensate for the utter lack of options. What you gain as a player is a better recollection of the insanity of our not-so-far past.

Through the Darkest of Times

Paintbucket Games, HandyGames (2020)
iOS, Android, Xbox One/X/S, Steam, PS4, Switch

Screenshot of Through the Darkest of Times.
Screenshot of Through the Darkest of Times.

In case you weren’t particularly taken with Hitler and the national socialist party in Berlin in 1933, you probably were quite alarmed. This maximally stressful situation is what Through the Darkest of Times is about. The indie-powered game has you running a small resistance group consisting of ordinary people, trying to keep the hope alive through what feels like the end of times.

The gameplay consists of tactical decisions on the Berlin map, where you manage the resistance group, sending them on missions. The map phase alternates with small, well-written story events with a choose-your-own-adventure vibe.

In the strategic level, you try to make due with very limited money and resources, to keep the resistance from getting snuffed out. You cannot stop the war or the tidal wave of fascism, you only try to survive long enough. The board-gamey strategy side has you collecting money, recruiting members, printing leaflets and trying to keep your people out of jail, and later, out of the morgue.

The history of the Nazi Germany is covered in story bits, where you experience the tightening grip of totalitarianism, events like burning of books, secret police raids and the disappearance of truth, the escalating oppression of minorities and the total inhumanity of the “Final Solution”.

Visually, the game has an intentionally simplistic style, which mostly utilizes shades of gray. It naturally fits the theme, but also tells a tale of a small team with limited resources.

Regardless of the modest audiovisuals, the game manages to tell a gripping story of normal life suffocation under Nazism, and the slow creep toward inhuman totalitarianism. The choices you have to make during the historic events from the summer Olympics to the Night of Broken Glass, is a good way to instill empathy toward those having to endure unbearable lose-lose situations.

The game is available on nearly all platforms. I played through the game with iPad and iPhone, because the turn-based nature makes it easy to play in small chunks.

A phone screen is a bit too small for comfort, but using cloud saves to switch devices made it convenient to play on the road.

My Child Lebensborn

Serepta Studio, Teknopilot, East2West Games (2018)
iOS, Android, Steam

Screenshot of My Child Lebensborn.

When the second world ended, it did not end for everyone.

The Norwegian developer of My Child Lebensborn have said the genre is a “grim tamagotchi”, which is aptly put. Instead of a cute critter, you try to protect and nurture a small child, orphaned by the Nazi’s Lebensborn project, and now bullied and discriminated against because of history they had no say in.

The grim topic, unfamiliar to me beforehand, discusses a collective trauma in Norway. The mistreated-from-birth children of Nazi soldiers were mistreated also after the war, because the anger against the Nazi regime was unjustly directed to these innocent kids and their caretakers.

In the game you try to find a balance between caring for the child and (lack of) money and time, in a small town where the “Nazi kids” were hated as scapegoats. The game’s story is a moving combination of the stories of real people and events.

The developers hope the game instills more empathy and sympathy than a linear documentary film could, because you actively experience the situation and decisions yourself. The game manages to create massive frustration, as the child you’re trying to raise is bullied by other kids and adults, with you pretty much powerless to help enough. (And, this was real life, not so long ago.)

The game mechanics are based on a tamagotchian “eat, wash, sleep” cycle, enhanced with multiple-choice dialogue moments. The story unfolds through speech bubbles and letters in the mail.

My Child Lebensborn is technically pretty nice, with hand-drawn 2.5d art. Naturally the tamagotchi genre is quite simple to play.

The rare and important content of the game tells stories about the Lebensborn living at the outskirts of society, but it also pushes you to think more broadly about the wrongs stemming from anger and bitterness, and the sad, too-invisible ramifications to innocent children.

It takes about 5 hours to complete the game, available on the App Store, Google Play and Steam.

Low resources in-game and out-game

The lack of “fun” in these games needs to be consciously balanced with the knowledge that the player will emerge more wiser, more empathetic – a more mature person, willing to stand up for what’s right. The dark times have not gone away and will not stay away without the good folk staying vigilant, and taking action.

From a game business perspective, these games showcase the biggest hurdle with impact games: it’s near impossible to reach a perfect combination of truly meaningful content, addictive gameplay and top-quality production value. The ice-cold reason being money – the further you venture from mass market entertainment, the harder it is to earn enough to sustain a large development team.

Deep, tough-to-digest and sometimes uncomfortable content is usually inversely correlated with easy money, so absolute top tier of production value is often out of reach.

In other words, if Through the Darkest of Times and My Child Lebensborn were to be totally uprooted from our real history and actual events – the meaning – and replanted into the marketable world of Middle-Earth or inside a Pokémon laboratory, they would not hold up against polished, purely commercial game products due to the roughness around the edges.

But, you don’t make these games for money. You make them so the journey of humanity does not get lost in the darkness cast by intolerance, greed, fear and anger. That goal is worthwhile, and that is why we should every once in a while grab a game like these two – even when the Biggest Blockbuster of Fun Remastered (tm) and Eye-Candy Royale (tm) scream for our attention.

Instead of joy, these games instigate anxiety and sadness, but they also enlighten, make you a better you. They help us in reflecting on the past to understand today, and call us to protect the future.

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Impact Games Saving World

EcoQuest vs. Alba: eco games from different millennia

First, Sierra releases EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus. 30 years later, Ustwo comes out with Alba: A Wildlife Adventure. Will these digital strolls in the nature bring forth a cleaner future in real life?

The simplest way to make the world better place with games is to use them to teach good things. The target audience can be kids, youngsters or the part of the adult population who have not yet found the meaning of life to be resisting all change.

The old-school hype term “edutainment” meant what it said on the label – the combination of entertainment and education. It’s an alluring idea. Studying is useful-but-boring, playing games is fun-but-purposeless. Combining them sounds like an absolute win – if you’re not like me and create mostly boring-but-purposeless things.

Another challenge of edutaining people is the unclear division between subtle nudging, direct teaching, annoying preaching and shady propaganda. Because the willingness and capacity to listen depends on the age of the listener, their indentity, party allegiance, and generally the fluctuating availability of mental bandwidth, there can be no rock-solid guidelines. Balancing the no-nonsense with the funny business is an art form – a part of the magic of game design. (Or the curse of.)

There are, though, topics that are less likely to create strong knee-jerk resistance. Not a lot of even the most battle-hardened Twitter Don Quixotes will go against literacy or math, for example. Or the idea of nature. Fighting against forests, lakes, cute animals or fresh air is not a enduring pastime.

Because nature is all around, impacts all of us, and is often something you can touch and feel, nature conservation and protection hits closest to the “safest edutainment topics” zone. When you add a innocent, smart, resilient and a brave kid as the protagonist, the reason to be angry about the protagonist is also minimized – because hey, it’s just a kid.

Following these parameters, let’s compare two interesting games, with similar theming, separated by 30 years of us going around the sun. Will we be edutained?

EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus

Sierra On-Line, 1991
PC

The grandmother Earth of eco games

Happened in the 1990s: Sierra, one of the two giants of the golden age of point & click adventures, became interested in the embetterment of the people, and produced a dozen educational games.

One of the first in the series was EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus, the first high-profile ecologically themed video game. (It was also the very first gig of Jane Jensen, who later become the creator of the very popular Gabriel Knight series of adventure games.)

EcoQuest is similar to the games Sierra is most famous for: it’s a visual, story-based adventure. You point and click to explore and solve puzzles with the main goal of completing the linear story of the game.

The early Sierra game design was a bit brutal, because even though adventure games are calm by nature, you could still die and even worse: miss something important only to become totally stuck later in the game, with no way to go back.

Luckily, EcoQuest is from the era where Sierra had learnt their lessons, and you can’t make permanent mistakes anymore. The stress-free experience of EcoQuest is emphasized by the friendly difficulty level – the game is mainly aimed at youngsters, but it does work for open-minded old geezers too.

Emulated with DosBox, the game runs nicely, and at least with my rosy retro classes, it’s still very playable. The worst effects from the decades of digital erosion is the UI: clunky by modern standards, but does the job.

As of this writing, the game is sadly not officially available anywhere other than eBay, where the price ranges from some tens of bucks to a couple of hundred, based on the condition and the rarity of the edition.

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure

Ustwo Games, 2020-2021
iOS, PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X

Environmental action for a modern audience

Ustwo, famous for award-winning, high-quality and artsy games like Monument Valley, released their biggest game in 2020.

Produced by Apple, and available on almost all the platforms, Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is kinda like a family-friendly, 50-times shrunken Grand Theft Auto. Well, crime, cars and guns have been replaced with friendliness, walking around and environmental action, but we’re still talking about open-world style here.

Situated on a tiny Mediterranean island, you get to experience a week-long vacation of an enthusiastic kid Alba, who is a big fan of the nature. Alba runs around the island, completes tasks and missions such as picking up trash, fixing up a rundown park and helping seagulls stuck in crude oil.

The overall goals are to take photos of all the flora and the fauna on the island, and to stop a luxury hotel operation from destroying the island paradise.

The game is beautiful, calm, and radiates positivity and friendliness. Completing missions is quite easy and relaxing.

I personally completed Alba on an iPhone 12, and it took took me maybe 4-5 hours. The game offers customized touch screen controls, but if you have a physical controller on hand, the experience is a lot smoother.

Two siblings from different millennia

EcoQuest and Alba represent slightly different sub-genres, but the content is very similar. In both games you have a tween hero, taking responsibility, caring for the environment, and trying to stop the environmental destruction and animal suffering caused by the “adult world”, i.e. the modern industrial societies.

Adam, the hero of EcoQuest, can converse with sea creatures, whereas in Alba the link between the innocent and animals creatures is more magical; Alba experiences mysterious mental connection with lynxes, but does not talk with them. There’s less talking in general, and the game does not have an narrator explaining the more complex links between the game events and real world like EcoQuest does.

The style and tone of both is super positive and family friendly, and the difficulty levels are suitable for anyone who can read English. Both of the eco adventures last only a few hours, keeping them tight, compact experiences.

Times, they are not a-changing

Because the main bulk of the EcoQuest story happens under the sea, the game world does not feel dated. With only a few tweaks here and there, it could pass as the modern day. And that, my dear current-day reader, is sad.

In both games, the kids are solving the same problems: animals choking on plastic waste, dolphins stuck in fishing nets, a nature collapsing under the quest for hedonistic consumerism.

During my play-through of EcoQuest, I bumped into a cruise liner dumping their waste waters into the ocean. I thought to myself that such absurd behavior surely has ended during the three decades passed after the game’s release, but to my dismay, a quick google search proved me wrong. Cruise ships can still dump their crap directly into the oceans, as long as they do it a bit further away from the shorelines. What the hell, humanity? Were the 30 years not enough to fix this?

The only area where Alba’s content clearly comes off as more modern is the better representation of diversity, from genders to age and skin color. Alba handles this side effortlessly.

A side-note about the march of technology: in Alba you scan and recognize animals with a mobile app, which is something you can actually do with current day tech.

A similar scanning feature can be found in the EcoQuest sequel from 1993 – but back then, such scanning technology was pure science fiction. Nothing can make one feel older than life overtaking what was sci-fi just a moment ago.

Here we are now, entertain us

Back in the 90s, you went ahead and got EcoQuest, because point & click adventure games were THE genre. Anything Sierra or LucasArts released, you just had to have. Alba, on the other hand, you now want to get, because it’s high-quality, award-winning, and a relaxing experience, a calm island in the boiling sea of design-by-numbers games.

For educational games, good production quality and nice audiovisuals is important, because in the end, an average person usually plays games to be entertained. It takes mental effort to grab a game that signals it wants to teach you something, because it most likely won’t be exactly as fun as a product that optimized solely for good times and escapism.

You know, the age-old tasty hamburger vs. healthy salad dilemma. Or, a blockbuster vs. a documentary dilemma: a documentary will never get as many eyeballs as a mega-budget movie with shooting, punching and destroying cities. (It could be argued that if you lower the bar to the levels of Tiger King, a large audience is possible – but did that docuseries actually say anything worthwhile about anything?)

There’s a more hoops an educational game – or any game with an edifying theme – has to jump through, but when that happens, insights, facts, nuggets of information and all that good stuff will be injected into the cerebral cortex.

And naturally, that is where the impact of any educational game as an impact game stems from.

Impact transfer from imaginary worlds to ours

Because I was an impressionable wee lad when EcoQuest was released, it did change things in my head. Thanks to EcoQuest, I have always felt that releasing balloons into the air is a bad idea – when they reach their peak, they will eventually deflate, and an unsuspecting animal will try to swallow them for snack.

This cause and effect of littering with balloons is presented in EcoQuest in a way that is easy to grasp. In an early part of the game, the protagonists try to warn a kid about the gusts of wind and balloons, but are too late: the balloons escape to the skies. Later in the game, you have to deal with a turtle choking on the bits of the balloons.

The problem and how to avoid it stick better when you see the cause and effect, and are additionally moved by an emotional reaction, i.e. in this case, the empathy toward an innocent animal suffering.

In this sense EcoQuest comes off as the winner, because Alba struggles to explain the causality of the events. For example, it’s pretty strange that the island is littered with trash, has seagulls stuck in oil, but the game does not deal with the reason for these problems at all. Happy adult townsfolk live on the island, and logic would dictate these peoples’ behavior is to blame, but the game does not go there at all. By brushing aside the the reasons for the enviro-mess creates an accidental message of “treat the symptoms, ignore the disease”.

The resolutions to the issues in EcoQuest are generally more realistic concerning what needs to be done, and how arduous it can be. Alba assumes there’s no need to explain anything. Cleaning up a seagull in EcoQuest is a multi-step process that takes time, but in Alba it’s just a one-click instant fun activity.

Deep in the lands of alternative fact is the element in Alba where squirrels sickened by green goo are healed with a medkit. Sure, it still represents empathetic attitude, but such wacky activity in the game does undermine the potential for someone to take action in the real world. The garbled message about goo, squirrels and medkits eliminates the possibility of deducing the link in the chain where you personally could have a positive impact.

When creating EcoQuest, Sierra worked with the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, and the game generally strikes me as being on a sturdier scientific ground than Alba, which occasionally feels a bit like an oversimplification of nature preservation. As positive an experience as Alba otherwise is, it bums me out that the factual side has the occasional gaps. It would’ve been possible, with some more iteration in the design, to have stronger factual foundations without having to give up any of the fun side.

Positive impact externalities

Back in the day, EcoQuest inspired people to take local action for the environment. Smaller waves of that activity traveled all the way over the Atlantic, to the faraway land of Finland. Here, a youngster wrote Sierra about cleaning up the shores of a local Finnish lake, which impressed Sierra – they remembered the event in the game box materials of EcoQuest 2 and in their InterAction magazine.

In addition to being directly informational and empowering for players, impact games often have external positive effects too. These materialize from spending time on background investigation for the game, adding to the developer’s own insight, and leading to concrete positive side action.

When Sierra was working on EcoQuest, the ideas for the game pushed the employees to be more mindful about the environment, which lead to using more recycled office supplies and sustainable game boxes – not a given in the 90s. Also, when the players heard about the co-operation with the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, the center received multiple propositions for co-operation and volunteer work.

In the past years, Ustwo has planted more than one million trees, one for each Alba installation, through a tree-planting service called Ecologi. One more thing to inspire you to get Alba and one more thing Ustwo is doing for the planet.

Sooo… nature. It’s ok now, right? Right?

Even with all the positive action, vibes and increased insight, the state of the nature has unfortunately not yet taken a big enough leap that would be cause for joy. You’d definitely think that 30 years would be enough for more. The situation in the air, seas and the ground is not good.

Conscientious people are pushing for better legislation, promoting sensibility in consuming, doing what they can. There have been plenty of larger and smaller victories where plastic has been replaced with biodegradable solutions, we have startups coming up with imaginative ways to collect plastic sludge from the oceans, some are electrifying water travel to minimize the minimize the noise that disturbs sea life, and minimizes innocent sea creatures from being mauled by unprotected propellers.

Maybe some of these entrepreneurs have gotten the original spark to take action from EcoQuest. I find it plausible, since as proven by this post, I am still thinking about what the game tried to tell us and I am still in the fight for the planet. Maybe a new generation will remember how much Alba fought for the island and want to do the same.

Nevertheless, nature is still taking a brutal beating, the planet is heating up, and biodiversity is nearing a closing in on total collapse. Even facing low odds, the heroes of these games, Adam and Alba, did not get paralyzed, did not give up, did not try to blame things on the imaginary others – they personally took action for the common good, in the shape and form that was manageable for them.

That is exactly what each and everyone of us can and should do, and for impact games that is a worthwhile message to broadcast again and again.

Categories
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!

Categories
Saving World

Book recommendation: Power Play

It only lately occurred to me that games can be a force for good, even though I’ve been a gamer for decades, and in game business for nearly 15 years. That’s quite a glacial pace of thinking, but hey, even glaciers get there in the end. (Note to self: find out where glaciers go to hang out and why.)

Luckily, I bumped into an excellent primer on the subject. It’s a book called Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World (2017), written by Asi Burak and Laura Parker. Burak has been leading the Games for Change organization for years, and Parker is a writer for many publications, including Wired and The New York Times.

Click the pic to get the book from Amazon.

Power Play is a very good overview on different social impact games projects from around the world, from games teaching civics in US schools, to games helping young cancer patients cope with treatments, to VR games enhancing empathy towards other people.

It also hops briefly onto a meta level by looking at if making games can help people develop themselves, and talking about games utilizing crowds for scientific research.

The book has no dramatic narrative or plot twists. Instead, it slams down the facts in a concise, well-written manner, which coincidentally was just what I was looking for. Drama I can get enough from logging into Twitter.

The Kindle version has links to all the games/projects mentioned in the ten chapters, handily available for further study – a tiny detail my lazy, but information-hungry fingers appreciate.

So, don’t be like my glacier pals and me, don’t creep around aimlessly waiting for the next ice age: get Power Play, get into social impact games, and save the world with a game. Maybe your game can help the glaciers too; They’re pretty worried about melting.