Q&A: Asi Burak and Michelle Byrd On Changing the World (and Education) Via Social Impact Gaming


7.7.11 | Games for Change, an organization that promotes and supports video games with a social impact, held its eighth annual festival in New York City in June, the first organized by co-presidents Asi Burak and Michelle Byrd.


Asi Burak. Photo by Richard Koek.

Prior to taking the helm at Games for Change in 2010, Burak co-founded Impact Games and created the internationally acclaimed “PeaceMaker” and “Play the News” gaming platforms. He also served as a consultant to companies such as Newsweek and McCann Erickson on the strategic use of games to further brand engagement. Byrd served for 12 years as the executive director of the Independent Filmmaker Project, the oldest and largest organization of independent filmmakers in the United States.

Spotlight talked with them recently about the state of social impact games and the festival’s highlights.

Spotlight: What’s new at Games for Change?

Asi Burak (AB): In the early years, a lot of work was needed to convince funders, government, stakeholders, and others that games are a viable thing. Now they’re convinced. Many organizations are putting a lot of effort and resources into this area. So now it’s more about sustainability and scalability. In the past, there were a lot of one-time projects. Now we need more projects that are sustainable.

Michelle Byrd (MB): As someone who comes from outside the community, it was surprising to me how many games there are. But unless you’re in this community, you might not be aware of their existence. So we want to determine whether there are other places for discovering the games and how we can forge those collaborations to bring more attention to games.

We’re creating a network to foster more engaged outreach to the content creators. It’s obviously a challenge because there are no traditional media publishers for impact games, so we’re asking whether we can support game development through incubator activities.


Michelle Byrd. Photo by Richard Koek.

AB: An example of this is a “demo spotlight” we organized at the festival that featured six projects in progress. It was an opportunity for the creators to get feedback on their work from members of the research community, game designers, and others. It was hugely successful. Even people in the audience learned a lot from the feedback that experts provided. We see this as something that could definitely be expanded to help connect creators and bring them greater exposure.

Spotlight: Why is gaming and social impact a natural fit?

AB: The most interesting thing about games is that unlike the media that came before, games allow interactivity. The idea that kids can make choices and that those choices have consequences for a whole set of actions gets to the heart of social impact. Kids playing games understand cause and effect, and they understand how the system works.

In addition—and this is important for social change—games can get them to do something in the real world. You’re one click away from doing something—from volunteering, signing a newsletter, or even giving money. Unlike a few years ago, when games were more isolated, now they’re more often linked to a real-world cause.

Spotlight: People frequently argue that games don’t translate into real-world action—that clicking on a link is a facile and passive act. Are we sometimes asking too much of games?

AB: Yes, although there are some real examples of games translating into action, sometimes I feel that we put too much responsibility on the games’ shoulders. I think for educators, it’s important to remember that the game is a tool, and when integrated with other tools, it’s even more effective. When integrated in a community program with other traditional curriculum and material, or in a classroom where a teacher is really involved, a game can really complement the whole package.

Spotlight: What are the biggest challenges in educational and social impact gaming today?

AB: One of the challenges is how to get the games out there. We see a lot of good products, but those that are very successful are still facing limited distribution. It’s beginning to change, but again, if you compare it to the commercial industry, it’s limited. How you get distribution on a mass scale is an important question.

Where the publishers will come from is an important question as well. Educational publishers might figure out how to do it, or at the same time, the solution might come from the bottom up. It might be one of those successful developers, the “Angry Birds” of educational marketing, who figures out how to develop the publishing arm. They could then create their own content and provide publishing opportunities for others. It’s related to marketing, distribution, and scale.

Right now, we’re asking a lot of young developers. We’re asking them to figure out everything themselves. It’d be great if some commercial entity would help. Then the game developers could focus on the game experience.

AB: To really make progress, we must integrate the game developer and the research and educators into the process. At the festival, two of the most important audiences are game developers and the NGOs, educators and others in the social impact community. They know best how to integrate the tools into their environment. But there’s still a gap between the two groups. These two groups are almost speaking different languages sometimes.

Spotlight: Someone named Channel G asked a good question on your Facebook page: “Are people ready to trade in ‘Angry Birds’ for socially conscious or educational games?”

MB: I don’t believe they need to be less fun. I think that we probably need to come up with nomenclature that’s jazzier. We should think more carefully about how we identify games and package them. “Angry Birds” is wonderfully packaged. In looking at social impact or educational games, we don’t have as glossy an alternative model.

AB: I think that people will always ask this question, and always compare us to the best in the commercial industry. But that comparison is a little misleading. We have a situation where the kids are engaged in compelling media outside of schools—such as Facebook or Twitter, or games. They’re becoming sophisticated in the media they consume and create. Yet in the classroom, it’s like they go back in time 20 years to traditional textbooks, or linear expressions.

A good educational game should be compelling, but the competition is not “Angry Birds.” The competition is textbooks and linear ways of teaching. Games could win against that comparison more than against the commercial sector.

Where can teachers find the best of the best? There’s no Best Buy out there where you know you can find good games. We need more channels of distribution and we should package educational games to make them attractive.

– Michelle Byrd

MB: Yet it still comes back to distribution. Even if we say that educational games have less competition in the classroom, we still don’t have the kind of distribution channels to find them. Where can teachers find the best of the best? There’s no Best Buy out there where you know you can find good games. We need more channels of distribution and we should package educational games to make them attractive.

Spotlight: Educational games sometimes get tagged as “chocolate-covered broccoli,” meaning they’re thinly veiled good-for-you lessons, and not much fun. Is that fair?

AB: It’s funny because in the commercial space, they actually shy away from games that are labeled “educational.” It has a bad tag. The creator of “Sims” or “Civilization” never would call it a serious game because the label is not positive enough. But it really is a serious game. And it can teach us a lot about the real world.

I feel that another thing that happens with educational games is that the burdens of the curriculum and standards almost take the fun out of the games. They become very preachy and all about choosing right from wrong, where a good game is not about right or wrong, but showing the player about the system and that it is a system of tradeoffs.

But in a test, it’s all about black and white, and I see many educators think in that way when they think of games. The power of games is to show more nuance, show different consequences, allow for more exploration and a deeper understanding.

Spotlight: What do education game designers need to advance the field?

AB: I don’t see a really good way for those in the beginning of the process to find a good place to start. There’s not many funders, and so I think an incubator or grant that is more modest—helping them with that first step—is needed.

The other gap is the need for a place where all the best stories and case studies and evaluations can be under one roof. So if the Gates Foundation has learned some lessons from the projects it funds, where is the place they’ll share it with game developers and funders? That sharing is not happening. I think Games for Change could be one of those places.

One of our big challenges is where to focus. What would be the most impactful way to start? Is it incubator, a central resource, or distribution channel? We see the gaps, and it’s a matter of how we tackle them in an educated way.

Spotlight: Where do game developers want to go with the field? What’s stopping them?

MB: Everyone is looking for sustainability. We need a sustainable system for getting these games to market. The field needs additional funding along the entire continuum of development.

AB: There is a big opportunity in the schools of design to foster the creation of games with a social impact or educational value. But they need help continuing those projects after school. How do you give them the modest funding and support to continue in the real world?

There’s a lot to be said about the gaps and things we need to do to get educators more comfortable with games. It’s not their problem; it’s our problem. We should make it as easy for them to adapt games to their classroom as possible.

– Asi Burak

MB: A lot of the work in game development is “work for hire” [developers executing others’ ideas under contract], and the challenge is how some people can have both work-for-hire and projects that might provide a different kind of financial return.

AB: I think what you describe is exactly the challenge. There are young companies that are doing well but they’re executing the initiatives of others, not their own work. Many developers aspire to financial returns but it’s also a passion—you want to create original content and original franchises. I think that is the golden opportunity when a developer finds something that comes from his or her own passion and is successful.

MB: It’s the only real potential for any kind of growth. If an entire sector relies on foundation and government grants, that’s not sustainable. Flavors change, and then all of those companies will go away or turn to commercial work exclusively. But it does seem to me that things will change if there’s an opportunity for financial success.

To share an example from the world of independent film—these films had a long history and no one was paying attention. All it takes is that one commercial success and the investors come out. My instinct is that when there’s some financial return and people see a way to make money, that’s when a market matures. The sooner those individuals who really know how to make good games that connect with educators, the sooner we’ll have success.

Spotlight: Michelle, what else have you learned from the independent film world that applies to social impact games?

MB: Again, it’s how to connect with the public. The breakout successes that made independent film catapult to the mainstream were the passion projects. They were done on a low budget and they had a big financial return. The tipping point that will open it up [for social impact games] will come from the content and the passion. If you can get those creators inspired about the topic, that’s where it will happen.

Spotlight: What about drawing in educators? 

AB: There’s a lot to be said about the gaps and things we need to do to get educators more comfortable with games. It’s not their problem; it’s our problem. We should make it as easy for them to adapt games to their classroom as possible. Any way you look at it, we have to crack that code, and not expect them to do all the changing.

We have to do a lot of work to make it easy to find the games, and find supporting materials around the games. We can’t just say, “Well the teachers, it’s their fault, they’re so old school.” At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility and we have to understand what their needs are. They’re your customers.

Carousel photo by Veronica Price.

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