Making a (Social) Impact: Gaming Companies Encourage Kids to Design Games With a Purpose
11.11.10 | The realization first dawned on Alan Gershenfeld back in the late 1990s when he was a senior vice president of Activision, supervising product development. The company was creating the popular video game “Civilization: Call to Power” and it struck him then that in order to make the game, the developers had to master the not-so-small subject of world history. To make the game work, the designers had to think through issues of cultural power, military power and the rise of technology. Gershenfeld remembers the many late-night conversations about, say, whether slavery ought to be in the game––which would really be a conversation about the role of slavery in growing civilizations.
“I would bring people on tours through the studio and it was like a graduate school of history mapped on top of these incredibly complex technology and design elements,” says Gershenfeld.
Today, Gershenfeld is the founder and president of E-Line Ventures, a digital media company that produces games with the goal of educating and having a social impact. (“Digital games. Real World Impact” is its slogan.) In essence, he’s transporting the realization he had back when he was strictly a commercial game producer into the world of social impact games.
On Nov. 11, with a grant from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), E-Line is adding a social impact gaming channel to “Gamestar Mechanic,” a new game and online community where the game play is making games. Through this channel, kids will design video games based on important social issues such as energy, nutrition and eco systems.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that kids are learning all kinds of other things by the sheer act of making games. In addition to history, math and engineering, among other subjects, game making, in fact, is a powerful way to teach what people call 21st-century skills including systems thinking, problem-solving, iterative design, collaboration and digital literacy. You could say fostering these skills is the motivation for “Gamestar Mechanic” in general, while inspiring kids to learn about specific important issues is the point of the social impact gaming channel.
“Making games touches on all the essential 21st-century skills, and I think that’s powerful in and of itself,” Gershenfeld says. “But then you go into what to make games about.”
Here’s how it actually works. “Gamestar Mechanic,” works on three principals: play, design and share. As kids are playing, they earn a “box” of game design tools. Once they have their toolbox, they start designing games. And after they’ve completed a game, they share their work with other kids through different channels on the web site.
The social impact gaming channel will be one of the channels for games on issues of social significance. Every month for six months, Gamestar will announce a different topic. Kids can make a game just for fun, but E-Line is also setting it up as competition with awards for the best game––like a laptop donated by AMD.
There are two ways competitions such as this can be effective, Gershenfeld says: If the game goes on to reach a wide audience, thus spreading the ideas of the game; or if by designing the game, kids master their topics. The social impact gaming channel is all about the latter. It’s a way for kids to learn about energy, nutrition or ecosystems through the process of making a game––just as those designers at Activision back in the late 1990s had to develop a deep understanding of world history in order to make “Civilization: Call to Power.”
Meanwhile, in Texas, and also with a grant from AMD, James Bower, the founder of the popular virtual world Whyville, and public TV station KLRN are working on a similar idea. Bower, chief visionary officer of Numedeon, is building game-making capabilities into Whyville, along with a video system so kids can document their work. KLRN will then turn the video into TV spots to run during its programming. The idea is for kids to be teaching other kids about important social issues through their own work. Whyville may even incorporate “Gamestar Mechanic” as the gaming platform for kids to use.
Although Whyville developers use a game-making platform to design instructional games for Whyvillians to play, this project will be the first time kids in Whyville make their own games.
“Once kids have the opportunity to create,” Bower says, “they will [create], in all kinds of ways, just based on their own motivation and interests.”
Whyville already has music-making capabilities and a Whyville newspaper. With these new video capabilities, Bower said, the virtual land is on its way to having a TV station too.
Like the social impact gaming channel in “Gamestar Mechanic”, the Whyville gaming project will set up challenges for kids to make games around a particular issue or theme. Bower says this will launch in December.
William G. Moll, president and CEO of KLRN, is less of a games evangelist and more of a pragmatist. He says the project is about reaching kids on their own terrain.
“Games are where children are,” Moll says. “Children live in a world of social media. And we need to be in that world providing services for them.”
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