This year, a United Nations program devoted to urban planning in countries affected by poverty or natural disasters began developing a sports field in the slums of Kibera, Kenya, designing it in the popular sandbox video game Minecraft. The game, which allows players to build entire worlds out of cubes in a 3-D environment, helped the project leaders create a visual representation of the field that could be easily understood by the neighborhood’s residents.
“The game makes everything transparent,” said Pontus Westerberg, a digital projects officer at the program, UN-Habitat. “It gives the communities we work with more agency and helps everyone see what’s going on.”
The project, known as Block by Block, is among the highlights this week at the Games for Change Festival in New York, an annual event that promotes video games that seek social change. These efforts — known as serious games — once focused on education, to entice students to learn through digital play. But attention has shifted to more ambitious efforts like Block by Block, and a large part of that push has come from Games for Change, a nonprofit organization founded in 2004 that has worked with Google, NASA, the United Nations, the Rockefeller Foundation and TEDx.
Far removed from the military battles, zombie attacks and alien uprisings that dominate the multibillion-dollar video game industry, Games for Change is focused on lesser-known titles that treat the medium as something more than entertainment. The organization’s festival has become a platform to introduce video games with altruistic goals.
This year’s event, from Tuesday through Thursday, and again on Saturday, is being held with the Tribeca Film Festival, a first-time partnership. While video games have had a presence at the film festival — Rockstar’s L.A. Noire was shown to audiences there in 2011, as was Sony’s Beyond: Two Souls in 2013 — this partnership represents a more formal integration of games and films, with Games for Change becoming an official part of the festival’s Innovation Week.
Two projects have particularly helped Games for Change become a leading advocate for serious games: The first was PeaceMaker, a simulation designed by a small team at Carnegie Mellon University in 2005. The game places players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by asking them to make social, political and military decisions based on actual events.
The project was initiated by Asi Burak, the president of Games for Change, who once served as a captain in the Israel Defense Forces. Mr. Burak now lives in Manhattan with his wife and two daughters and credits his work on the game for helping him to earn legal United States residency.
The second major undertaking was a collaboration between Games for Change and Half the Sky Movement, a global project based on the best-selling book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” by the married team of Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, and Sheryl WuDunn, a former journalist at The Times. The project uses television, online and interactive media to raise awareness of women’s issues. In 2012, PBS ran a mini-series on the movement, focusing on issues like sex trafficking and gender violence in Africa, India and Asia.
The game component, Half the Sky Movement: The Game, was introduced on Facebook in 2013, giving players virtual tasks, like collecting books for young girls in Kenya, that can translate into tangible results. For instance, collecting 250,000 in-game books unlocks a donation of real books to Room to Read, a nonprofit organization focused on improving literacy and gender equality in developing countries. Players can also make donations to the game’s nonprofit partners. The online-only game has since reached 1.25 million players, according to Games for Change.
One speaker at this year’s festival is Zoran Popovic, the director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, in Seattle. He led the team of researchers responsible for the puzzle game Foldit, which sought to crowdsource a solution to a scientific problem. Foldit asked players to take on the role of a biochemist and map out how proteins might be folded in nature. The game provided scores based on how well they performed. Three papers in the journal Nature have been published, based on Foldit discoveries, since the game’s release in 2008; the most famous, in 2011, explained how Foldit players had helped to decipher the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme, a problem that scientists had been trying to solve for years.
Mr. Popovic plans to unveil a new project this week, a synthetic-biology game called NanoCrafter, whose goal is to discover molecular structures that could benefit vaccine and cancer research.
For Mr. Burak, the future of serious gaming depends on two things: persuading top designers to work for Games for Change and putting social-impact games into the hands of everyday players.
“Gaming is social, participatory and has learning at its core,” Mr. Burak said. “These are powerful things for social impact, and it makes sense for us to take full advantage of it.”
The Games for Change festival runs from Tuesday through Thursday, and on Saturday, at various locations in New York City; gamesforchange.org.
Photo by Jennifer S. Altman