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Faculty Asi Burak: How Video Games Can Change the World

Originally posted on Forbes.com

The new book, Power Play: How Video Games Can Save The World, by Asi Burak and Laura Parker, was just released. Asi is well known in the game world as the creator of PeaceMaker and the former executive director of Games For Change. For quite a while now, he has been the go-to source for understanding the social impact gaming movement.

In this important book, along with coauthor Laura Parker, Asi maps out the landscape of games with a purpose. But what really struck me is how clearly the book expresses the possibilities that still lie ahead for digital play. When I finished reading it, I was clearly reminded that the video game industry is still in it’s infancy. And I felt a kind of enthusiastic anticipation to see what direction it will go.

I also wanted to talk to Asi about it. So I reached out to him to ask about PeaceMaker, Games For Change, the future of the industry, and how games can make a difference in politically tumultuous times.

Here’s what he had to say:

Jordan: I really enjoyed reading Power Play. Of course, I’ve been reading and writing about social impact games for years. I’ve also been playing them. And one of the things Power Play does so well is that it lays out an almost definitive narrative of the social impact gaming movement which you’ve been at the center of for such a long time. In fact, you really launched the movement—or at least brought it into the mainstream consciousness—with your game PeaceMaker. That game, which is about building peace in the Middle East, is legendary. Can you tell us a bit about that game? Explain what it was for readers who may not have heard about it before. When you were developing it, did you imagine then that you would become a part of something so much broader?

Asi: Let me start by saying that it is a pleasure doing this interview with you, Jordan, especially because you know the movement first hand and realize why it matters. PeaceMaker was perhaps the most important digital project I’ve ever been involved with, as it was released at a unique point in time (2007) in which video games were perceived broadly as violent and shallow. PeaceMaker, first developed by a group of students in Carnegie Mellon University and then launched as a commercial product, is a direct challenge to all of the assumptions and perceptions we have about video games. It is a realistic game, nuanced and sophisticated. Back then, it was almost the opposite of everything we used to think about games. Instead of escapism, it brings the intense reality of the Middle East onto players’ screen. And, instead of mindless clicking, every action you take matters, and has ethical and grave consequences. Some of our decisions as designers—releasing the game in Arabic, Hebrew and English, the idea you could play both leaders and perspectives (Israeli PM and Palestinian President), and the usage of real news footage and imagery which we licensed from Reuters—were all unprecedented in games. In a world filled with war games, fighting games, and power fantasies, we presented a serious work that gave players the power to solve perhaps the most complex conflict of our time.

As a result, it garnered tons of attention in the press and similar support and interest in communities across the world. On one hand, yes­–we knew that it’s part of something broader in that it directly challenged the status quo. On the other hand, we were young and clueless students and never imagined that PeaceMaker would turn into this poster child of a movement. At that time, when the rollercoaster started, we weren’t sure we could even complete the project and create something meaningful.

Jordan: When you and I met, you were the executive director at Games for Change, a nonprofit that you refer to in the book as “the umbrella organization for games with a purpose.” I’ve written a lot about both the organization and the Games for Change Festival, which serves as a sort of foil for E3. And I’ll avoid spoilers here, people will have to read the book to understand how you got from building PeaceMaker to becoming the executive director of Games for Change. But I do want to focus, at least anecdotally, on the relationship between these two parts of your career.

Asi: It was a unique transition, because it changed my perspective completely. The fact that I was a game maker myself and not just an administrator helped me to understand how difficult it is, and how much is involved in realizing a project like PeaceMaker. It also helped me to speak to many people outside of the organization—game creators, funders—in the languages that resonated. When I was a game developer, everything was about one single project.

When I became the executive director of Games for Change, I had to look at a whole ecosystem. It was niche, but it had a large following. And over time, some serious partners joined the excitement, from the White House to the Department of Education to corporations and large NGOs. So I had to look at everything differently: what are the programs and services we could come up with that would tangibly improve the process; how to get more support to game makers, engage new people with this sector, and ensure the best chances for future PeaceMaker-like games to thrive.

Jordan: When you look at the landscape of the video game industry, what do you make of the current relationship between commercial games and social impact games? At this point, for example, researchers have given a lot more thought to how game rhetoric functions. And bestselling authors like Jane McGonigal have helped to get more people to take games seriously. But we’ve yet to see anything that really bridges the gap between the big popular console games and games with a purpose. Why do you think that is? Do you imagine that at some point there will be big-ticket games that are about more than just entertainment? After all, when you consider books, many of the biggest titles are self-help and nonfiction—books that hope to change people’s lives. What’s it going to take to see the video game industry move in that direction? Maybe Oprah needs to start a book club for games.

Asi: Yes, the Oprah Game Club is a good idea and it was on my mind as well. It was on my mind because, like you, I’m trying to think of those tipping point moments. For example, what made documentaries soar in the film industry, or what made the Oscars feature more socially aware films? Some of it is pure evolution. Games are a young medium that needs its time to grow and evolve. But the other part of it is that games have shown incredible success financially and become part of the lives of millions of people who are truly passionate about them. So how do you come to those big game companies and claim that something needs to change?

On the optimistic side, I believe it is already happening. The combination of new platforms (mobile, social networks, distribution sites like Steam), talented independent creators, and all the good work you cite above, is making a difference. In recent years some major moments happened:

  • Indie titles like Papers, Please or Gone Home. Low budget high quality games that focus on ethics and social issues and succeed financially.
  • Video game awards now feature Games for Impact categories.
  • Commercial companies like Zynga, EA, Ubisoft and Take Two are showing interest. Whether in funding the sector or in creating actual products, like Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts.

These may seem like unique moments, but to me they demonstrate the future—they are indicators of what’s to come.

Jordan: You cover a lot of different types of games in Power Play. You deal with the sort of games that aim to bring awareness, games that function as if they were essays or nonfiction—the ones that use the rhetorical conventions of video games to raise consciousness. You also cover educational games, explaining how games can be used to teach both at school and in alternative spaces. You cover games that are making inroads in the scientific and medical world—games like Re-Mission and the story of Foldit. And you speculate some about virtual reality and the future potential of gaming. I wonder if you could say a bit about the areas where you think we’re going to see the most use for serious games moving forward. Are there issues or sectors where you think games can be especially impactful? Is there some part of our lives that you think can be served well by video games, a space developers haven’t really explored yet?

Asi: Working on the book with my co-author, Laura Parker, also evolved my thinking around what types of games and the types of impact we could achieve. I am very encouraged by the future of technology: the potential of virtual reality and neurogaming. Much of it is covered in the book, and these were incredible discoveries for me.

Asi: At the beginning of this movement, it was easy to equate PeaceMaker and other socio-political works to interactive documentaries. However, the beauty of games is their interactivity, and the fact is that their DNA includes many other attributes that traditional media simply doesn’t have. They are centered on action and loops of cause and effect. They can have real active social and viral forces if designed well. As such, some of the successes covered in the book, like Foldit and citizen science, takes us to places we never been before.

Suddenly, instead of talking about a ‘soft’ experience that may impact us upon reflection and further rational thought, we are speaking of measurable change in real-time and in the real world. In some cases, such as neurogames, a change that we don’t even fully control as players. Of course, there’s also a side there that we need to handle carefully. However, the potential for good is incredible.

If a brain scientist like Adam Gazzaley, who we cover in Power Play, achieves his goal and obtains an FDA approval for a video game: that could be the beginning of a new multibillion-dollar industry. He calls it “digital medicine”.

Jordan: Early on in the book, you tell the story of iCivics, the game-based civics curriculum that Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor helped to develop. You quote a conversation with her in which she says, “The medium of video games allows for concepts—which admittedly can be hard to grasp in civics—to happen to us. Essentially, this spirals down to a simple principle: you learn best by doing.” Most people would agree. And one of the reasons learning games make so much sense for teaching civics is that any government’s role is sort of like creating the parameters within which we play the game of life. Regulations, Policy, Law enforcement: it is helpful to get kids to see how these function to create the playing field—especially in an economic sense. In a democracy, the people are supposed to have an authoritative voice in the design of the game they’re playing. And in the book, you do a great job of showing how iCivics has been so successful not only at teaching kids, but also at helping to maneuver game metaphors into the education world. It sounds like a small thing, but in education, the methods we use to contextualize content is everything. Considering this, and looking at the current state of the world—with all the political unrest, geopolitical and economic uncertainty, the rise of new nationalism, etc.—what sort of political games do you expect (or hope) to see developed in the next few years?

Asi: What I really think we’re missing are social games that introduce a large number of players into a political context: a kind of World of Warcraft of political discourse.

PeaceMaker and some of the political work produced in recent years are mostly single player experiences. I am hoping to see that system open up, introducing some constraints but letting players explore for themselves and with each other. So, not a scripted, winning scenario that designers come up with, but rather sandbox experiences in which players and play and test ideas.

With extreme optimism, perhaps we will find in social games some of what we’re losing right now online and in social media–the idea that we learn by listening and debating opposing views. That we evolve by hearing different perspectives and views we disagree with. That there is no right or wrong or simple truths: civic education and engagement are about complex systems in which opposing forces need to learn to work together in order to achieve great accomplishments.

Jordan: Is there anything specific that you want people to know about the book that I haven’t asked about?

Asi: I hope that people see this as a book for gamers as well as non-gamers. My experience in this sector has been always about conversion. Any cocktail conversation, or meeting in which people ask me what do I do at work, triggers a much longer and deeper conversation. I suspect that if I was a lawyer or a banker, the conversation would end quickly. But people always want to hear more about what I do, and most of them have never heard of video games for impact. They are fascinated and more often than not, delighted to learn about it. Many of the people I speak to have kids, and they are largely clueless about how to approach video games or engage with them. They have no idea how to moderate, curate, and play with their kids. They are at times threatened by this all-consuming medium and see it as a negative influence.

So my wish is that this book will get to some of those people, and show them a whole different side to games.

Jordan: I hope so too. Okay, I have to ask. Is there a game you’ve been playing lately that you think readers should check out?

Asi: If you have time for a longer experience, The Last Guardian is a terrific game by the Japanese designer Fumito Ueda. If you want shorter, impactful experiences that are masterfully designed I would recommend Firewatch or Inside.

The book is: Power Play: How Video Games Can Save The World

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