Asi Burak. That’s why.
Among other things, Asi is a pioneer in making digital games work for good, has inspired millions of people to play his Half the Sky Movement game on Facebook, and he teaches Games for Impact at DSI.
DSI: What’s design for social innovation for you?
There is innovation, and then there is innovation with meaning, which is trying to change society for the better. That’s the innovation we’re looking for, it doesn’t have to be technological, it doesn’t need to be disruptive, it needs to be undertaken with society in mind.
To me, the unique thing about this program is that designers come from different disciplines. They come to study how they can harness the power of design to improve society in different ways and on multiple aspects. Each student finds their own passion and way to do it.
DSI: What would you say to potential students about the program, and about the class that you teach?
For better or worse, they’re pioneers. Not only because it’s still early, but because this focus is very special, and it’s going to be much more common in the future. It’s almost as if we don’t have another alternative. If we are not going to seriously harness design to make the world a better place, we are going to fall behind.
It also takes courage. If you are someone who is looking to be in a box and get a degree where you’re going to be like thousands of others, it’s not the place for you. It’s definitely a place for being different, innovative, and entrepreneurial in a sense, not being afraid of uncertainty and the challenges… I think you can’t get into this program by accident. But you know, pioneers also say they get arrows in their back because they lead everyone else.
DSI: Can you talk a little bit about your background, and what you do?
I studied design in school, which many people don’t know, they think I came from technology. I studied design in Israel and my final project portrayed how Israel is going to look in 2023. That was the first time I was involved in what you’d call social innovation. Everyone else in my class was making chocolate boxes, and packages, with completely pure design aesthetics. Everybody was thinking about how they’d get the next job at a studio.
I was coming from a completely different place, politically and socially. My project was covered on prime time television in Israel back then, now people remind me of that, because 20 years later, it’s unfortunately getting to be more and more like I imagined it, which was a negative take, almost a nightmare.
Then I went into advertising and technology in Israel. I was avoiding social challenges. The big change came when I moved to the US. My eyes were opened. I went to Carnegie Mellon, to a special program that is similar in some ways to DSI because it’s new, back then it was even newer. It took people from art and technology and put them together.
DSI: This was ETC (Entertainment Technology Center), right?
Yes. It was very loose, but again like DSI, very much about what you make out of it. I pitched a project called PeaceMaker, which was the first video game I made, and it became a big success out of school. For me that is when I found my mission. It was the ability to take a medium that is becoming more and more common and popular, but people are not thinking about it as serious or meaningful. With a team of collaborators, I was able to bring all the serious and meaningful content and experience that I had from my life in Israel into the creation of it. I think it made a lot of headlines and got a lot of attention because it was unexpected.
Ten years after, things have change for the better in the games for impact space. A lot of people are thinking that way. It’s still bellow the radar for the public, but definitely in terms of industry, people are more and more aware that it’s happening.
I moved on from PeaceMaker, where I was a developer, to Games for Change, where I’ve run the organization for the past four years. Now I’m leading a movement, I’m helping others to shine, whether it’s the Games for Change Festival, the contests we run, or the projects we incubate. These are all things that help the whole sector, rather than making my own projects. It’s a very interesting perspective.
Going back to our Design for Social Innovation program, it’s what Cheryl is doing. She always thinks of how to evolve a sector. When you do that, you tend to think a lot about language, and you think about visibility, because you want to be out there. You need to make space for yourself in the world that doesn’t necessarily recognize you yet. Some of it is very tangible, you do it by making excellent work, but some of it is advocacy and working one-on-one with stakeholders.
A large percentage of what I’m doing is really converting people, whether it’s one-on-one, or sometimes in groups. I recently went to India and Kenya – to groups that had never used games in their programs and tried to get them excited about it. It happens all the time. You’re like a plague; you need to infect many people.
DSI: Why do you think gaming and play are such powerful tools for social change?
It’s a multi-layered answer – there are many reasons why. First of all it’s interactive, and participatory. For the first time you have a very popular medium that people are taking part in. Social action, social innovation is all about that. If it were about documentaries, movies, books, or brochures it would be different. We’ve always had those things, and we are always passive as consumers. With games, for the first time we are making decisions. And when a game is made well, you are asking questions and some of them go unanswered. A good game is not a quiz.
Games are great at taking very complex systems and simulating them, creating a model that can be pretty plausible. If we made the Middle East into a game, then you can probably make anything into a game. That’s very powerful. It’s not only telling you a story, it’s showing you the system and how the system is connected in a non-linear fashion.
Games are very social in their nature, especially these days – more than they were 5 or 10 years ago. They are very good at influencing younger generations. I always say that games are for everybody, but no doubt, they’re more effective with young people. They’re almost crazed about them, and this is a great place to influence and make a difference in a way that’s less intimidating, and more fun. You can convey very important things in a way that seems safe. People who play games are not afraid of failure; failure is a part of the game. It’s very important for learning, for experimenting, and for influencing change. That’s a few reasons, there are many more. The more I do it, the more I understand the potential.
DSI: You said on a TEDx Talk that “with great power comes great responsibility”. Can you talk more about that?
Some of it is just the nature of the medium, and some of it is the way it evolved commercially. Game designers are working on continuous engagement, while other media is all about producing short bursts (which are becoming shorter and shorter) to fight for attention. There is something in the nature of the game that keeps players coming back.
I think that depth is something that’s unique to games; you don’t see it in other media. For example, when Sandra Day O’Connor, Supreme Court Justice, decided to invest in video games, she said, “I look at my grandkids and the level of immersion they have, that level of concentration is so powerful.”
In the theory of games and interaction they call it “the state of complete immersion”, or “the flow” (Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi). It’s that place where it’s not so difficult, that you get frustrated and stop playing; but it’s not so easy that you grow bored. The flow is this place where, by some magic, the game designer crafted a learning curve that helps you advance with pure satisfaction.
We speak a lot about digital, but it’s in non-digital games as well. We have lived with play for thousands of years. We grew up learning by playing, but for some reason society has neglected this play at a point in our lives. We’re just not connecting the dots to make play more central to how we learn, how we advance, and how we work. We actually have this rigid tradition, that after a certain age if you play you’re not working, or you’re not doing anything serious. It’s actually the opposite.
This approach is very old fashioned. If someone is wasting his or her time they’re not going to make the same progress, at the same pace. Now we’re starting to see that we need to let people do it at their own pace, and experiment.
Let’s tie it to DSI and the Games for Impact class. We’re surprised by the stuff you’re making. We’re basically designers, not only teachers. We’re designing the framework, but that’s it. You are the real creators. In some ways you’re teaching us things, and you’re surprising us with the things you’re doing. It’s not even about quality; it’s about the approach. What’s interesting to you might be something I never thought about. It’s very hands-on, versus you sitting in the classroom listening, and listening, and listening.
DSI: Could you talk about a recent project?
Half the Sky Movement is probably a good one to speak about because I just came back from the trip to India and Kenya.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote a book called Half the Sky, about women empowerment. It deals with how to fight oppression, from lack of education, to maternal mortality, or gender based violence, the worst cases often from the developing world. Not only does it prove that women are oppressed, they also “vanish” from the population. There are between sixty and one hundred million women missing from the countries like India and Kenya.
Their best selling non-fiction book has reached many people, but it’s a tough read. There is a TV series, which aired on PBS and public TV stations around the world. However, they wanted to reach beyond their comfort zone – that’s why they came to us to produce the game.
We launched it in 2013 on Facebook, and 1.3 million people have played it thus far. The majority of them are probably not activists, and that’s what we wanted to do, reach beyond the converted.
We also developed three mobile games which provide a different approach. We are able to reach the people most affected by the issues, such as giving NGOs tools like a mobile app that teaches women about pregnancy. It was probably the most complex thing I’ve ever done.
It was very ambitious in scope, as knew that we were going for something big. In addition to having social impact, we wanted to engage high-profile partners from the private and public sector. Half the Sky was part of a bigger transmedia project, so the games were not a stand-alone. We created a portfolio of 4 games, comparing different options to see which was most successful.
We succeeded with something that is very tough in our industry, which is to keep a project sustainable. Many times people make a game and that’s that. They forget about it. We were able to continue by developing a sequel, and we’re now working with USAID to take what we created in the US and adapt it to India and Kenya. The project has a life.
DSI: You said people shouldn’t wait until they graduate to do meaningful work. Could you talk a little about that?
That’s the example of PeaceMaker, our student project. That might have been the most meaningful thing I ever made, and it started at school.
I don’t like the idea that people go to school because they want a job, or that they are obsessed about what will happen next. I understand where that’s coming from, and people should think about employment, but you need to live in the moment, and understand the opportunity you’re given. To me, it’s tragic when people miss that opportunity.
You get amazing faculty, great colleagues, terrific resources – you should take advantage of them. It’s not going to be easy. Sometimes you need to work and study at the same time, but that’s how you make a difference. Peace Maker was something I could only start in the university, and not if I were employed. It doesn’t mean that you must do the most important work of your life in university, but at the same time, there’s a good chance you will.
DSI: What’s your advice to a student starting or thinking about the DSI program?
Find your passion and what really matters to you. Sometimes I feel that people are too attached to causes because it’s fashionable, or because it’s the right thing to do. I think everybody can find something they really care about and want to change, then the work will be much more powerful.