In Asi Burak and Naomi Clark’s Games for Impact class, DSI students are tackling social problems with the help of games. The class is inspired by the growing field of social impact game design, which addresses any number of social problems – from gender discrimination to electoral awareness to health disparities – with games. Over the course of the semester, students learn to analyze social problems at a systems level, to develop tactics to visualize those systems, and to create appealing ways for people to interact with them. A game’s got to be played, after all.
The class just completed its first assignment, which explained the basics of game design. They were divided into teams and given a random constraint: players needed to be silent, maybe, or to stand up and move around. Students developed games like Gangsquare, inspired by the Godfather quote “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” where players build up mob “territories” with black and white tiles, or like Strike Out!, where players cover their limbs in colored bandanas and race around the room matching the bandanas to colored posts.
The next class assignment will take students out into the streets, where they’ll design big outdoor games – think scavenger hunts and capture the flag – while navigating the contingencies of New York city life: strangers, traffic, weather, etc. In the final assignment, they put together the lessons in systems-thinking and interactivity to design a game that addresses a social problem of their choice. Asi and Naomi say they’ve been surprised and pleased by the quality of what students come up with. Last semester, for instance, Megan Lazier, Michelle Kwon, and Robin Newman designed a game called Say No More to address sex trafficking, which later won them a prestigious Sappi Ideas that Matter Award. They’re using their prize money to pilot the game with a group of New York non-profits this month.
Both Asi and Naomi have been working with social impact games for years. Asi is the president of Games for Change, a world-famous organization that develops, facilitates, and advocates for digital social impact games; Naomi is a game designer who’s worked on projects like Ayiti: The Cost of Life, which teaches users about poverty in Haiti, and Wonder City, a game that debuted alongside the feminist history documentary Women Women! And they work hard to bring in other leaders in the field for class lectures. Students have heard from Greg Trefry, a game designer at Gigantic Mechanic, and Jessie Fuchs, who’s faculty at NYU’s Game Center and an expert on Monopoly.
According to Asi, it’s an exciting time for students to encounter social impact game design. The past few years has seen an explosion of new games developed by independent designers. They’re adding creativity and flexibility to a field that’s traditionally been dominated by more instrumentalized and institution-bound projects at NGOs. But these new game designers are not always as good as their more traditional counterparts at articulating and measuring the impact they’d like to make. So DSI students are stepping into the conversation that’s buzzing both with new ideas and important reality-check questions about how games contribute to social change.