June 28, 2006

Games for Change 2006 – Report

by Mary Flanagan · , 7:38 pm

The Games for Change Conference in NYC, June 27 and 28th, is not only covered here by the NY GTxA offices, but in popular news venues such as cnn as well. That’s great for the budding movement! Last night there was a fab party at Rockstar games. Wednesday June 28th featured again a great line up of speakers discussing games for social engagement and social change.



Katie Salen’s presentation “Field Building With University Students” was as insightful and fun as usual — Salen showed student work from Parson’s Design and Technology program and the 24 hour game jam at which I was a “midnight visiting critic” along with my co conspirator friend Betsy Seder. She mentioned that students today are “natural activists” and that one does not have focus on the activist nature of games for students to create them. While I wish this were true, from what I have observed in game design instruction in many universities, I do not entirely share Salen’s point of view. Perhaps the student body of critical designers who attend Salen’s program, or the motivated students who attend game jams, or the live critique of the visiting scholars at said game jams, encourages a type of social responsibility that other institutions do not foster. . . perhaps it is the creative nature of a design focused (rather than say technology focused) curriculum, or perhaps the class differences between institutions which ultimately (and subtley) gives students “permission” (or not) to change things…

That said, I’m a hopeful skeptic — even though, contrary to Salen’s notion, out of the 20+ new MA, MS, and Bachelors programs in computer games founded in US Universities, the body of students ‘naturally’ generating activist games is relatively slim. In fact, the demise of repeatedly reproducing “what is out there” (especially shooter games) has motivated my collaborator Helen Nissenbaum and myself to embark on the creation a “Values at Play” games creation toolkit, an open source and contributions-based archive which explores particular human values such as equality, democracy, autonomy and authorship, creativity, social justice, privacy, and gender equity,

but I digress. Back to the G4C conference!

The former Governor of Nebraska, former Senator, and 9/11 Committee member Bob Kerry, presented on Wednesday. Now, Kerry is the President of the New School –and he expressed a great interest in computer games and education. Ian Bogost asked questions of Kerry about election games, ie, what is making the difference — students’/designers’ experience designing games in this area, or the players’ experience? For informal games, Kerry notes, the knowledge required for game development is higher than playing, but casual or informal games are now more accessible and lower in price, and therefore are an important medium for creating environments where empathy can be created.

In fact the theme of empathy came up again and again (and made me think of Katherine Isbister‘s work first and foremost). Bogost, in his talk on the panel “Mixing Gravity with Entertainment,” provoked the audience by trying to stretch empathy into arenas that make us uncomfortable, such as:
–we should walk in the shoes of the SS or other regimes
–we should see from the position of those in power
–we should see from the POV of the victim, ie, Holocaust victims, to navigate the slippery slope that abuse of power can bring.

Unfortunately time was short for discussion and there was no dinner afterwards, so this point was put out there, hanging…

Gender was not a big topic at the conference. Male to female ratio among gamers was breifly touched upon, with various first person accounts from teachers and activists on how girls use computer games in the classroom less time than their male counterparts—of course, disagreements arose… How are games such as “Pax Warrior” really addressing female players? How do women and girls work within game systems differently? To be honest, few of the activist developers were addressing gender, with the exception of long time gender and technology research superhero Cornelia Brunner.

There was a panel on “Museums and Games.” Harry Borrelli, from the American Museum of Natural History, discussed interactive museum exhibit design.
Some practical pointers:
–design 2-8 minute interactive sessions
–tend to rely on demos and lots of audio
–”People just don’t read text.” No more than 3-4 sentences should be a part of any screen or exhibit, unless catalog text.
–Take advantage of what has been seen before in the course of the museum exhibit already; play off of prior objects and somewhat familiar items.
–How to use the interactive? Raise questions? Are games merely ‘interactives’ or beyond?
Should games act as a counter to the exhibit? Or act in support of a particular concept or object?

A speaker for a game against Cybercrime (Drew Ann Wake from Livewires Design) discussed how their group tried to work with MySpace to distribute their game to help kids learn about cybercrime/stalking etc, and MySpace did not wish to partner – according to Wake, MySpace officials thought the game too realistic, and due to the intense and realistic game, the participants in online systems might begin to question their participation.

The panel I led was entitled “Trailblazers: Artists and Individuals Creating New Games for Change”. Artists Christina Ray (Glowlab, NYC) Brooke Singer, Lillian Ball, and Skawennati Fragnito presented games that engaged with both screen worlds and real worlds. I think the artistic perspective on games for change is an essential one, as those of you who know my writing projects and new book project can attest. I only showed a few slides as I was the panel organizer and moderator, but I did sneak preview my new work [giantJoystick] which GTxA readers will see with their own eyes in a few short weeks!!

It was great to see a Hunter College presence at G4C with MFA student Heidi Boisvert in attendance, and one of my former students Lisa Daly, who is finishing her MFA from Parsons. Thanks to Suzanne Seggerman and Ben Stokes (who has been a guest speaker at Hunter College) for their masterful organization of the growing, important conference.

8 Responses to “Games for Change 2006 – Report”


  1. Ian Bogost Says:

    Hi Mary! Your panel was great btw!

  2. Patrick Says:

    I’m largely self-taught when it comes to game design, and I feel the “natural activist” stance Salen suggests, I’m very interested in using low overhead tool sets and procedural rhetoric to make a socially relevant game. I’m probably not representative of most wanna-be designers, (or designers in general) but I think a prevelance of tool sets will add to the momentum of these movements, and I’m glad thats the direction you’ve decided to focus on.

  3. Cindy Poremba Says:

    On day one, there did seem to be a strong bias towards a certain demographic (male, white, teens) from both the presenters and the bulk of the audience. Tried to raise the question, and was pretty much blown off by the industry panel…

    My point was: in any medium, are school aged white boys the primary consumers of social change and activist media?

  4. mary Says:

    ian – merci merci i-an-bo-go. I’m your fan. Even if you beat me to Badiou apparently ; >

    patrick — i’m thrilled that you are bent on activism. can you post a link to your work>?

    cindy! long time no chat. Too bad we didn’t catch up at the conf!! We could have mulled this over in person…
    anyway, no, I don’t think that school aged white young men are the primary consumers of all activist media. Hunter’s IMA program focusing on social/activist media is dominated by female makers… and historically, activist video art/public access was a very female-led domain (with groups like paper tiger tv for ex.). I’m sure we could find stats about it–this would be interesting…

    I’m pretty certain the gender bias you noted is because of the context of the computer/technocultural saavy games “thing,” the very subtle “one-ups-man-ship” very rampant in our field and particularly in relation to gaming that is manifesting here… In fact, for those of us teaching gaming, I think we’re about to see an accelleration of more women leaving technology related courses (rather than the rhetoric used to get such new games programs through, ie “new games coursework can attract women”) due to the increasing focus on gaming and its ultimate baggage–

    If the industry is only appx 10% women in 2006 (see igda industry demographics report, blogged 6 months ago), and very lacking in diverse voices, people of color, various economic backgrounds, &c, we as educators and practitioners *have to act responsibly* –no one teaching technology and design can ignore the state of the industry and must devise strategies to address diverse voices. I strongly believe that anyone who goes *near* gaming as an educator or activist (and hopefully, as a designer!!) must examine/confront the assumptions they might have about gender, ethnicity, and technology, carefully broaden the material they show, &c so as not to reproduce the current problematic gender crisis of the field…

  5. Patrick Says:

    Cindy, sad as it is (and this is coming from a young white male) the patterns of activist movements in the past have typically been saturated with white men as the early adopters, as recently as the Beat movement of the 1950′s. The advent of feminism proceeded this, so men aren’t nessecarily catalysts for social activism, just the statistical norm given the patterns of history.

    Mary, I don’t have any playable work in this regard, as I’m still fairly early on in my career and have been primarily focusing on commercial projects. The last game I worked on, a soon to be released indie title called Play With Fire, involves a fireball avatar that ignites different sorts of blocks as its primary mechanic. I had wanted to build a 9-11 level where the player begins inside a metal structure and, in the matter of course escape from this starting point, ends up catalyzing the destruction of the structure and a matching one. The implication is that in passively consuming entertianment (i.e. the game) we are indirectly complicit in U.S. foreign policy (which I consider the piorneering agency of international terrorism) and therefore catalyzsts for the “tragedy” of September 11th. The problem is that most Americans wouldn’t get and/or appreciate that implication, and instead be offended (though I’m sure international players would get a real hoot out of it). My proposal to build the level was rejected by the lead designer.

    My current project is set against a pastiche of Irish myth and involves some political and religous thematic undertones, but these are secondary to what is intentionally a commercial product. If thats succesful and I become financially stable I’d like to use the same engine to do a game about school violence. I’m of the Ian Bogost school of procedural activism, don’t imbue a message, just make an interesting social dynamic (or system thereof) and left people draw their own conclusions.

    A reletively popular essay I wrote, which references the Beat movement, can be found here if you are interested: http://kingludic.blogspot.com/2006/04/progressive-design.html

  6. Patrick Says:

    Oh yeah, I write in that essay that I only know of two innovative female game designers: Roberta Williams and Mare Sheppard. Since then I read the paper on your Dancing/Imitation/Teach-Girls-To-Program game and I was very impressed. Also Katie Salen has done some interesting work, and I know there are a handful of others. Half of the core design team on Spore are women, as well as an above average chunck of the whole team. My friend Bonnie has aspirations of designing a game that turns typical gender conventions on its head, but the issue it seems is providing tool sets for non-technical people. Do that and you’ll see PLENTY of female game designers doing interesting work.

  7. mark Says:

    That’s something I’ve found interesting, in that it seems like activist media, especially radical activist media that eschews previous assumptions, ought to be a fairly level playing field, since you can almost literally do anything so long as someone is convinced that it’s interesting. Yet somehow it seems to mostly, with a few notable exceptions, be young white males. I’m mostly familiar with that sort of thing in the context of late-70s/early-80s radical music (and various musical offshoots to the present day), in which the only three reasonably prominent people bucking that trend I can think of are Lydia Lunch (no-wave poet/musician/artist), Eve Libertine (of punk band Crass), and Jarboe (of no-wave offshoot band Swans). I’m probably overlooking some, but the proportions do seem to be off.

    Interestingly, the demographic bias in that area isn’t towards *straight* young white men; if anything, gay white men are very overrepresented, and gay clubs, especially in London, were often meeting places and centers of collaboration.

  8. mary Says:

    patrick – everyone – thanks for the discussion. I would wager that perhaps more young white men are documented as being parts of movements, but women are often just as active in political and social movements. Their contributions just aren’t as well recorded in the cannonization process and they are often collaborative.

    For women game designers, in addition to katie and me, also check out tracey fullerton, celia pearce, chris trottier, heather kelly, sheri graner ray, and others… you can find out about some via ; also some companies are more open to others as far as hiring women (ex Amaze Entertainment).

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