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Games for Change and Al Gore: Xbox to Enlightenment

The Games for Change festival ran last week, June 20-22, in New York City. It centered on the idea of online games encouraging progressive social change. Interdependence in action!

Somewhat improbably, Al Gore gave the keynote. (He's been in the news lately again, with a classic Al Gore Rolling Stone essay.)

Photo via Newsday

Saying "Games are the new normal" Al confessed the was not much of a gamer, with Atari's epochal Pong being the extent of his mastery. A few game developer and gamer blogs ridiculed him.

What fascinated me was the Games for Social Change Festival. The idea that multiplayer online games could be constructed to not only exploit some types of behavior but also to aggregate and encourage other types, like the reciprocal altruism that some say was responsible for the wildly successful Farmville last year, is fascinating.

Check out Belinda Parmer in the Sunday Times (London), a little over a year ago:

FarmVille represents a new breed of game. It is not about killing or slaying ice dragons, but about nurturing and rearing. One of the tenets underlying FarmVille is that it gives the impression that the player is participating in an altruistic society. By playing you are allowing your friends to have a good time - the more farming you do the less they have to do. The social media commentator Patrick Liszkiewicz calls this “sociopathic gaming”; since FarmVille takes advantage of female instinctive desires - in this case to be good to each other - in order to promote its own agenda.

Adn what if it had a different agenda?

As noted on joystiq.com

[D]uring a moderated Q&A hosted by the Ford Foundation's Democracy, Rights and Justice program VP Maya Harris, Gore restated his belief that serious games -- games for change, if you will -- can be just as successful as for-profit titles. While he noted that we live in a "marketing culture," he believes that human beings and social mediums can help overcome the power of marketing.

Gore noted that "game patterns are becoming more ubiquitous in our culture." What if those game patterns drew from the instincts that cause us to group together for benefit? Buddhism, and other spiritual tradtions, stress that part of the path is thinking of others' benefit, since we so often thnk that benefiting our fase conception of self as independent, single, and unitary is  true self-interest, while true freedom lies elsewhere.

The road to freedom--and an enlightened society--does lie elsewhere, with realizing and acting on a realization of interdependence.

Certainly, one cannot push this into utter collectivism. Individuals matter. We are not a unitary blob of humanity. We are not the Borg.

But could games help us realize interdependence?

As these descriptions of seminars and talks at Games for Change show, some people think so.

Games for change have gone global in their ability to inspire and be reinterpreted in different countries and cultures. The news game “Peacemaker” is inspired by real events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It in turn inspires Gyeonggi Digital Contents Agency’s  “Green Grim,” a game set in an environmental backdrop in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s “iCivics” games inspire Korea’s Ministry of Justice to launch “Adventures in Law Land,” a project that will incorporate a variety of content, including serious games, text, and video for the purpose of instilling a respect for the importance of laws. The format will be an “on-line playground-type theme park” similar in organization to off-line theme parks like Disneyworld. From Denmark’s Serious Games Interactive, Global Conflicts: Latin America is the second in a compelling series of documentary games now being deployed in Brazil. And in the north of France this May, the first Games for Change Europe Festival and the beginning of a games for change incubator in collaboration with the Valenciennes Chamber of Commerce.

Direct Action and Impact: Games are expanding their magic circle to leave lasting, tangible impact on the world. Jamison Selby, Senior Producer at TimePlay Entertainment will explore opportunities for in-game economies to facilitate donations to real world causes. Jason Behr, Designer at 343 Industries, will discuss game incentive systems that encourage volunteerism.

Facebook: Gaming on Facebook shows no sign of relenting. Fortunes have been made, but attention has been brought to pressing social issues as well. Mallika Dutt, President and CEO of Breakthrough, will discuss trends in gaming and Facebook that lead Breakthrough to use the platform as the base for their alternate reality game, America 2049.

Will the Xbox replace the meditation cushion?  Well, not exactly . . .

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John Robb wrote an

John Robb wrote an interesting article at his blog about "gamification":  http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2010/03/online-games-superempowerment-and-reality.html

"Here's the big idea.  For active online gamers real life is broken.  It doesn't make any sense.  Effort isn't connected to reward.  The path forward is confused, convoluted, and contradictory.  Worse, there's a growing sense that the entire game is being corrupted to ensure failure.  So, why play it?

They don't.  They retreat to online games.  Why?  Online games provide an environment that connects what you do (work, problem solving, effort, motivation level, merit) in the game to rewards (status, capabilities, etc.)."

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