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Getting Serious About Games

Guest Post: Michael Hamill Remaley

Can games move people in ways that traditional media can’t? Can they supplement a foundation’s more traditional communications programs, and provide a form of interactivity and engagement beyond what you can expect from a print publication, video, and even a website?  Some people in foundations, government and media who have begun experimenting with games say “yes.”  But what does it mean for those of us who work in communications? Are there games in our future? Will we work with program staff to use games to help further understanding of issues and what actions people can take?

I think the answer, based on some recent reading and conversations I’ve had with some people in the field, is again “yes.”

What got me started is an article I came across on “social games” written by Marcia Stepanek in the Stanford Social
Innovation Review
. The bulk of the piece was an interview with Games for Change chairman Alan Gershenfeld in which he made some very bold claims about the state of the social games movement, including:

Today, almost every major foundation and major government agency is either funding games or looking at funding games.” 


There are, certainly, a lot of examples of people who have created games that have created behavior change in the real world.

I believe that I am fairly well tuned-in to what philanthropic and nonprofit leaders are doing and what new forms of communication are gaining traction. I’ve heard a few examples of interesting social games that are indeed intriguing and I am very impressed that the MacArthur Foundation is investing $50 million in its Digital Media and Learning initiatives that have a strong emphasis on games. Stepanek’s article made me wonder just how widespread is the adoption of games by social change organizations, including foundations.

To learn more, I turned to two exceptionally thoughtful people.

Jessica Goldfin, a Journalism Program Associate at the Knight Foundation, believes that games have a unique ability  to draw people into social problems and get them thinking and acting in new ways. That is why, she adds that “games are becoming a dominant form of media.” As an example of the foundation’s growing investment in games, she cites Knight’s work in Macon, Ga., and Biloxi, Miss., with the game design firm Area/Code to create locative games to
engage citizens and promote community problem solving.  The Macon game will use an alternative form of local currency to connect residents to each other and to their community.  The game being developed in Biloxi will focus on increasing awareness and changing habits toward disaster preparation.

Games for Change’s Co-President Asi
is another who says that games
have the power to bring people into a social condition in ways that other forms of media cannot. He adds that they “allow people to make real, meaningful choices and to get feedback on those choices.”  He described media like print and video as “linear/passive” and said that those forms mostly project from a single, scripted perspective. Games, on the other hand, allow people to explore multiple perspectives in an immersive way.  “It is quite powerful to put a person in another’s shoes. And, you can let people experience failure in a safe environment that allows for solution creation they wouldn’t otherwise

Burak said it’s important that foundations understand that games are a unique medium, and they are not the same as producing videos, which is a fairly straightforward process that yields an end
product that can be played on many platforms.  Games production is exceedingly complex and the technologies for every platform are different – so you can’t produce a single game product that runs on the web, on a game console and on the various mobile platforms for iPhone, Android, etc.  Therefore, foundations and nonprofits interested in doing games need to take the time to really think through who they are trying to reach, what platforms the audience uses (and in what context) and what concrete social change they want to move toward.

In thinking about developing games, Burak says there are are eight key elements to keep in mind.

  • Audience. Be as specific as possible.  What is the age of the audience?  Where do they live? What language do they speak?  What is their socio-economic status?  What is their gaming ability?

  • Context. Would they be playing games on a computer, on a handheld device, or a mobile phone?  Would the player be assisted by a moderator or a teacher?

  • Goals. What kind of impact do you want to have?  What do you want users to take away from the game? Do you want your audience to take action in the real world? Donate? Learn specific information or skills? Have a change in perception?
  • Platform. The kind of device and software a game runs on will affect its design considerably, as well as add options and perhaps provide some limitations.  For instance, a game that runs on an iPhone will appeal to a certain type audience–and probably a more affluent one. However, if you’re trying to reach young, poor African men, then a less sophisticated game that uses a texting platform such as SMS is more realistic.

  • Financial model and sustainability. There’s more to the cost of a game than initial development costs. You also need to consider ongoing maintenance and routine upgrads itself as well as costs for disseminating and publicizing the game beyond its launch.

  • Game Design. This is the linchpin of your entire effort.  Until you know what kind of action, or “gameplay,” will take place on the screen all other decisions are secondary.
  • Execution.  Who are you going to work with to produce an disseminate the game?
  • Assessment. How will you know if you are achieving the goals? That’s why need a plan for what you want to learn as well as how you will capture the kinds of data that will help you assess the effectiveness of your efforts.

In the coming months, Games for Change will have a lot more information and advice on its website for foundations and nonprofits interested in getting into games, including a list of developers, case studies and key issues to consider.  It also plans to offer consulting services to those who would like more hands-on guidance.

No doubt games are fun, and clearly appealing.  But do they work? Can they motivate people to behave differently?  Can they inform people in ways traditional media cannot?  Burak talked about how the “Darfur is Dying” game had generated “50,000 actions” (in the form of letters to legislators) and about an organization in India that had partnered with mobile carriers to embed an HIV awareness game on 64 million devices that had actually generated 10 million sessions.

Goldfin and Burak also both said that the future of social games is surely in mobile platforms – games that are played on phones and other small devices.  More and more nonprofits and foundations are indeed creating iPhone and Android “apps” that provide consumers quick access to programmatic information, so perhaps social games are the next wave.

In the end, I came away from these conversations even more intrigued by the possibilities that social games present.  The complexity of the process for creating and disseminating them is daunting, but I think many nonprofits and foundations are up to the challenge.  I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for examples of success in this medium and maybe even playing a few social games myself to get a feel for what works.

–Michael Remaley

Michael Hamill Remaley, a regular contributor to the Communications Network
blog, is a communications consultant and also director of Public Policy
Communicators NYC


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