Play for Change

By Jeff Cobb.

A Western chemical company is offering farmers in the region a special deal . They will pay you money for the leasing of a few acres, where they can store some of their harmless barrels. They will pay you $75. Do you accept the deal ?

This was the offer I received after 16 seasons on the farm.

I really had no choice. Iniko, the head of the family, was at death’s door and needed medicine badly. Mother Gina was not far behind. The crops failed last year, and we had faced any number of difficulties in the seasons before. We had already sold off what little of value we had.

So, I took the money.

It made little difference. Iniko and Gina died anyway. Within a few more seasons the sister had left, I had resorted to dancing in a show for tourists to earn money, and then, in a final act of despair, I began growing opium to try to pull myself back up out of extreme poverty. All to no avail. After 20 seasons, I too perished from hunger and disease. The family was gone. The farm was gone.

Game over.

The story above is not real or, at least, I did not experience it in the real world. Where I did experience it was in an online game called 3rd World Farmer which is designed to simulate many of the conditions and choices that millions living at or near poverty in developing countries face on a daily basis.

3rd World Farmer is what is typically referred to as a ”serious game“ – a game intended for purposes other than pure entertainment. How deeply this intention is woven into a game can vary widely. In some cases, the actual substance of a game may have relatively little to do with the more serious matters to which it is connected. At the highly addictive vocabulary game site,, for instance, 20 grains of rice are donated to the United Nations World Food Program every time a player correctly guesses a word. While vocabulary has relatively little to do with understanding or fighting hunger, the site has resulted in donations of billions of grains of rice and has no doubt raised awareness of hunger as a global issue along the way.

Games like 3rd World Farmer strive for an even higher level of awareness coupled with actual engagement in the problem or challenge at hand. They place you in an environment where you are faced with making choices and decisions that simulate what you or others may face in a real life situation. Not all serious games are geared towards social issues – most are aimed at business or governmental training needs – but a growing number like 3rd World Farmer and Free Rice recognize that games can actually be powerful tools for supporting social change. As these games tap into the social capabilities that the Web now offers, their ability to attract and engage new stakeholders could easily surpass that of traditional media.

Getting attention, cultivating engagement

As I was playing 3rd World Farmer, I thought about Heifer International, an organization that is dedicated to fighting hunger and supporting sustainable development internationally. Heifer’s approach is to provide families with livestock that can be bred for food. Recipients agree to share the offspring of gift animals with others in need.
I am an enthusiastic supporter of Heifer, and my wife and I contribute to the organization annually. But as I was playing 3rd World Farmer, it occurred to me that my level of actual engagement with Heifer and its cause is quite low. This is not because the organization is not trying. It maintains a well-designed, content-rich website that takes advantage of leading technologies for online giving and outreach. It uses e-mail for reaching constituents in the inbox. And it sends out one of the better newsletters I’ve seen from a nonprofit. I even read it. Occasionally.
But Heifer faces the same problem every other organization in the world faces right now when it comes to drawing attention to its products or services: a crisis of attention. Traditional broadcast media, which include not only television, print, and radio, but also mass e-mail, and most websites, have a harder and harder time cutting through the vast array of choices now available and capturing the attention of – much less engaging – a target audience.
At this point, games may have a better chance of capturing attention than traditional broadcast media simply because they are trendy. But their edge over broadcast media also lies in a promise of value that most other media cannot readily emulate: games are a two-way exchange, and for their part, they give back in a way that is imminently satisfying to the average human psyche. Make a choice. See immediate and clear results. If successful, move on to greater heights. If unsuccessful, well, the next try is sure to be the one.

It was this sort of cycle I went through in 3rd World Farmer. I have played the game many times now, but what struck me early in my very first try at it was just how difficult it is to break the cycle of poverty when you have no safety net and there are myriad factors beyond your control. One wrong decision can seal your fate, though that fate may take many seasons to play out.
Intellectually, this is a point I grasped long ago. It is something I have been told and shown via an array of broadcast media from Heifer and other organizations dedicated to fighting poverty and hunger. But having to place myself into a different reality, engage in those decisions, and “live” with the result led to an understanding of the point much deeper than any I have achieved before. And I found this to be true even in the context of a game like 3rd World Farmer which, when compared to commercial blockbusters like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto, is quite rudimentary.
It is difficult to quantify, of course, how this deeper understanding ultimately benefits an organization that makes use of serious games, but it is hardly a stretch to suggest that it might lead to more and larger donations or to an increase in ”real life“ engagement through volunteering. Perhaps more of stretch, but certainly well within the realm of possibility, is the idea that creating this level of engagement across a broad spectrum of stakeholders – potentially anyone with an Internet connection and browser – might actually lead to new, better approaches to solving complex social problems.

From content to context to community

A recent article about games in Prospect Magazine notes that, ”…humanity’s larger understanding of the world comes primarily through interaction and experimentation, through answering the question ’what if?‘“ This, of course, is an area where games excel and where a significant part of their potential for problem solving and change lies. The best games – whether serious or not – are excellent learning tools.

Traditional media tend to focus on the delivery of content. Similarly, traditional approaches to education emphasize mastery of a body of content or factual knowledge. Games, by their nature, combine content and experience, providing a context in which content is put into action. In more sophisticated games, the line between content and context disappears completely. The content of the game, the story it ultimately produces, is the sum of the player’s actions and it unfolds differently each time the player plays.
The narrative at the beginning of this article summing up my experience in 3rd World Farmer reflected only my experience in that particular round of the game. It could have turned out otherwise, and indeed, different choices resulted in different outcomes the other times I have played. Just as they might in real life, if the same type of repetition were possible.
The fact that the player can play a game repeatedly, or attempt different aspects of a game repeatedly, is one of the core reasons that games can be so effective for learning. James Paul Gee, Professor of Literacy at Arizona State University and a leading expert on games, argues that … good games create what’s been called a ”cycle of expertise“ by giving players well-designed problems on the basis of which they can form good strategies, letting them practice these enough to routinize them, then throwing a new problem at them that forces them to undo their now routinized skills and think again before achieving, though more practice, a new and higher routinized set of skills. Good games repeat this cycle again and again – it’s the process by which experts are produced in any domain.

Of course, this process, when undertaken in isolation, may be of limited value in the context of large-scale social issues like poverty and hunger in the developing world. What good does it do that I, sitting comfortably in my office in the United States, have developed a level of expertise regarding how best to manage a fictional 3rd world farm?

Where the possibilities really become intriguing, as Gee and other researchers in the field have recognized, is when the experiential nature of games is blended with the social capabilities of the web.
Consider, for instance, World Without Oil, an online alternate reality game designed to simulate a global oil crisis. World Without Oil ran for 32 days in 2007, and during that time, collected more than 1500 blog entries, voicemails, videos, and images from some 1900 participants worldwide who collectively imagined and documented their lives in the midst of a serious global oil shortage. All of these are now preserved as an archive that can be viewed and listened to by anyone.

World Without Oil is suggestive of what John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas have called a network of imagination. ”The idea of a network of imagination,“ write Seely Brown and Thomas, ties together notions of community, technologically mediated collective action, and imagination, when players begin to act through joint investment in the pursuit of common ground. This kind of collective action is more than networked work of distributed problem solving. It requires that problems be thought of as group problems and that the goals of all actions and practices are to move the group forward.”

Anyone who has paid attention to recent news knows that World Without Oil did not solve the problem of the world’s dependency on oil or the myriad related issues this dependency creates. But this is largely beside the point. There is any number of relatively straightforward answers to the question ”How do we survive in a world without oil?“ just as there is to ”How do we stop hunger?“ but placed within the context of a diverse global society, these questions become deeply complex and seemingly intractable.

The very best game environments help us think critically about these issues as individuals, contribute this thinking to the broader, collective imagination where it can shape and be shaped, and ultimately, as Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas put it, ”move the group forward.“

Consciousness required

Of course, forward progress is only one of the possibilities. For all the potential that games represent, many people do see them as having a darker side. The level of engagement they encourage, for one, can be very powerful, even addictive. Even seemingly serious games leverage the pleasurable aspects of gaming environments to draw players in, and critics contend that the attractions of life in virtual environments may negatively alter our abilities to interface with the real world.

Susan Greenfield, a well-known British neuroscientist, has been particularly vocal on this topic, arguing that games and other forms of modern technology have the potential to fundamentally alter our brains. There is a price to be paid for continually seeking pleasure via electronic stimulation. ”We could be raising a hedonistic generation who live only in the thrill of the computer-generated moment,“ says Greenfield, “and are in distinct danger of detaching themselves from what the rest of us would consider the real world.”

”Hedonistic“ may not seem like a term that applies particularly well to the average serious gamer, but it is nonetheless worth considering whether infusing social problems into environments more typically associated with pleasure trivializes serious issues, perhaps diminishing our sympathy for them in the real world. In other words, do serious games face the danger of becoming only a game?

It is hard to imagine this happening in socially-situated games like World Without Oil. For one, the alternate reality of such a game is just barely removed from our ”real“ reality – a convention that I suspect will hold as other, similar sorts of alternate reality serious games emerge. And the continual interaction with other players, even in a situation of collective imagination, would seem likely to pull even the most solipsistic of players back from the verge of leaving the real world entirely.

There is perhaps more danger of trivialization in single-player games like 3rd World Farmer when played in isolation. I am enough of an optimist when it comes to the human mind to believe the danger is very small, but even so, as games become more and more a part of culture, it will be important to help players become conscious of how game impact us. James Paul Gee, in addressing the worries that adults may have about kids playing games, argues that ”Games make kids smarter when they play them proactively, that is, when they think about game design, how their own styles of play interact with that design, how different strategies work, and how games relate to other things like books, movies, and the world.

This ability to step back occasionally and think about games as games, even as we are playing them – a skill as important for adults as for kids – augments the overall potential that games have in helping us think through complex issues and see the path to change.

If you can’t beat ‘em … It is still relatively easy at this point to be dismissive of games in general, and games aimed at social change in particular.
As fast as the gaming phenomenon has grown in recent years, games are still not as ubiquitous as old media forms like television or print. But that is changing fast. As Rob Fahey, former editor of argues in a recent TimesOnline piece, ”It’s inevitable: soon we will all be gamers.

One of the keys to social change, of course, is to engage with society in the places where its members live and interact. Increasingly, games are one of the places, and as new genera- tions come of age, they will be one of the most important ones. There are dangers to be averted and no doubt many other challenges to be overcome as more organizations embrace games as tools for change, but the ability they have to engage individual and collective imaginations, engender learning, and ”move the group forward“ is simply too compelling to ignore.

Let the games begin.


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