Building Vs Blowing Up

July 15, 2008       Michele Donohue      

Choose whether your child goes to school to learn or works in a rum distillery to make money. Decide whether a bicycle or medicine is more important to spend precious resources on. These are decisions most of us don’t have to make every day – but they are the choices you have to make in the game Ayiti: The Cost of Life.

Ayiti simulates choices people in Haiti have to make – health or wealth, education or jobs – and is just one of the many games emerging from the growing social and health game sector.

Nonprofits and academic institutions are increasingly interested in using interactive game play to drive their missions home – from ICED, which stands for I Can End Deportation, from New York City-based human rights organization Breakthrough, to the United Nations (U.N.)

Foundation’s Deliver the Nets about battling malaria, which kills a million people each year.

“The emphasis behind the game was to give people something fun to do but also to educate them about the role of the U.N. and how hard and challenging it can be to get these nets, but at the end of the day what a big difference they make,” said Katherine Miller, director of communications at the U.N. Foundation. In Deliver the Nets, players must find people to give bed nets to before the sun goes down. The game was launched in conjunction with World Malaria Day on April 25 and a bed net was donated for each of the 16,000 people who played the game in the first month. “We thought that it was also an excellent way to educate people about the challenges of delivering these nets and where they go,” said Miller.

The games might make social problems more tangible to the player – children and adults alike – but most nonprofits have to keep the budget and mission in mind. Small single-player games can reach $100,000, with costs easily jumping from anywhere between $250,000 and $1 million or more for increasingly sophisticated games, depending on the developers, project time and design.

“We never make a program when there isn’t a need. We want to be careful about how we are spending donor dollars,” said Joan Ford, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation based in Los Angeles. Starlight Starbright has created several games that help children understand sicknesses they might be battling, such as asthma, sickle cell anemia and diabetes.

Ford said that the organization used research and proven modular learning techniques to develop fun, creative games that most importantly made impact on the children. According to Ford, researchers “found a difference in knowledge, self-efficacy — when you are sick you get hopeless about it and it’s not hard to get there — increased self responsibility and compliance reducing in symptoms,” in children that played the health games Starbright Starlight developed.

The idea of using games to teach health and social change – instead of stealing cars or battling aliens – is a relatively new concept, and nonprofits are trying to figure out how much impact games can have on people.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., announced that $2 million in grants would support 12 research teams figuring out if different health game techniques can have proven results through its Health Games Research program at the University of California in Santa Barbara. The grants are awarded, up to $200,000, on a one- to two-year basis to further research the effectiveness games may have in healthcare.

“Our vision is that in the coming years we’ll have a thriving marketplace of well-designed, compelling, interactive games that draw on this evidence base to become highly engaging and effective tools for improving the health and healthcare of all Americans,” said Chinwe Onyekere, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program officer for the Pioneer Portfolio, which promotes innovative projects in the future of healthcare.

The projects chosen for the grants vary in demographic, technology medium, and health topic — from a mobile phone game to promote healthy eating habits for young adolescents to implementing an action-adventure driving game to improve cognitive functions for adults older than 65.

The grant work will help researchers “understand more deeply how people respond to interactive games and how we can design effective health games that can engage, motivate, empower and support players as they achieve better health habits and health outcomes,” said Dr. Debra Lieberman, communication researcher at the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research at the University of California.

“I think we need more proof that this is possible and that the game can be fun and at the same time be useful in the world,” said Colleen Macklin, Parsons The New School of Design chair of Communication Design and Technology in New York City.

Parsons’ Communication Design and Technology department announced in December a joint initiative with Games for Change (G4C) to create PETLab, a game design research lab for prototyping social change games. G4C started in 2004 as part of the Serious Games Initiative aimed at providing information about social change through games, under the financial sponsorship of the nonprofit Digital Innovations Group, Inc.

The G4C’s annual festival invites gaming professionals, nonprofits and academia to discuss how games have, and will, affect the social sphere. PETLab was made possible by a $425,000 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant and will create games using the Microsoft Xbox development platform. The organization already plans to work with MTV’s Think.MTV.com, a youth-driven activism community.

Suzanne Seggerman, G4C co-founder and president, said that a majority of mainstream games fail, and that rate increases for social issue games. But, she said, PETLab will help build base information about game design and provide low-cost methods and small game prototypes.

“I think that we’re really at the infancy, but we’re really beginning to see some of the change that’s possible,” said Seggerman. NPT