Gaming Wins New Advocates

November 1, 2006       Mark Hrywna      

Marc Sirkin went to the third annual Games for Change conference undecided about where to focus his energies. The vice president of eMarketing for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in White Plains, N.Y., was trying to decide what to accomplish with computer games: fundraising, marketing, brand awareness or mission.

Coming out of the conference, held earlier this year at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, Sirkin was “more convinced than ever that you just really have to have an outcome in mind before you decide a game is the right answer.” Some in the nonprofit sector really gravitate toward games, he said, while others have so much already on their plates, “they can’t think about this stuff.”

From a mission standpoint, “there are some really neat things we should think about,” Sirkin said, particularly in terms of interactive experiences. “Clearly there’s a market for this.”

The semantics of defining the difference between “games” and “interactive experiences” are critical, Sirkin said. “If you try to sell a game, it sounds and feels one way to an executive, an interactive experience sounds and feels different,” he said. “It’s understanding what that’s all about.”

The question is how a nonprofit measures the success of such an effort. “Are interactive coloring books really going to have any measurable impact?,” Sirkin asked.

HopeLab is all about measuring impact. The nonprofit released its own video game, “Re-mission,” in April 2006 to help educate young people with cancer about their disease and how to fight it, helping to create a sense of control and power over their ailment.

Founded in 2001 by Pam Omidyar, whose husband started eBay, Palo Alto, Calif.-based HopeLab is “dedicated to combining rigorous research with innovative solutions to improve the health and quality of life” of young people with chronic illness.

“Because of the results of our clinical trials, a lot of our foundations are now paying close attention to this because now it’s a scientifically-proven approach,” said HopeLab President Pat Christen.

“We were extremely interested in taking video game technology, ubiquitous with our target audience” of children with cancer, said Christen. The five-year-old nonprofit unveiled “Re-mission” after three years of game development — which followed intense research – and a year-long clinical trial that’s more familiar to a new pharmaceutical drug than a video game. She said the game was not going to be released until research demonstrated that it was efficacious.

“It’s the rigor of the research that sets us apart right now,” Christen said. “We’ve developed and refined a process highly applicable to other organizations.”

HopeLab has distributed nearly 26,000 copies of “Re-mission” to young cancer patients, caregivers, healthcare providers and others in more than 55 countries around the world.

In the 3-D “shooter” game, players control a nanobot named Roxxi as she travels through the bodies of young patients destroying cancer cells and fighting bacterial infections. At the same time, kids learn to better manage their illness and about realistic, life-threatening side effects.

Sirkin sees the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as perhaps helping to get that type of a game into the hands of an audience, rather than developing one of its own. “Our role in that context, where there’s an existing game platform, might be to review and determine if it has value for patients, and then help promote and distribute it,” he said. “We have more leverage than a small nonprofit or a games company.”

Various constituents want to “consume stuff in different ways,” Sirkin said, adding that his organization has provided teleconferences through iPods and MP3s. “Games are a natural extension when you start thinking about younger audiences. It ends up being, “‘Where’s the most impact we can have?’”

Added Sirkin, “There’s something here. There’s something to games and interactive experiences. It gives people a chance to simulate things without getting hurt. There’s no way to simulate that. There’s no form you can fill out.”

HopeLab plans to continue to work toward technological solutions in the coming year — whether video games or other avenues — to help young people who are survivors of cancer, as well as other chronic illness. The nonprofit also plans to tackle autism and major depressive disorders. Whatever the ailment, Christen said HopeLab will employ a “rational engineering process,” speaking with young people and examining literature and research to develop and refine a solution which then will be tested.

For a nonprofit interested in developing a video game, Christen advised “keeping your customer at the epicenter of everything you do. Use their experiences as a touchstone for everything you do.”

One other key during development is that “it doesn’t do any good to create games and use this technology if you’re not willing to create something that’s really fun and that kids will use. You want them to play, but also effect the health outcome you’re after.”

While HopeLab spent an estimated $4.5 million over several years developing “Re-mission,” Christen said they’ve learned from their first effort and expect cost savings in future games thanks to advancements in technology and game development.

“There are simply significant cost differentials if you’re thinking you have to design a 20-level game versus a five-level game,” she said.

But, Christen warned, “what you can’t short cut is the combination of fun and effect. If you just go for fun, it won’t be effective. If you just go for accurate, it won’t be fun.”

“A Force More Powerful” might not have the flashy graphics and shoot ‘em up action of “Re-mission,” but it also tries to give gamers a real-life lesson.

Released by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C., this past March, “A Force More Powerful” cost about $3 million, most of which was spent “under the hood” on artificial intelligence, said Hardy Merriman, director of programs and research.

The game has 10 scenarios featuring various fictional countries where the user must overcome dictators and corruption or secure women’s or labor rights by using nonviolent strategies. A scenario editor allows users to create their own situations. “The most value will come out of the game when people start creating their own scenarios in the game,” Merriman said.

Players — who Merriman expects to be activists, university professors and students and nongovernmental organizations — will never get the same result twice. “For us, it has to be relevant to activists if it’s going to be worthwhile.”

Merriman said the center is not trying to activate anyone, as it is an independent, educational nonprofit. “Basically, we say: ‘Here are the principles. Here’s how they work. It’s entirely up to you how you apply them.’ It’s sort of a training tool for organizers.”

Added Merriman, “People still read Sun Tzu thousands of years afterward because his principles are so good, but there’s a great art to knowing how those principles are best used in your situations.”

Scarce resources on video games?

But why would a nonprofit spend its resources to create a video game when there are more pressing needs? Well, for one, there’s no need to spend $1 million developing a game, and it certainly doesn’t have to be a PC or console-based game. If you’ve ever been invited to shoot a duck or score a goal to win an iPod on a Web banner ad, you can see that an advocacy game doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated.

“Darfur is Dying,” created by students at the University of Southern California, was played by nearly three-quarters of a million people during its first two months since debuting on, MTV Networks’ channel dedicated to college students and college life. The game tries to educate people about the atrocities in Darfur by having users forage for water and return to their village without getting caught by militia.

The network plans to award more grants to college students to create new broadband games, said Stephen K. Friedman, general manager of mtv-U, adding that “Squeezed,” a game about immigrant farmers created at the University of Denver, was to debut on the site this fall.

Kate Connally, vice president at Atom Entertainment, which operates, said a game can be developed for $3,000 to $5,000. It may have low production value, but good game design is the key to drawing interest. “If you want really cool, topical games, it doesn’t require a big budget.”

Downloadable, Web-based games might be a viable option for nonprofits. Research shows that women 45 and older are more likely to buy a $19.95 downloadable game. “If you target the 17-year-old male, you won’t make money,” Connally said, adding that there are more women 40 and older buying these games than men younger than 30.

Gwynn Cassidy left the corporate world last year to start Girls in Government, a Manhattan-based nonprofit dedicated to getting girls more involved in government and politics. She sees games and interactive experiences as a natural fit for her fledgling organization.

“I want us to be able to get a game built out where girls can pursue and assume leadership roles, particularly in government and politics,” Cassidy said.

“Ideally, at the end of the game…I want the girls to have a takeaway,” she said. “I want them to be able to print out a certificate, or a campaign poster where they can upload their photo, and there’s slogans they can select. They have real-life applications; what if they want to run for…school president.”

The game also must appeal to mothers and have certain aspects that will allow them to play with their daughters, “ways to get everybody active in that sector.

“I think a lot of it will have to do with, will the mothers be interested in downloading it for the daughters?” Cassidy said. “We really have to…make it for the girls but market it to the moms.”

Estimates for scaled-down versions of her proposed game have been in line with her budget of about $10,000, Cassidy said. “We’re pretty much right on target with our initial, realistic budget. As a small, brand new nonprofit, we have three different budgets we work with. We’re at the middle budget, but we have this third, if something comes through then we get to use that, the one with the extra zeroes.

“We’re really fortunate in that it doesn’t take a lot of money to do what we do because we’re doing it all online,” she said.

Benjamin Stokes, who along with Suzanne Seggerman is co-founder and co-director of Games for Change, said they “saw a need…to accelerate a new kind of education.” But the problem was that stakeholders and funders balked at the idea of financing the development of a “game.”

The first Games for Change conference was an occasion to bring people together and talk about building a sense of why this movement is important, Stokes said. Attendance has just about doubled each year since the inaugural conference in 2003, when there were about 45 attendees. “The medium is ripe for change,” Seggerman said.

“Games are an emergent phenomenon,” Stokes said, adding that the question now becomes how to fund things that are moving so quickly, when it takes a year to consider funding. “It’s a difficult question but one we have to answer. If we wait too long, the field will have evolved and moved on without us.”

David Regeski, director, Foresight and Governance Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Schools, advocates creating a Corporation for Public Gaming, patterned after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

Regeski said his idea has been called provocative, brilliant and really stupid at the same time. He compared the games movement to television during its infancy. In 1951, he said, children were watching 2 1/2 hours of television a day, and the public discussion was about its impact on homework and meals, not unlike the current discussion about video game violence.

“How do we ensure we don’t look back in 10 years and see a ‘vast wasteland,’” Regeski said, recalling Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minnow’s description of television in the ‘60s. “I don’t think anyone else will do it (besides government). The private sector won’t.”

When the CPB was created in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson invested $9 million in the effort, and today its budget is $49 million, Regeski said. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts, a leading game manufacturer, has a research and development budget of almost $1 billion, while public television and radio have combined budgets of more than $350 million, he said.

Stokes said he’s seen first-hand the growth in the socially-conscious games movement.

“Traditional foundations are coming to the realization that kids are using digital technology,” said Connie Yowell, senior program officer at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, who has been a panelist at Games for Change. She expects foundations to become not only more curious about games but more active in the games movement.

An indication that the trend is growing might be discovered in the foundation itself. As a panelist during the first conference in 2003, Yowell said the MacArthur Foundation likely wouldn’t be investing much in the gaming field, according to co-founder Stokes, but at this year’s conference, she said she expects to become more active in the games movement.  NPT