Technology Games Changing Youth Awareness Engagement

January 12, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

Games are the top destination on, one of the top three Web sites for kids. It gets 9 million visitors per month, according to Sara Dewitt, vice president of PBS KIDS Interactive, overseeing “day-to-day development of experiences” on PBS Children’s Web sites. “PBS is right there with Nickelodeon and Disney in the online space,” she said.

“We’re thinking of ways to innovate. With every new technology, we think of a new way we can teach,” said DeWitt said during a panel discussion at this year’s Games4Change festival.

“When you peel away the cover from some of these games, there’s education,” said Alan Gershenfeld, founder and president of E-Line Media, a publisher of digital entertainment, and chair of Games4Change, a Manhattan-based nonprofit. Even mainstream games have some aspect of education to them, from the codes and algorithms used to create the popular “Madden” football series to teaching literacy in “Call of Duty,” said Gershenfeld.

“Everyone envisions kids playing games all day in school,” said Katie Salen, executive director of Institute of Play. “The larger idea is that learning itself is structured like a game,” said Salen, who also is professor of design and technology and director of the Center for Transformative Media at Parsons the New School of Design.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has become involved in games in recent years. “The field of social impact games has shifted in the past couple of years. We’ve moved from trying to convince people that games are a viable tactic to showing them that they actually are,” said Jessica Goldfin, associate in the Knight Foundation’s Journalism Program. In 2007, the first year of the Knight News Challenge, three grantees were related to games. Social networks like FourSquare and CouchSurfer use game mechanics to achieve their goals, said Goldfin. “People play games,” she said, pointing to the 76 million people who play Farmville on Facebook, which has a half-billion users worldwide.

The field is young and growing, according to Goldin, and funders have increased across the board for social games, with the MacArthur Foundation and AMD Foundation among the industry’s leaders.

“We’re interested, because whether you self-identify as a game player or not, games are just another form of media people are consuming. More and more of what makes games compelling is converging with the rest of the media landscape as we move more online,” Goldfin said.

“The danger is creating a game and spending all this money but not thinking about who you’re trying to reach or what the outcome,” she said. For that reason, Goldfin said the foundation experiments and helps organizations absorb those R&D costs.

Children’s Media Project (CMP) in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is a 15-year-old arts and education organization funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the federal Juvenile Justice Department because it works a lot with at-risk youth. It’s been working on “Walking History,” with much of the effort spearheaded by youngsters in an effort to teach local history and culture, according to Executive Director Nicole Fenichel-Hewitt. The goal of the game is to have children “discover information rather than be fed it,” she said.

Participants take on the character of a boy who’s brought through time, disappearing magically in the first scene, featuring embedded video, she said. The story begins in the 1980s, well before iPhones were developed. A built-in tutorial teaches users how to use it along with maps and other components. Participants are engaged with physical objects near the waterfront, such as a whale sculpture, created by the community and the game includes dialogue, photos, text and video.

Embedded video features the character talking about the history of whaling in the Hudson River, according to Fenichel-Hewitt, and gamers are challenged to look for missing tiles on a mosaic, in an effort to help the whale get back into the water. They can use the iPhone to scan codes that represent certain objects, and find sought-after tiles when they meet certain characters in the story.

It’s not a downloadable app at this point, according to Fenichel-Hewitt, but there is a plan to submit one to Apple’s iTunes, in addition pursuing an online version of the game. In the meantime, visitors to the children’s museum on the waterfront can check out one of three iPhones to do the tour, she said.

“Most mobile games actually are tours rather than games,” she said, so they sought to create participatory elements, with choices built in for users, almost like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

The game is scripted with five actual paths and separate tracks focusing on different content areas, she said, with some tracks still to be developed. The first was an environmental track on the Hudson, while others will include a focus on immigration and culture, with a path to the train station rather than along the river, explaining local history and featuring different parts of the city.

“We’ll go forward once we see a lot of use for the first,” said Fenichel-Hewitt. “Part of it depends on funding, getting feedback, then go forward to get more funding to expand it, and more information about how effective and how much play it’s getting,” she said.

A big part of the first year was putting big pieces together, she said, such as getting video formatted and solving other aspects. “It’s not that complicated once you have the structure and understand it,” she said, and there won’t be a need to create that much more media and remapping. “I bet that we could do it under the budget we did in first year,” Fenichel-Hewitt said.

Among her suggestions for other nonprofits looking at games, she said it’s vital to think about post-production costs associated with maintaining the game, as well as finding a great programmer. One thing she didn’t think of was the data plan for the three iPhones, which was budgeted for the first year but will need sponsors each year to continue. “There are ways to think of that…we wouldn’t have had to pay if we did it on an iPod,” she said.