A new aspiration for games and impact.

The serious games movement has created equal amounts of enthusiasm and confusion around the role games can play in addressing some of the world’s greatest challenges. Several years in, it remains uncontroversial to state that games are not yet having the measure of impact that the discussion around the possibilities would imply. A rapidly increasing body of research is shining light on the connection between games and better learning, a better environment, better health, and positive social impact. Public sector and academic grant funding is driving the majority of games-based impact research and project creation. However, these sources of funding run into reliable constraints when the desire to scale such research projects into widely used, heavy impact products.

Video game production is often a highly challenging, unpredictable, time-consuming and expensive undertaking, and institutions doing impact-focused game projects are ill-equipped to sustain development and release after the initial grant funds run out. The funders and the funded alike often share little game production experience, and as a result, underestimate the resources and effort it takes to produce a game of any substantive quality. Even when aware of the difficulty, the pressure of maximizing return while minimizing investment that comes natural with the production side of research-focused funding often causes funding to expire just at the point when it is needed most; after the benefit of the concept has been verified and scaling is needed for additional impact.

Games for impact will work, but it will require a close collaboration of professional game developers, game publishers, academics, and issue advocates in order to progress beyond the existing gap between potential and realization.

  • Game developers are needed to create experiences that are engaging to audiences and are positioned to utilize the benefits that games bring to the table as effectively as possible.
  • Game publishers are needed for their knowledge in scaling and marketing the product to maximize impact, as well as to set realistic expectations on what is or isn’t possible given the constraints on time and money.
  • Academics are needed to continue to evolve the research that provides the initiative to fun these projects in the first place, as well as bringing to the table the weight of resources and authority that academic institutions can offer.
  • Issue advocates are needed to illuminate the areas of greatest potential for games-based impact. The issue advocates most important role is to highlight the way games can solve the problems they are advocating a solution for. Without these advocates, a great amount of energy will continue to be invested into games that are designed to address challenges which are either not well suited for a games-based solution, or who’s target audience does not have a convincing demand for a specific approach.

This fall, Arizona State University will launch the Center for Games and Impact. I have had the privilege of working Doctors Sasha Barab and Jim Gee, as well as Alan Gershenfeld of E-Line Media to create an institution that aims to be both transparent in its deliberations and ambitious in its scale. The aim is to connect these four communities under a banner of sustainable, scalable impact practices focused on developing games to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges. The center is an evolution of many efforts over the past decade to start realizing the potential of games, and its creation is itself a recognition that the community of voices advocating for games for impact has grown cohesive and loud enough to call for a serious investment into scaling these initiatives beyond research and proof of concepts.