The Power of Games for Change

Attendees at this week's 2014 Games for Change Festival in New York City will hear from Pittsburgh technologists and artists about how they're using games to create connected learning opportunities for the region's students.

The Games for Change Festival is kicking off this week in New York City and Pittsburgh’s designers, developers and educators are showing up in full force.

The four-day fest promotes live-action, physical games (including an “epic” retelling of the fall of the Roman Republic) and video games with a social impact (like Start the Talk that  helps parents build real-life skills to help them talk with their child about underage drinking.) The festival includes presentations, workshops, awards, and of course, plenty of chances to play the games themselves.

This year’s G4C award nominees include Papers, Please, in which gamers act as an immigration inspector in a fictional country and decide who can enter and who is arrested or turned away. Another award finalist, TyrAnt brings players down to level of everyday, boring ol’ backyard ants and slowly unveils their amazingly complex ecosystem.

The festival celebrates games that have a purpose beyond entertainment– the types of games games-based learning advocates around the country have embraced for their ability to engage kids (and adults) in critical thinking and decision making while immersing them in a medium they love.

This year, for the first time, social impact games and G4C are going to be in the brightest spotlight yet. G4C is partnering with Tribeca Film Festival to bring together über talented game creators and storytellers—a natural fit, if you think about it. But beyond the collaboration potential, pairing up with the well-known film festival means wider exposure.

“I feel like we are crossing the line into something that is more mainstream,” G4C President Asi Burak told Polygon. “When games are a part of something larger, like the Tribeca Film Festival, they can be very effective, and now we are a more public facing program because we are participating in the Family Day.

Another similarity between films and games is the intense passion of their creators. Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, is speaking on Wednesday about how passion and “authentic caring” is successfully infused into some games while other games fall flat.

Based in Pittsburgh, Schell Games is a national leader in transformational games. The company lists The Fred Rogers Company, Pixar and PBS Kids among its clients.

Schell’s success venturing into the world of educational games was no easy feat. Developing games that will actually work in schools is notoriously tricky, as educators need to be convinced the games really will enhance students’ learning.

Turning Fantasy Into Reality: Building Games That Schools Need, a panel on Thursday led by Kevin Bushweller, Constance Steinkuehler, Alan Gershenfeld and Chris Curran, will explore the mistakes developers most often make when heading into the K-12 market and consider how developers can transform “the fantasy of a game” into a successful, applicable tool for learning or assessment.

Steinkuehler, a senior policy analyst at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, is also participating in a discussion with award-winning game designer and author Jane McGonigal and EdTech innovator Idit Harel Caperton about the role of women in the game media industry. Everyone has heard how male-dominated the industry still is (47 percent of gamers are women, but 88 percent of video game developers are male, according to Women’s Media Center), but the three experts are going a step further to hammer out what they think needs to happen to achieve gender parity. After all, encouraging the next generation of girls to pursue game development would be a social change in itself.

Remake Learning is representing at the festival in a talk-show style panel on Thursday, Remaking Learning: Live from Pittsburgh. Michael Levine, Drew Davidson, Gregg Behr, Cathy Lewis Long and Michelle King will dive into how tech experts, artists, educators, and gamers that make up the Kids+Creativity Network are crossing boundaries and forming a connected learning ecosystem.

It’s fitting that the Kids+Creativity Network gets its time in the G4C spotlight, as Pittsburgh is becoming a national leader in games-based learning. The city’s penchant for interdisciplinary collaboration has formed a hotbed for games-based learning innovations.

For example, educators at Elizabeth Forward Middle School partnered with the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University and the online learning platform Zulama to teach game design with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math. (Drew Davidson, director of the ETC, will be demo-ing a G4C award-finalist game along with Nick Fortungo, co-founder of Playmatics, on Wednesday.)

The City of Pittsburgh and the Kids + Creativity Network will be recognized with a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award on Friday. The award honors people or organizations that have made a social impact by breaking the mold—something Pittsburgh’s gamers, educators, makers, and kids are definitely pros at.

Top photo/ Games for Change.

Published April 22, 2014