Politics and progress at Games for Change 2017


Editor’s Note: Salutations, readers! My partner, Al Valentín, had some hands-on experience at the Games for Change 2017 event. What follows are their thoughts on the festival as a whole.

Videogames have a history of political controversy. From the moral panics surrounding violence in gaming as a primary cause for school shootings to GamerGate and the continuing backlash against social justice embodied by members of the alt-right who’ve grown and expanded through the harassment campaigns of the aforementioned group. Progressive politics have, for some, come to represent danger to gaming. Rather than seeing the introduction of new characters, new voices, and new stories as an exciting and interesting opening up of the field, it’s read as a foreclosure by those who have been allowed to dominate the field so far. In fact, it seems that in many spaces, bringing up social justice is framed as a negative. Gaming sites that run articles on social justice topics are often framed as doing it just “for the clicks,” while there’s no shortage of people willing to dismiss the necessity to discuss politics at all in comment threads throughout.

But the desire to push politics out of gaming is certainly not representative of the entire community. In fact, the rise of GamerGate has pushed many to work even harder at making the games community more inclusive than it was before. One such answer to this call is Games for Change, a New York City-based festival that aims to combine social justice with videogame development, play, and policy. Aiming to push back against the narrative that progressive politics don’t have a place in gaming, the three day event at Parsons School of Design from July 31st to August 2nd, brought together educators, developers, social scientists, neuroscientists, business people, and fans to think through what videogames can do to enhance the world.

Set around three distinct tracks, (the Games for Learning Summit, Neurogaming & Health, and Civics & Social Issues) the programming for the event boasted a wide range of approaches to the topics that made for an overall impressive festival. At its best, I left Parsons School of Design feeling invigorated about the capacity for games to affect meaningful change, to allow us to see and do things differently. At its worst, I left feeling frustrated by what seemed like an emphasis on the corporate, capitalist sides of gaming that see social justice in gaming as a new market to tap into rather than a real, concrete goal to meet.

Jane Kratochvil / Games for Change

On the first day of the festival, we started off with a quick welcome and introduction from the president of Games for Change, Susanna Pollack. Noting that this was the second Games for Change at Parsons School of Design, she highlighted some of the changes and new additions. This year, the neuroscience track was debuted alongside a day long VR For Change festival. These additions were very smart ones that made room for some amazing speakers who I’ll discuss in depth later.

Pollack also made sure to note that half of the speakers at Games for Change are women and that it has one of the most diverse lists of speakers among any gaming event or festival. This is certainly nothing to scoff at. In an industry where women are still struggling to make their place, this is an important first step. But the conversation around diversity needs to be continuously expanded. For example, as a non-binary gamer, it’s frustrating to hear discussions of diversity that are still steeped in a binary concept of gender. Are we ensuring that trans voices are being heard and that the space is hospitable to them? In what ways can accessibility be improved for disabled gamers both to the festival and in general? How many speakers of color are there? How many people are thinking about race in the creation of their games? What is being done to ensure that people of color are represented within organizations like Games for Change or in development companies who are there presenting? It isn’t enough to bring white feminism to gaming. If we’re going to bring feminism to gaming, it needs to be all inclusive and structurally minded.

Furthermore, my frustration with what I see as a superficial approach to social justice was embodied in one particular comment that Pollack made that morning: “Without getting too deep into the political, no matter where you stand, we can agree that open dialogue is good.” A gaming festival that claims to be committed to social justice cannot achieve those goals if it’s too concerned with “getting too deep in the political.” It reveals itself as a liberal farce that is less concerned with liberation or justice and more concerned with not alienating those who perpetuate harmful ideologies and consequently harmful policies. Because for those of us who are marginalized, who are impacted by anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, sexist, racist, ableist policies, we have no other choice. In many cases, our lives depend on it.

And here’s where I’ll pause to say that I had intended to get this article out before Neo-Nazis decided to terrorize people in Charlottesville and many others followed suit in other states. But now, it’s a month after the festival happened and I can’t help but read it through that lens. The problem is not that those who oppress others aren’t being heard or understood. The problem is that they are preventing others from being heard. The problem is not a lack of dialogue; it’s a systemic devaluation of marginalized people that silences them and puts their lives at risk. Maybe the issue is that those who claim they are our allies need to stop being complicit in that silencing and to demand our right to speak, to live, to be alongside us. Maybe the issue is that allies need to move past the fear of “getting too deep into the political.”

Because I don’t want to attend a festival where I’m asked to have an open dialogue with Trump supporters or Neo-Nazis that happen to be gamers, where I’m asked to respect policies that hurt people who are undocumented, who are of color, who are queer, who are disabled, or who are impoverished. I want to attend a festival that is daring, bold, and radical. I want Games for Change that push us past the limits of liberal discourse.

Jane Kratochvil / Games for Change

And luckily, there are moments that really did feel insurgent, fresh, bold, and radical. And these moments were thanks to some of the incredible educators, developers, and scientists who shared their work with us.

Colleen Macklin’s short introductory talk and her keynote were both fun, thoughtful, and willing to think a little bit outside of the business model capitalist frames of gaming. Obviously, to reject that gaming is an industry, that these are businesses who need to make money is undoubtedly naive. But Macklin does ask us to remember that play is useful because it’s useless, a call that seems to try and resist the corporatization of gaming that seeks to churn out products, rather than experiences or tools of liberation. Still, it makes you wonder, can they be both?

She also asks us to consider how games that produce change weren’t always intended to. Sometimes they are happy accidents. We can use many different types of tools towards liberation. How does, for example, Cards Against Humanity do important work to affect social change even as the game itself is more about debauchery and poor taste than justice? How does farming simulation role playing game Stardew Valley’s emphasis on earnestness, community, and peacefulness promote a culture of kindness that can push back against animal exploitation? Conversely, how does a game like Minecraft represent, reproduce, and normalize the harmful capitalist systems of exploitation, colonialism, and pioneering repackaged as fun and educational exploration, especially when we consider the ethos of its creator? Macklin’s work adds nuance and complexity to the conversation that was incredibly useful and necessary. She asks us to think deeper.

Tracy Fullerton’s talk on, “Games of Life,” asked us to think differently about play itself. Her work hones in on game design that focuses less on preset narratives than on what she terms, “reflective play,” or gaming experiences that are open ended. To illustrate what she means, she highlights the creation of her game, Walden. Based on Henry David Thoreau’s 1845 book of the same name, both explore the experience of living simply and living alone in a cabin in the woods to ask questions about self-sufficiency, societal duty and spirituality.

Created at the USC Game Innovation Lab (where Fullerton is a professor and director), the game has a subtle narrative arc that doesn’t try and get the player’s attention through puzzles or challenges. Instead, they are given the opportunity to spend time how they see fit and given a multitude of options. We can focus on surveying land, watching animals, building up your cabin, and scavenging. With an inventory and health system that is less about mindless accumulation of goods than it is about finding the sweet spot of utility, players are asked to play differently than what we may be used to when we are asked to keep upgrading, leveling up, and gaining skill points.

This switch, amongst many other game design decisions instead, encourage us to ask how much do we really need to live? Will the player begin to question the never-ending but fruitless quest for more meaningless accumulation? Or will they get trapped in that same capitalist logic of greed and insatiability? Furthermore, with subtle discussions of things like environmentalism to technology to slavery during the time period, we are asked questions about what progress means. Do we measure our time in game about how much we are able to get for ourselves or through the chances we have to help others? Additionally, in a gaming industry where there’s constant emphasis on online play and connectivity, Walden offers us something completely different: an experience of solitude and room to think about why we are doing what we do rather than just doing it.

Still, the work of neuroscientist, Christopher Graves, was a punchy and enthralling reminder of the importance of narrative, especially in the age of President Trump and his administration’s alternative facts. Through references to psychology via the story of Phineas Gage’s personality changes after a gruesome accident to Star Trek references, Graves argues that while facts are important, studies are increasingly showing that our emotional brain wins out. Using the example of the consistently disproven studies about vaccines and autism as an example, he highlights how the narratives that appeal to our emotions and fears tend to stick better than fact. To this end, he highlights how important it is for there to be narratives with well-written characters who are marginalized because they impact our understanding of who marginalized people are and what we associate with them.

Jane Kratochvil / Games for Change

While there were many other neuroscience speakers, Graves was the best of the festival. As indicated by the research, he understands the importance of narrative and storytelling even through academia and uses it to his advantage to make his talks feel exciting, riveting, and compelling. It’s additionally important to note that some considerations of neuroscience seemed more about how to design games in ways that captivate people. Oftentimes, it felt more like it was giving designers tips on how to more effectively create games that people will pay money for rather than games that stand to change the world.

I had this same sense while watching many of the talks that make games for educational purposes. The gamification of education was a huge topic throughout the Games for Learning Summit. Again and again, I sat through presentations that sought to find better ways to engage students on topics that ranged from physics to chemistry to history. As an educator that is trained in feminist pedagogy, I’m intrigued by the concept of creating alternative means of teaching that are designed to make learning feel fun. One of the central tenets of feminist pedagogy, after all, is treating students like individuals with different skills, needs, and learning methods rather than simple receptacles you fill with information. Visual approaches like those that use virtual or augmented reality may work a lot better for some than reading a textbook. In that way then, programs and games built by companies like Yogome, Filament Games, Schell Games, Classcraft, and Triseum seem incredibly compelling.

But I can’t help but consider something that most speakers didn’t consider or attend to: how does the rush towards gamification in education actually serve to widen the already existing gaps in childhood education due to race, income, (dis)ability, and other categories of difference? While it may seem like a sexy idea for investment that stands to make people money, it does little to help children that attend schools who can barely afford enough teachers or enough textbooks. Not understanding the structural dimensions of educational inequality and then framing your company’s product as a solution for that inequality feels both disingenuous and dangerous as these products seem more poised to show up in schools that can already afford great resources for their students.

One of the few standouts of companies trying to blend entertainment and education is E-Line Media. The studio that brought you Never Alone is working on new projects that aim to teach people about the lives, cultures, and histories of others, which is an important task. But what makes a game like Never Alone so intensely valuable and so different from many other models is that it is not a game made about a group of marginalized folks, it’s made with them. That difference is crucial. Not only does it allow for a representation that doesn’t rely on stereotypes, but it gets new and exciting voices into the field of games both as players, designers, and storytellers. I’m hoping that their model for Never Alone will persist in upcoming releases and become more of an industry standard.

Another hot button topic throughout the festival was the question of empathy. How can videogames be designed to make people feel empathy for those who are marginalized? As an educator, I consider this to be an important part of what I do. The idea that videogames can be used to that aim is incredibly interesting. To this aim, Fernanda Herrera’s talk about her dissertation research at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab represents one approach to doing so. By creating a virtual reality experience on homelessness and simulating that real world experience, Herrera hopes to spur games to action and civic engagement. Her research represents one of the most extensive sample sizes in studies like this and while it’s a work in progress, it stands to have important implications in the field and the Games for Change community.

Furthermore, her design choices represent a first step towards ensuring that games about social change are thinking about inequality based on the structure and actually working with the people that the game is about. Working with people in homeless shelters to make design choices that feel authentic to the experience and highlighting ordinances that impact homeless people are two such choices. Hopefully subsequent research will continue to build on this so that people can understand topics like racism, sexism, poverty, ableism, heterosexism, and cissexism, and the marginalization and oppression they produce as functions of structure and society rather than personal responsibility.

Highlighting a completely different approach were Amy and Ryan Green, creators of That Dragon Cancer, a game based on their experience of losing their son to childhood cancer. They ask us whether empathy is the right goal at all. Can we simulate the intense experiences of issues like homelessness through putting on a headset, especially considering how inaccessible so much of this technology still is? Is this an appropriation and exploitation of one’s pain that is superficial? Are we engaging in what many call misery tourism? By taking their starting points as intimacy and compassion, the Greens offer a compelling counterpoint to empathy research that calls for an ethical approach to empathy. Rather than pretending to be or imagining what it is like, they ask us to sit with characters in their pain, to have compassion for their pain even without imagining it as your own. They ask us to create experiences that think about the importance of relations with others rather than still making it about yourself: what if this happened to me? Is there a way of feeling for others even if the self isn’t threatened, just because it’s the right, kind, and compassionate thing to do? I’m still working through the difference, imagining models of compassionate and intimate design but I’m incredibly intrigued by what this new framing can do.

There were also some incredibly interesting and smart designers and developers. Kelli Dunlap’s Ellie Beagle: Therapy Dog aims to introduce players to the benefits of therapy on mental health, and does it all with adorable dogs as patients. Mikei Huang’s Perfect Eggplants Don’t Exi- offers a unique virtual reality experience that takes on body image, standards of beauty, and desire in gay culture with a bright, comical aesthetic that emphasizes the bizarre and arbitrary standards many of us force ourselves to fit. Pusher, a tabletop game created as a political art protest against the human rights abuses in the Philippines, uses a childlike aesthetic and fun gameplay to highlight the grotesque horror of the murders of anybody branded as a “pusher” or drug dealer by a repressive government. These games represent unique ways to think through problems differently, to reveal aspects of ourselves we might not have known were there, as well as reveal aspects of our society that we may not have noticed.

All in all, Games for Change is a festival that attempts to bring together “social justice” and videogames. But it’s important to ask: what does social justice mean? Whose definition are we operating on? Rather than making “change” an apolitical call towards some amorphous future that is better than the present, we need to ensure that we have a common understanding of what must change and what is at risk if we don’t.

I hope that Games for Change will consider some of the most radical ideas presented, the boldest calls to action, and use that to rethink how it approaches this festival and its work more generally. I hope that in the years to come, it can become a place that feels distinctly progressive, distinctly political. I look forward to seeing if the festival can truly grow into this role as an educator, an activist, and a gamer.

To watch some of the keynote talks from Games for Change 2017, check out their Periscope page.


Al Valentín is a PhD student in Women’s and Gender Studies living, loving and nerding in Brooklyn, NY. Their research brings game studies and gender studies together to think through questions of subjectivity, affect, emotions, difference and social justice. While they grew up on games like Sonic, Streets of Rage and ToeJam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron, Al’s gaming love now mostly revolves around shooters, role playing games and dating sims. In addition to gaming, they enjoy baking, selfies and designing their next tattoos. You can read more about their work by visiting their website or following them on Twitter.