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Four Games that Tackle Serious Issues

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Four examples of how news organizations might use games to help people understand — and act on — serious issues.

Every day I was at the three-day Games For Change conference this week, I learned about new and innovative games built to suit the needs of education and social change. I could have written about almost all of them, but here are four that are especially noteworthy to those of us thinking about building games for news.

Data Dealer Play

Recent news about the NSA’s Prism program has put a spotlight on ways the government can get your data. Data Dealer is a game that promotes privacy awareness, with a twist: You play a nefarious robot who gathers as much personal data as possible, legally and illegally, in order to sell it to companies or government agencies.

The game spreads awareness about how some companies gather personal data and why others want to purchase it so badly. Data Dealer won this year’s Most Significant Impact award from Games For Change. Read more about their background information and research.

The Republia Times Play

Created during a 48 hour game-making competition, The Republia Times shows a world in which the power of the press comes at a great price. Playing as editor-in-chief of a newspaper, the government of Republia tells you to only print positive articles. They also happen to be holding your wife and child hostage.

Read more about the game and its creator.

Cart Life Play

Cart Life simulates the daily life of a self-employed street cart vendor, who needs to make enough money to pay rent, get enough sleep to make it through the day and attend to important personal issues. Leigh Alexander, a video-game journalist and one of the keynote speakers at the conference, described Cart Life as “an act of storytelling that humbly illuminates the accomplishment of getting up in the morning.” The game is cold and real, and it pulls hard at our sense of empathy.

At the 15th Annual Independent Games Festival earlier this year, the game was awarded Best Independent Game, Best Narrative and the Nuovo Award, given for abstract and unconventional games.

Half the Sky Movement: The Game Play

Last year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof commissioned Games for Change to create a game based on “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” the book he co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn. The book is about the obstacles women and girls face in the developing world.

The book and the Half the Sky movement that stemmed from it seek to end the oppression of women worldwide. The game was designed to help movement’s message reach a wider audience, touching people who had never heard of the book or the campaign.

In the Half the Sky game, players cause real-world changes just by playing in the virtual world, thanks to partnerships with foundations and NGOs. For example, if a player completes one part of the game, the Pearson Foundation will donate books to children in the developing world. Completing another part of the game leads Johnson & Johnson to pay for life-changing surgeries for women who can’t afford them. According to Games For Change, the game has brought real results: Since launching in March of this year, the game has generated donations worth $342,316 and has given away 192,328 books and surgeries worth $118,040. In four months, it's been installed 851,000 times on Facebook.

Of course, players are prompted to donate money themselves during game, and while playing the game they learn about various real-world nonprofits. Though I sometimes wondered why the Half the Sky didn’t simply ask Pearson to donate books — it certainly would seem easier — the game’s ability to boost awareness while doing good is impressive.

This is the third of three posts about the 10th Games For Change Festival. Read the first: What News Nerds Can Learn From Game Nerds, Day One, and the second: Simulations Let Readers Experience Stories for Themselves.

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