Military commandos, zombies, ninjas and aliens are not the only video game characters in town — or in the global village.
Since 2004, Games for Change, a nonprofit group, has designed and promoted games that inspire players not to zap space aliens but instead to change the world for the better. In the first game released by the group, called PeaceMaker, gamers were invited to broker peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Half the Sky Movement: The Game teaches players about nonprofits dedicated to women’s issues and provides donation opportunities. In the game, players help an Indian woman overcome challenges like starting a business and obtaining books to establish a library for girls. Some 1.3 million people have downloaded the game in the past three years and given around $500,000 to groups that aid women.
“Games naturally challenge people with problems that they may not face in the real world,” says Erin Reynolds, founder of the Flying Mollusk video game studio that partners with Games for Change. “They have to think about certain issues in ways that they’ve never thought about them before.”
Games for Change President Asi Burak believes that gaming is social, participatory and educational at its core.
“Games are not only exciting for social change … they are interactive, you can make decisions, you can get the consequences,” Burak says. “In a way, you pave your own way.”
Google, the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other influential organizations have bought into the idea.
Games for Change has inspired a community of video developers, gamers, social activists, policymakers and academics. At their 2014 annual festival, U.N. representatives presented a Minecraft-based game in which local communities design public spaces in their neighborhoods.
At the 2015 festival, Games for Change expanded its reach to attract game developers, gamers and partners from more diverse backgrounds and social and ethnic groups.
“We try very hard to bring as many voices as we can,” Burak said.