In Review: 2011 Games for Change Conference

The following is a guest post from Kristi Miller Durazo, conference attendee & health innovation advocate. Read more about Kristi after the post.

Festival Day One: Tuesday, June 21

[Image: Games for Change]

Games are the “Hot Ticket”, right!? Everything is a game. Just add a game to that and we have a solution…or, do we? As I consider the intersection of my experiences at Games for Health and then last week at Games for Change, I note some common patterns emerging, but some major evolutionary differences in the spaces. Both are excellent venues for exploring the progress, status and the future of games that share a societal benefit. While that “benefit” may be personal (which is the premise of almost all “health games”), increasingly it is social and far more reaching in its potential in terms of broad policy and in societal change. I don’t think, especially in traditional health, we’ve taken the next steps in how we view games. Here are my personal observations:

  • Games aren’t new. Games are embedded in our past, our present, our future. Card games, board games, real world games like tag and capture the flag have been around forever. Now, however, we have three generations who have played electronic games, interactive games, now mobile games. Gaming isn’t new. The technology, the scalability and the intersection with other media and social forms is advancing.
  • Games are a part of a bigger whole. Games can serve as a platform for awareness, engagement and action, but not in isolation. As one speaker at Games for Change noted, you can’t just throw content at kids (or grownups, I add). Games can be a “scaffold” from which content can hang. Find the Future is an example highlighted this week that takes the “content” message from the NYC Library and meshes it with a game as part of a “bigger whole”.
  • Games tell stories. Games that truly have the objective of “change” have a narrative. As Ken Eklund (@writerguygames) shared his in story about stories… “where beautiful fiction and reality resonate there is “suspension of disbelief” in which we become engaged in the experience” ELUDE from MIT has been highlighted at a number of conferences as an immersive story experience within traditional video game dynamics. Pulse + Signal also covered Elude during the Games for Health conference. Even in mainstream, mass market games, stories are key. Speakers pointed out that many kids are learning more history in “Call of Duty” than they are in school. EVOKE uses a graphic novel as the channel for telling its story. But the storyline, regardless of channel is critical.
  • Games are about experiences. Increasingly, games are part of a greater “transmedia experience” that immerses the players through film, art, narrative, play and social interaction. ITVS has long been a leader in the transmedia space. Their new initiative around Women and Girls 2016 (photo via @devonsmith) incorporates a wide range of media, including games into their work. America 2049 also uses design, storytelling, games and transmedia to engage players on multiple levels, taking “Facebook Game” to an entirely new place. Community management is critical at keeping the experience alive and evergreen.
  • Games can be simply executed. Simple mobile platforms make game play ubiquitous regardless of technology. In the developing world where more people have phones than running water, simple interfaces like IM, SMS and IVR are the channels of choice. However, the power of the story and the social interaction remain critical to success.
  • Games are social and dynamic. Increasingly, games will be more… active, mobile, global, collaborative, networked, interdisciplinary. In remarks by @natronbaxter regarding lessons learned in EVOKE: “In the future, games will be designed for mobile platforms with access points for the web vs. the other way around.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean “there’s an app for that.” It’s less about being on 24/7. It’s about being “just in time” available when and where I want it. In EVOKE, players even went outside the game to “riff” on the experience. From creating wikis to embedded librarians who provided deeper resources into the game play, the social interface outside the game developed on its own.
  • Games for change needs networked expertise. As @DouglasCrets commented during the conference, “the big lesson right now is that it’s not important to be THE expert. It’s important to be the person with a network of experts.” Devon Smith extends that thought: “Nobody has the expertise across game design, funding and social impact, so partnerships are abundant.”

As we move forward in the health space, I’m struck by the words of Dr. Martin Seligman in his keynote remarks at Games for Health: well-being is so much more than the absence of disease or unhappiness. If we combine that thinking with the big thinking coming out of Games for Change, we can create a new landscape for health not only in the US, but worldwide. Where is our EVOKE, where is our America2049? To paraphrase Seligman, where do we “Flourish”?


Kristi Miller Durazo is the Senior Strategist at the American Heart Association. In her work, she explores innovative opportunities to integrate health into the paths of people’s everyday life and examines trends that will drive our world 5, 10, 20 years from now. Her current focus areas include investigating the role design of built environments influences on health, solutions to aging in place challenges, the role of gaming and game theory in health and socialization and health. Kristi also worked with Jane McGonigal who created CryptoZoo for the American Heart Association. CryptoZoo is an alternative reality, real world urban play game and winner of the 2009 ComeOut and Play Festival’s “Best Use of Narrative” award. Her views here are expressed on her own and not those of the AHA.

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