Video games for social good? This author says 'yes'
How playing video games can actually bring about much-needed change in the world.
Social good is probably not something you associate with video games, but you should, and much of the reason for that can be attributed to Israeli designer Asi Burak.
Now a major force in the video game industry, Burak recently released a book, "Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World," that details how video games can and should be used for social good.
This is something he has been advocating since arriving in the United States from Israel in the early aughts to earn a degree in mechanical engineering technology at Carnegie Mellon University.
At that time, the idea of using video games as an educational tool was unusual, and the quality wasn't very good.
"It was either cartoony news stuff that tried to hit you on the head with information or was very B2B. The idea to create something that was on equal footing with [popular video games] that was new," Burak told From The Grapevine.
"In 2004 the idea that you take a video game and put something so serious in it was totally contrary to the idea of a video game," Burak said.
But Burak and a small coterie of other individuals saw the potential.
"It's arguably the most powerful medium today. The financial impact, the millions of people who play and spend countless hours doing so. And the industry is getting larger all the time," he said.
In 2006, Burak helped cofound Impact Games, which saw the successful launch of two video games. In 2010 he became president of Games for Change, by that time the leading global advocate of digital social impact games. The organization puts on the largest annual video game event in New York City, the Games for Change Festival, and works with organizations and individuals to develop video games to be used for social good.
One such individual was Sandra Day O'Connor, the former Supreme Court Justice. She saw a gap in the quality of civic education in schools and worked with Games for Change to develop games for her non-profit organization iCivics.
Today iCivics games are played in schools throughout the country, and it has helped turn civic education, a lagging and unattractive domain, into a much more exciting subject.
"Studies have shown almost half of the students continue playing iCivics at home even though they are not required to. And the success with teachers in terms of the value of the program and their willingness to recommend it to others has also been phenomenal," Burak said.
Video games have had a bad reputation for a long time. They're viewed as mindless entertainment that reduce users to a sloth-like level of existence. And they have even been attributed with influencing aggressive and violent behavior. So what makes Burak think video games can have any tangible positive impact on society?
"You can get to a level of research, you can really show evidence in a very convincing way, especially if you align it with what you are trying to achieve," he said.
A great example of this is detailed in Burak's book, "Power Play."
Re-Mission and Re-Mission 2, games produced by a company called Hopelab in Silicon Valley, target young cancer patients. The goal is to connect the disease to the treatment in their mind, to demonstrate what an epic struggle their body goes through at any given time.
"Research showed that patients who played the game were much more consistent in taking their drugs and following their doctors’ guidelines as a result, even to a period of 6 months after they played the game," Burak said.
"The game succeeded in showing the patients why it’s important to follow their treatment – something that many young patients often struggle with."
Today Burak remains involved with Games for Change, and is CEO of Power Play, a boutique consulting agency that has worked with the World Bank and Eon Productions (the producers of the James Bond films) among many others.
He's come a long way since first arriving in the country from Israel, when he basically had to beg people to listen to his ideas.
"I think people want to hear this message," Burak said. "The message is basically that there's this medium that's very engaging, especially with the younger generation, and it has a lot of benefits and can be used for great causes."
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