Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the 9th Annual Games for Change Festival, a three-day event at NYU’s Skirball Center focused on leveraging entertainment and engagement for social good. Games for Change is the largest games gathering in New York City; for the past eight years, it’s been bringing gaming enthusiasts and representatives from the digital games industry together with educators, activists, policymakers, and foundations.

Now, I’m not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination. My experience with video games is mostly limited to watching my dad play Diablo when I was ten. (I’d ask him to turn the sound off while he explored labyrinths and cast spells on monsters — the music was just too scary.) Needless to say, I went into Games for Change with a mixture of distance and trepidation. Game design — even game design with a social change mission — seemed unrelated to my world of documentary work.

But G4C, as the festival is known in shorthand, surprised me. Three days of panels and presentations by speakers like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal of SuperBetterLabs revealed that the gaming and documentary worlds are not so different after all. Digital game designers are grappling with many of the same issues that documentary filmmakers face on a regular basis. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, it all comes down to figuring out how to engage your audience.

Here are four tips culled from the festival that might help documentarians do just that:

  1. Don’t be boring: This might seem obvious, but creators of social-issue media often struggle to strike a balance between educating and entertaining. Panelists stressed that didacticism is no way to effect change — if audiences feel like they’re being lectured, they’ll lose interest, no matter how powerful the message. As Entertainment Software Association president Michael Gallagher put it, “Games should be fun: it’s the prime directive. We should all endeavor to make games that are engaging, even if the subject matter is serious.” Socially-minded documentarians might keep this in mind: telling an interesting story should come first and foremost.
  2. Make it interactive: Jane McGonigal believes that games have the ability to change the world. Their power, she says, lies in their interactivity; a level of engagement is inherent in the process of play. Filmmakers might harness a similar interactive potential in their own work through the use of transmedia and customizable viewer experiences. It’s an era of new digital technology; both gamers and filmmakers should capitalize on it. (Sidenote: if you’re itching to work on your own interactive doc project, it’s not too late to apply to participate in our POV Hackathon!)
  3. Focus on the “why”: Simon Parkin, head of games for LittleLoud, warned game designers against approaching their work as advocates for a cause. Although social-issue games and documentaries inherently have a point of view, exploring the “why” of an issue is more interesting than sermonizing. Parkin cited LittleLoud’s game Sweatshop as an example: although the game ultimately strives to show how sweatshops are harmful to workers, Sweatshop places the player in the position of a manufacturing boss in order to promote an understanding of the complexities of the sweatshop systems. As players are asked to excel at making profits, they end up imposing increasingly harsh conditions and long hours on their virtual workers. This exposure to both sides of the issue allows players to better appreciate systemic pressures and the human cost of choices. By examining the larger context and complexities of the topics they tackle — the “why” rather than the “what” — documentarians might also engage their audiences more successfully.
  4. Aim to change behaviors: A classic criticism of social-issue docs is that while they can be great at raising awareness about a problem, they often fail to offer audiences solutions on how to take action. Michelle Riconscente, deputy director of research for SciPlay at the NY Hall of Science, addressed this issue in the context of game design by presenting an example of a game that does a great job of tying in that critical action component. GameDesk’s Dojo aims to help at-risk youth manage stress and anger. But Dojo doesn’t just teach players that emotional control is important. Instead, the game employs biofeedback hardware that actually monitors changes in players’ heartrate and breathing. Players have to employ the specific stress-management techniques they learn in order to beat challenges, as their physical reactions are constantly being measured. Obviously, documentarians aren’t going to start fitting viewers with special pulse feedback devices. But Dojo serves as a powerful example of how media with an aim at social change can actually alter behavior in its audiences, if steps for action are appropriately provided.

I left G4C invigorated, ready to make some docs and play some games. (Daddy, mail me Diablo, okay? I’m a big girl now.) After all, as McGonigal put it in her 2010 TEDTalk, gaming can make a better world. I’m convinced that documentaries can, too.

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Emma Miller is the Summer 2012 Digital Intern. She graduated this spring from Duke University, where she majored in Cultural Anthropology, earned a certificate in Documentary Studies, and minored in Theater Studies. Emma has spent time working with documentary filmmaker Herb E. Smith at Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY, teaching English in Argentina, and interning at WNYC's Studio 360 and WUNC's The Story. Her audio documentary work has been featured on several public radio stations around the country.