Games and social change: In-between screens, places and communities

Lead Research Organisation: Manchester Metropolitan University
Department Name: Psychology

Abstract

With a bias towards participation and interactivity, the digital realm has created conditions to allow people to engage with life more playfully using everyday devices (e.g. computers, smartphones). Digital technology has also allowed alternate public spaces to be created, helping to re-imagine citizenship and activism (e.g. Facebook campaigns, e-petitions). One area where playful engagement in civic life has started to generate serious attention is, in the field of videogames and experimental games.

A burgeoning 'Games for change' movement has emerged in the last decade, which has appropriated videogames to engage people, beyond entertainment. A growing number of artists, educationalists and activists are developing games that contend with personal, social and political subject matter: e.g. poverty (Cost of Life); immigration (Escape from Woomera); forced labour practices (Sweatshop); the fiscal crisis (Layoff); and the war on terror (September 12th), with the explicit intention of altering or affecting player opinion outside of the game world.

The network will also focus on other emergent game platforms (e.g. Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and Urban Games) that use digital technologies to create games, played online as well as in physical locations. These games allow immersive and interactive storytelling experiences to play out across a range of (trans) media platforms. There are notable examples of these types of games engaging with social justice, community and humanitarian issues (e.g. World Without Oil; Raiders of the Lost Crown). They provide the network with a second key focus.

Social change games tend to be the products of a burgeoning independent game scene, which represents the interests of those outside of 'big' industry - developing games that challenge normative, mainstream and commercial values. The network is keen to situate and undertsand these types of games within the scenes and sub-cultures that comprise the independent game industry. The recent emergence of global 'Game Collectives' (e.g. Copenhagen Games Collective; Invisible Playground in Berlin; The Larks in Manchester), which are developing a mix of 'on' and 'off-screen' games, are an important independent scene, to locate social change gaming. Not only do Game Collectives connect independent game communities to specific locales, they often foreground games and play as a means to explore notions of community, identity and togetherness. They provide the network with a third key focus area.

Focusing on these key areas, this network will create an international multi-disciplinary community of practice. It will involve a range of core partners and associates with expertise in the key focs areas, representative of research and practice based perspectives (Manchester (MMU, The Larks, Madlab); the EU (The Copenhagen Games Collective; Utrecht University, University of Leuphana) and; North America (Tiltfactor at Dartmouth College; Diego de La Vega)), to explore the potentials of digital games as change agents. This will be done in collaboration with other participants, representing key stakeholder groups.

Working collaboratively as a community of practice, the network will host a variety of activities (e.g. conferences; seminars; meetings; open-space workshops and game jams) to allow participants; academics, game developers, community practitioners, activists and third sector bodies, to explore and develop the potentials of digital games. It is anticipated that these activities will enable the network to generate key insights, identify areas for future research and investment as well as raise awareness around social change gaming and facilitate growth in the field within the UK and in the Manchester region, in particular.

Planned Impact

(1) The network's research and activities will help to raise awareness of the potentials of digital games to communicate complex messages around social justice, humanitarian, community and environmental issues with key sectors that could benefit from investing in their development: third sector; community activists; NGOs [Work Programme (WP) 2,3]

(2) A series of activities have been planned to enable those sectors, whose work is aligned to social change agendas, to explore with game developers opportunities to commission and produce social change games [WP3]

(3) The host institute's alignment with 'The Larks' and 'Madlab' as core partners is also strategic. These groups are at the forefront of the Manchester region's independent game making scene. The network provides them with key opportunities to develop practice and collaborate with international partners that are part of similar scenes, (e.g. Fact-finding and collaborative artistic practice activities, hosted Copenhagen Games Collective) [WP 1,2,5]

(4) 'Game Jams' with the local game making communities, including young people (via the U18 Jam), will draw attention to alternate content and subject matter to apply game structures to. This may help to broaden the horizons to participants of whom some will be part of the next generation of game designers and developers [WP3]

(5) The involvement of local public sector bodies, cultural and digital organisations, as members of the advisory group, will help to raise awareness of the benefits of social value games as part of the city's and region's cultural, regeneration programme sand digital strategy, for example.

(6) The workshop series "An Introduction to game design" will introduce principles of game design to community activists. This will bring game design to the attention of a wider pool of people and develop their capacity to incorporate play mechanics as a tool, to reference and frame their practices. [WP4]

(7) Drawing upon the experience and expertise of the core group of partners and associates, we believe will provide a solid foundation upon which to develop future initiatives and leverage funding streams, to enable public stakeholders to develop further projects and initiatives that harness the of digital play to communicate complex information related to social change agendas. We anticipate that this raft of knowledge exchange activities could benefit a range of community and third sector organisations, alongside game developers [WP1,3]

Publications


10 25 50
 
Title Everything is Awesome - Street Game 
Description Members of the Research Network from Manchester Metropolitan University, The Larks and Copenhagen Game Collective developed a street game, focusing on surveillance culture and creativity, as part of collaborative artistic practice in Denmark (August 2014). The game was further refined and exhibited at the Playpublik Festival in Krakow, Poland (October 2014). 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact The product, provided an opportunity for designers from distinct and diverse backgrounds, straddling theatre, technology and community practice to undertake collaborative practice based research, fusing together unique perpsectives. The game has been exhibited at an International event in Poland and provoked critical discussions. It was also covered by Polish state Television. 
URL http://www.playpublik.pl/en/events/everything-is-awesome
 
Description The premise of the research network was to explore the connections between play, games and social change.

We started with a narrow focus on the recent interest in games with a focus on social and political issues, and particularly digital screen games.

Interest in this area has proliferated and there are a number of key stakeholder and advocacy groups, such as Games For Change that are currently reflecting on the interest in these types of games. They are currently advocating a move away from the anecdotal to more evidence based research, exploring the efficacy of these games in making an impact on players, as an innovative media format for engaging people in socio-poiltical issues. To date, much of the limited evidence has been quantitative in nature, and there are calls for the collection of date to become part and parcel of the commissioning process, as well as more in-depth qualitative research methods to be adopted also.

This contemporary discussion has also brought into view the fractures in the making of these games and their uses. On the one hand, these types of games are being commissioned by not-for-profit organisations who are keen to use games to diversify their repertoire of communication, awareness raising and impact tools. The logical prolongation of this thinking is that games can be used for behaviour change, and that their efficacy should be grounded in scientifically sound evidence.

On the other hand, games are being created as social commentary and political media by DIY enthusiasts as an alternative way of expressing and articulating, and giving voice to issues. There seems to be a significant step change here. Games are being used also as an expressive media, where social change is as much about the democratisation of game making, and the possibilities it affords people to 'speak back to power'. Where the onus is on changing the player in the mainstream field, on the margins, change has to do with 'making' games.

These distinctions bring into view a wider perspective for the links between play, games and social change, that have to do with emergent game literacies. The learning may be that we should not only focus on games making an impact on players, but supporting people and communities to have the literacies to unpick these games and understand how they go to work on people - games like other forms of media are not neutral, what are the biases etc. Equally, by promoting game making as an emergent literacy need, people will be able to contribute to the conversation - to be able to speak back.

The network was able to explore other emergent trends in connecting experimental play and game cultures to the field of social change. Working closely with a number of prominent Game Collectives from the UK, Europe and N.America, in-depth insights about trends in independent game cultures also are worth focusing on.

These kinds of DIY collectives are focusing on promoting awareness of play and games and their applications more broadly through;

curating and facilitating playing in public spaces;
promoting the inclusion of more diverse people and perspectives in game making and;
raising awareness of the political nature of play and its possibilities

Whilst their efforts may only be seen as marginal in the wider picture, it would seem that they are indicative of broader cutting edge trends in the underground of contemporary play and game sub-cultures.

One of the most significant perspectives that these kinds of groups are trying to bring into public consciousness is the political nature of the organisation of public space, and the potentials in play to disrupt this and provide alternative functions that could be instrumental in negotiating the challenges of contemporary urban life - alienation, difficulties in connecting disparate communities etc. Members of one of the Game Collectives 'Invisible Playground' are embarking on an ambitious project 'Playful Commons' that seeks to apply creative common principles to the use of public space. We see this as a key cutting edge of this emergent field of experimental play culture, that has potentials for re-enchanting the public domain and notions of 'street level democracy'

Lastly, the network touched upon the interplay between play and games as a medium for social change, and the possibilities for social change to be re-considered through the lens of play and games. An interesting approach here is that of 'Playability' that is being lead by researchers at Utrecht University, that links play and games with the real world, arguing that both spheres are connected by 'rules' and 'structures'. Playability is understood as the accessibility and openness of a given social domain (e.g. currency) to be played with and transformed by its players (or citizens). The model moves from L1 'the player', through to L2 'the cheater' (who by breaking the rules, brings into light what the rules of a given situation are and is afforded more agency than the player), through to L3 'the modder', who can access and modify the operating system and game engine of social domains and re-purpose it etc., through to L4 'the programmer' who can effectively re-make the operating system and the 'rules of the game' and 'how it is played'. Such an approach brings into light the subversive potentials of 'play' to break with traditions and rules, as well as the motif of the 'game' as also relating to the status-quo of rule governed life.

The interplay between 'play' and 'games' and the analogies with more traditional critical theoretical terms such as 'agency' and 'structure'; 'base' and 'superstructure'; 'life-world' and 'colonisation', provides an opportunity to re-think academic discussions about society.
Exploitation Route In exploring the potentials of playing games to promote social change, research would benefit from using comparative methodologies. The different platforms - e.g. Computer games / Alternative Reality Games / Urban Games afford different opportunities for player agency, collaboration and community development, and impact as a primary and secondary affect. For example, screen based games are 'simulations' that promote change as a secondary effect (e.g. awareness raising, discussions etc. come after playing the game), whereas some ARGs promote in-game player moves that impact on the real world directly.

Further research is needed to consider the influence of more marginal aspects of the game industry and the burgeoning experimental play and game communities, represented through groups such as Game Collectives.

There is a need for learning from the field of game studies to be recognised by social theory, community development etc. This could help to re-enchant these fields, and provide innovative opportunities to recast theory and practice that deals with communities, social work etc.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Environment,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy
URL http://www.gamesandsocialchange.net
 
Description Through the network, a new street game "Everything is Awesome" was developed working collaboratively with two of the Game Collectives. The game focuses on the possibilities of drones to play a more pronounced role in street level surveillance. The game was exhibited at two international play festivals in Poland and Denmark.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural
 
Description Arcade Exhibit
Amount £7,000 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 11/2013 
End 04/2014
 
Description Critical Game Development / Collaborative Artistic Practice 
Organisation Copenhagen Game Collective
Country Denmark, Kingdom of 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Worked on the design and development of a digitally enabled street game in Copenhagen (Aug 2014) and Krakow (Oct 2014)
Collaborator Contribution Contributing technological, software programming and design input - Copenhagen Game Collective Contributing theatrical, design input - The Larks
Impact Exhibition at Playpublik Play Festival
Start Year 2014
 
Description Critical Game Development / Collaborative Artistic Practice 
Organisation The Larks
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Worked on the design and development of a digitally enabled street game in Copenhagen (Aug 2014) and Krakow (Oct 2014)
Collaborator Contribution Contributing technological, software programming and design input - Copenhagen Game Collective Contributing theatrical, design input - The Larks
Impact Exhibition at Playpublik Play Festival
Start Year 2014
 
Description AHRC Creative Economy Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a roundtable event convened as part of the AHRC Creative Economies showcase, to raise awareness of the Videogames networks funded by the AHRC to a wider creative professional / industries sectors. Generated some discussion.

A number of email correspondence from participants from the session, looking to get involved in the network or find out information
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Network workshop - Game Collectives 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact An international 1 day workshop in Germany, co-hosted with network partner Leuphana University, where we invited a number of Interntiaoonal Play and Game Collectives / Groups (from UK, GER, DEN, ITA) to talk about their work and share professional, practice based and academic perspectives on research focus. The workshops generated sharing and the identification of future focus areas and priorities for the research network.

Participants in the network were invited to one of the game design collective's international play festival to work on the development of a critical social commentary game (one of the focuses of the network), which was exhibited to the public in Krakow, Poland.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Open Access Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Evaluation of the event found:

1. Event programme quality
44% - Very Good
48% - Good
8% - Poor

2. Attendance of event increased awareness in the area of games and social change:
44% - Strongly Agree
40% - Agree
16% - Neither agree or disagree

Further feedback included:

A nice informal atmosphere that really helped with networking - some great workshops and speakers
I left the conference buzzing with ideas - a fantastic day
Whole day stimulated much discussion and idea generation that can take back and use with my community groups



Several follow-up meetings with industry people, interested in aligning with the network, including invitation to speak with Head of corporate responsibility at the BBC about introducing game design.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUv-XL2wifhxgNgsSCb1OoA
 
Description Presentation given at Danish Play Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Raised awareness of the sort of research undertaken in the funded network, which generated much discussion and feedback.

Invitation from a Danish educational network focusing on games to contribute to their activities
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://w00t.dk/program/other-playable-worlds-are-possible/
 
Description Research Network Game Developed and exibited at Intetrnational Play Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Participants in the network developed a game that was exhibited at an International Play Festival in Poland. The street game focused on surveillance culture, creativity and provoked much attention at the festival and discussion around these matters and the use of games to provoke critical debate.

Player discussions and also invitations to develop the game and exhibit at other events.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.playpublik.pl/en/events/everything-is-awesome
 
Description Videogame Arcade - AHRC Creative Economies 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The exhibit of an arcade machine hosting critical social commentary games was unfamiliar to many participants, and therefore helped to introduce to participants the diversity of videogames and raise awareness of the appropriation of digital games to draw attention to social and political issues.

A number of enquiries from industry organisations, looking to develop links with the network.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014