FEATURE

Avatars and Activists

Digital gaming offers a new frontier for social justice educators.
Illustration by Christina Ung

It’s June 7, 1995. College student Kaitlin Greenbriar returns to her family home after a yearlong trip abroad and finds a foreboding letter taped to the front door: “Katie, I’m sorry I can’t be there to see you, but it is impossible. … —Sam” 

This is the opening scene of Gone Home, a widely acclaimed digital game by The Fullbright Company. At first glance, Gone Home, with its ominous opening, stormy skies and suburban home full of flickering lights, appears to be an interactive horror story. But in fact, it’s an LGBT-inclusive game that belongs to a category of digital games that engage players in social issues and social impact: “games for change.” 

The gameplay of Gone Home involves stepping into Kaitlin’s shoes and finding clues about Sam’s disappearance in quite ordinary objects—journal entries, letters and homework assignments. Kaitlin pieces together that her sister Sam, a 17-year-old high school junior, came out to their parents as a lesbian. Sam’s journal entries reveal they wrote off her sexual identity as a “phase.” “I was prepared for them to be mad, or disappointed, or start crying or something,” Sam writes, “but they were just in denial. [T]hey wouldn’t even respect me enough to believe me.” The game prompts players to grapple with the story as it unravels.   

The idea that digital gameplay can raise awareness about real-world issues, such as the alienation endured by LGBT youth, has caught the attention of K-12 educators. But they encounter an industry in which the vast majority of digital games are not developed with social issues, civic action or curricular standards in mind. Nicholas Fortugno, a game designer and co-founder and chief creative officer of Playmatics, says the commercial game industry knows very little about the education field. 

That’s where organizations like Games for Change, the leading global advocate for digital games for social impact, come into play. Founded in 2004, Games for Change works to build popular interest in social-impact games, as well as to facilitate crucial partnerships between game developers who hold design expertise and social entrepreneurs, government agencies and researchers who hold the content expertise.  

Half the Sky Movement: The Game, a hugely popular Facebook game with over 1.3 million players, is one example that stemmed from corporate and public partnerships facilitated by Games for Change. Drawing from the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and the PBS series by the same name, the game involves an “empowerment journey” across the globe. Each player takes the perspective of Radhika, an Indian woman who navigates a series of quests that reflect the real-world hardships experienced by women and girls, including poverty, domestic violence, genital mutilation and sex trafficking. Through the gameplay, players “empower” Radhika and also unlock real-life donations from corporate sponsors—such as books published by Pearson and fistula surgeries funded by Johnson & Johnson—for communities in need. 

Emily Treat, vice president of production services at Games for Change, says, “We knew that a lot of our players would be young teenagers … [W]e don’t expect them to have money to make big, significant donations, but we wanted them to still feel that their gameplay was being a contribution.”

Vetting Games for Change

To effectively and equitably use games for change, educators highlight the importance of vetting a game prior to using it in the classroom. They point to these considerations:

 

Make sure the game is fun. Without engagement, the impact of a game will be significantly lower.

 

Identify misrepresentation and biases in the game. These could be found within the story arc or the characters. 

 

Weigh the pros and cons of role-playing. Role-playing allows students to test out decisions, experiences and consequences without real-world repercussions—and learn through trial, mistakes and repetition. But there are caveats: Role-playing is not a substitute for or a perfect mirror of lived experiences and should never ask students to endure directly simulated trauma. 

 

Aim for a hybrid of free digital play and scaffolded learning. Sansing says, “You would not leave students to experience the game world on their own, disassociated from whatever else is going on and then expect change.”

 

Don’t choose a game because it’s a game. Just because a game deals with a social issue, doesn’t mean it’s high quality. Evaluate any digital game as a media form and see if it might be more advantageous to use a documentary, novel or another resource. 

 

Involve your administration. The genre of digital games for social impact is new enough that some territory remains unchartered. Bring questions to your colleagues and school leaders as they arise.

Games for change can effectively take on relevant and serious topics and offer unique possibilities for educators. The digital format means these games “can be gauged to be self-paced, to be adaptable, and quite an engaging experience,” Treat observes.

Yet, educators aren’t lining up to buy them—or even not buy them (many are free). “A lot of what you’re seeing are what I call pioneers,” Treat says, “teachers who are basically taking it upon themselves to look at these games, think about when to use them, adopt them into their curriculum, be creative about how they’re using them.”

One of these pioneers is Chad Sansing, an eighth-grade teacher at Shelburne Middle School in Staunton, Virginia. He uses digital games in his classroom as an access point to the curriculum. He says, “There are times when you want to use scenario-based [digital] games, games that are really intentional and purposeful to help students really understand what it’s like to have an experience outside of their own, or where a person is coming from, or how much help or hurt can be given in a situation.”

Sansing sees digital play in the same light as freewriting, filmmaking or art making: as a democratic pedagogical tool. By removing some of the scaffolding around learning, Sansing says, new opportunities arise. “When you open up to role-play, you’re searching for a lot of things schools don’t often search for, such as emotional truth, the kind of naked honesty students are sometimes discouraged from showing in their relationships with one another and the teachers in the building.”

Illustration of children playing video games in a classroom compared to people working the fields

Michael Baran, a cultural anthropologist and president of Interactive Diversity Solutions, offers another take on role-play. Baran co-created two quiz-based games with game designer Michael Handelman—Who Am I? Race Awareness Game and Guess My Race—that don’t place players in someone else’s shoes. Baran says, “I wanted people to stay in their own shoes … to develop a more thoughtful, critical perspective on the world around them, and not think of it like a temporary change and perspective[.] I want you to feel a little unsafe and a little more critical in your own shoes permanently.”

With these kinds of possibilities, why aren’t games for change in more classrooms? Limited technological infrastructure and resources, the parameters of curricular standards and standardized testing, and the trend toward pushing out playtime are easy suspects. But many educators dismiss digital games without asking a crucial question. 

“I think a lot of people don’t think about why use games,” says Treat. “A lot of people hear, ‘Well, it’s fun—it’s games … therefore, it’s not as serious as the stuff I’m teaching. It’s not going to be as effective as direct instruction or peer-to-peer [learning].’” 

Research, however, is slowly debunking the myth that all digital games are socially isolating, desensitizing or meaningless. Learning by Playing: Video Gaming in Education, edited by Fran C. Blumberg, is one piece of recent scholarship that explores the idea that digital games can actually enhance student-centered experiences by allowing them to exercise agency, problem-solving skills and social responsibility. 

Kurt Squire, a professor of digital media at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the cofounder and current director of Games+Learning+Society, offers a piece of advice for approaching digital play in the classroom. “Games are being built about a variety of topics now, including things like racial bias or nonviolent conflict resolution, and they’re actually getting pretty decent and we’re starting to see results that they’re often times better than other [pedagogical] techniques.” But ultimately, he says, the potential impact of digital play is highly contingent on the quality of games and how they’re implemented.  

Lindberg is a writer/associate editor at Teaching Tolerance.

Get Gaming! 

Games for change cover a wide spectrum of social issues. Here are some examples:

 

Spent

An unbeatable game that addresses poverty and homelessness.

 

Mission 3: A Cheyenne Odyssey

A portrayal of the detrimental effects of white settlers’ encroachment in the 1860s and 1870s from a Northern Cheyenne perspective. The third installment of a multimedia project, Mission US. 

 

Papers, Please

A single-player game in which players take on the role of an immigration inspector in Arstotzka, a fictional country. 

 

Guess My Race

A quiz-based game that shows players photos of people’s faces—and asks them to guess how each person racially self-identities. Once the player guesses, information on how the person self-identifies appears—challenging biases and assumptions. 

 

Who Am I? Race Awareness Game

A fun and educational guessing game that encourages parents and educators to communicate responsibly about race and diversity issues with young children (ages three and up). 

 

The Migrant Trail

Examines the experiences of migrants and border patrol agents on the U.S-Mexico border. The gameplay draws upon the widely popular game The Oregon Trail—and addresses undocumented immigration from a humanitarian perspective. 

Learn about free games your students can use to make change.

Toolkit