GDC 2012: How the Gaming Industry is Changing the World

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Video games are a popular scapegoat. People like to blame them for being a bad influence, for being time wasters, or even inspiring violence and aggression among their players. But the members from one of the ‘Games for Change’ panels at GDC sought to create a better name for games by creating experiences that help foster awareness, knowledge, and even a sense of community. During “From Milan to Abu Dhabi: Microtalks for Change,” Rob Davis, Mathias Crawford, Dave Mariner, John Murphy, and Colleen Macklin all took turns sharing the stage to give their 10 minute “microtalks” about their use of gaming to inspire changes for the better.

Education, Games, and…Squirrels?
Davis of developer Playniac was the first to take the stage, where he introduced a game that, from the title, you would never guess was a game for change: International Racing Squirrels. He showed us plenty of screenshots and even a little gameplay footage and, while it’s as whacky as can be, it has a very admirable goal.

International Racing SquirrelsThe purpose of International Racing Squirrels is to teach children about being responsible with expenses and finance management. Davis had uncovered a number of alarming statistics about young peoples’ finances in the UK, including the fact that 38% of them are heavily in debt, 20% are behind on credit payments, etc. So he thought that creating a game where players could “viscerally feel and relate emotionally to debt” would be a good way to teach kids about fiscal responsibility from an early age.

It sounds heavier than it is; after all, the idea isn’t completely unheard of in games. He pointed to a number of popular titles like Farmville, Animal Crossing, SimCity 2000, and even Dope Wars, all of which feature banking elements.

International Racing Squirrels runs on a monthly cycle, so players have to pay monthly bills and manage their bank accounts to make sure they stay afloat while making necessary expenditures. Your team of squirrels and their races essentially serve as your job, your source of income. So, in order to ensure that you win your races, you have to spend money on powerups or activities like massages to give your squirrels the winning edge. As for the races themselves, they’re done in a sort of simulation mode in which you can play mini-games to help boost your racer, but you don’t actually drive or race in any traditional sense. It’s clearly not meant to be the focus of the game.

The bank screen in game has many elements of a real banking system, including an ATM, your savings account, your checking account, and your credit card account. It’s from here that players balance their finances and make their monthly payments without going broke.

What Davis found was that in testing it with younger crowds (elementary school children), it seemed to teach them some elements of banking, in some cases without them even realizing it. One boy, who apparently did not have a bank account and had no personal experiences with his own finances (and who insisted in a survey afterwards that he had learned nothing about banking), proved to be quite proficient in balancing his checkbook and transferring funds between his accounts to make payments.

“We could tell it created the emotional pressure of having monthly bills and payments,” he said, telling the story of one girl who made a truckload of purchases from the in-game store using her “credit card”, realized that she couldn’t pay it all off, and panicked to her teacher when she subsequently fell into debt.

For those who at all interested in checking out the game, it will go live within the next 24 hours on

Effecting Change in an Age of Gamification
Crawford and Mariner’s projects focused more on the fact that we live in an era of mobile technology, and they capitalized on the growing use of gamification to effect change.

Crawford, who works for Natron Baxter Applied Gaming, spoke about a mobile app called HeartChase, which aims to address the disconnect between people involved in fundraisers (specifically, walkathons) and their sponsors or donors.

“HeartChase is designed to be more of a framework that is easily adaptable and customizable,” said Crawford. Basically, users of the app can create walkathon-like events where they designate a one square-mile area of a city, in which teams of four compete to rack up the highest score (i.e. the highest amount of donations). Players do this by locating and scanning donation tags that are hidden around the community within a set time limit; in many cases, donation tags can only be scanned after completing challenges at local businesses.

“[The challenges] help inspire a sense of community,” said Crawford, who gave the example of one challenge where players would have to go to a local yoga studio and perform a series of poses before being allowed to scan the donation tag. Businesses could also “sponsor” tags so that when players find and scan them in the wild, they receive a notification saying that the donation tag is from Business X.

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