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Games for Change has a strong community behind it. That was evident this week as the nonprofit group held its 20th celebration of games that have a social impact.
There were a lot more attendees this year at Games for Change 2023, held at the New York Times Center in Times Square in New York City, compared to the pandemic-hit gathering a year ago. In 2023, 1,118 people came out for the week-long event, compared to 1,023 in 2019.
People were chatty and cheerful, despite the mixed economy. And the group held a stellar series of talks at the United Nations — a historic step up on the global stage for gaming. This year, the idea was to use the power of games to raise awareness about the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. And the UN is helping gaming get away from its past when people in pre-pandemic days worried about gaming’s addictive qualities. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, we all saw how games brought people together.
The strength of the show across the whole week shows that we have a lot of passionate people who want to make games that are not only fun but have a purpose with it comes to education, mental well-being, health, environmental sustainability, social change, diversity and inclusion, justice and equity, science and civic awareness.
Two decades ago, such games were scarce, and few people thought about video games when it came to advocacy for worthwhile causes in the world. Now, the Games for Change Awards show featured winners from among 400 games that were submitted for the 2023 contest alone.
The annual summit is a key part of the charitable organization’s mission to change the world with games, and its advocates include UN leaders like Sam Barratt, chief of youth, education and advocacy for the UN Environment Programme. It was heady stuff to step inside the UN building, take a tour of places like the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly meeting rooms, and then listen to inspiring talks from the likes of Benjamin “DrLupo” Lupo, a creator who raised $14 million to date for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
There were many inspiring stories. Cynthia Williams, head of Wizards of the Coast at Hasbro, mentioned that she was once told in high school that Dungeons & Dragons isn’t for girls. Now she runs the company that owns D&D.
Gay Gaming Professionals’ Gordon Bellamy, a USC games professor who won Games for Change’s Vanguard Award in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, marveled at the thought of finally being able to be there in person at the UN on the shore of the East River to celebrate with so many peers.
Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change, said she was excited to see the industry’s biggest companies from Sybo (maker of Subway Surfers, the most downloaded game in the world) to Ubisoft (Assassin’s Creed) and Wizards of the Coast (maker of Magic: The Gathering). Lego won the industry leadership award for showing how to take care of children in online environments.
Mathias Norvig, CEO of Sybo and Jude Ower, CEO of Playmob, talked about how they are publishing a book on making games for good. Norvig told me in an interview about the imperative to do good and the huge opportunity to get gamers engaged in great causes like fighting climate change while at the same time trying not to turn them off through over-preaching.
I moderated a panel with Rebecca Benghiat, president and COO of The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at stopping teen suicides, and a report that the foundation and our fellow panelists — Mark DeLoura (who once gave me a tour of the White House); Rachelle Vallon, guidance counselor and wellness coordinator at Harlem’s Quest to Learn school; and Madison Emily Taylor, researcher at the University of California –created to analyze teen mental health and the implications of the metaverse.
At the UN event, Pollack exchanged a bond of partnership with UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (UNESCO MGIEP). Kate Edwards, CEO of Geogrify, talked about how our values impact the cultural influence of games and what it means when geopolitics of countries like Ukraine, Russia, and China affect what we see in our video games.
I had fun taking pictures of acquaintances from so many years of game journalism, like Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at Cambridge University and the adviser for the groundbreaking game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, my favorite game of 2017 and a chronicle of a female warrior who descends into a hellscape of madness and uses psychosis — seeing things that aren’t there and hearing voices — to overcome the challenges in a journey full of mental health challenges. Fletcher’s job was to help make the depiction of a character with psychosis seem realistic.
On Wednesday night, emotions ran high as the Games for Change Awards honored titles such as Endling: Extinction is Forever, the winner of the Game of the Year Award. Endling is an emotional journey that captures the destruction of the environment by humans, as seen through the eyes of a fox and her family.
And Body of Mine won the XR for Change Award. Developed by solo creator Cameron Kostopoulos, Body of Mine is a powerful experience that focuses on “body dysphoria,” or the feeling people can get when they feel misalignment between the body they were born with and their gender identity.
Kostopoulos said he came out of the closet as gay and it was difficult for the family as well as himself.
“I was raised in a Baptist household in Texas, a very unaccepting environment. I was kind of forced out of the closet and lost contact with my parents. At the same time, a lot of my trans friends were going through the stages of transition. My roommate — she got top surgery. One of my friends — he got pregnant. And so all these really interesting stories were around me,” Kostopoulos said.
Kostopoulos said he was thinking of the isolation such people can feel when they come out.
“I was wondering how we can use VR to build safe spaces when such spaces in the real world can be hard to find,” Kostopoulos said.
Alan Gershenfeld, cofounder of E-Line Media and first chairperson of Games for Change, received the Hall of Change award for his work in games with titles such as Never Alone, which kicked off a genre of “world games” that honored the lives of native peoples.
Grace Collins of Snowbright Studio won the 2023 Vanguard Award for their work in games and advocacy for LGBTQ+ voices, diversity and inclusion.
In an acceptance speech, Collins recounted how an extended family uncle bragged at a gathering about standing outside a gay bar, yelling “Hey queers!” and daring gay people to come outside and meet the receiving end of a baseball bat — and how Collins was the only one in the group who didn’t laugh. Collins went on to lead policy and game development at the Smithsonian and was a games education policy adviser for the Department of Education under two presidents.
Collins noted how one in two trans kids wind up trying to take their own lives, and if they live in a household that doesn’t accept them that number becomes three out of four. Collins noted how their own trans students today realize they’re the ones that people hate, and Collins said the reason they were up on stage to accept the award was for those coming up behind.
“Why I’m up here is for them. I’m posting this on LinkedIn. I want them to see it. And I want them to know that it’s possible. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And they can make it through. If you want to be an ally, like a real ally. It’s not about making your logo rainbow. It’s not about buying games from LGBTBE-certified businesses like Snowbright, but please do both of those things,” Collins said. “It’s about taking that punch on the chin. For those kids. It’s about getting outside your comfort zone. Go run for your school board. That’s where these things are being fought right now. We need everybody there. You can give them role models.”
An astronaut at a gaming event
Then there was the astronaut, Sian Proctor, and she turned out to be the most inspiring person of all at the Games for Change conference as she wound up the program at the end.
She was born on the island of Guam, where her father was at a NASA tracking station. He was one of the “hidden figures,” the Black people who were important to the space program but didn’t receive recognition in the history books. He was a self-taught mathematician. Proctor wanted her place in history and she trained to be an astronaut. Though she was a professor of geology, she didn’t make the cut in a final decision when she was 39 years old back in 2008 or so. That was crushing.
But she decided to enter a contest, wrote a poem about wanting to go into space, and won a seat on board the rocket through her poetic creativity, of all things. In September 2021, she went up in the Dragon Rocket Inspiration4. She was in her 50s.
“I have been chasing space my entire life,” she said.
Netflix made a documentary about the contest. Now Proctor is trying to inspire kids and others to strive for their dreams.
“When I’m talking about space to inspire, I’m not talking about outer space,” she said. “I’m talking about this space, the space you inhabit, the space that makes you into you. This is space to inspire, and how you use your space matters. The things that you do with it, how you express your creativity, how you share your knowledge and wisdom — that all matters. So how do you use your space to inspire not only yourself but those around you and beyond? And can you make that space just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive for yourself, your family, your friends, your community, all of those things? And so those are the things that I came back wanting to do. But I also wanted to share the message of how space to inspire is also about solving for Earth.”
When she was in space, Proctor’s face lit up while she was looking at the Earth. Her face would have been in the dark of space, were it not for that “Earthlight.” She wants more people to experience that Earthlight.
“I feel fortunate because it’s allowing me to be able to do things and express myself as an artist that I never thought I would be able to do before,” she said. “And that’s the power of thinking about when we’re talking about games for good, and giving access to voices who don’t normally have that opportunity. I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to achieve that goal of going to space, that thing I was chasing my entire life.”
She added, “But with great opportunity comes great responsibility. And so now it’s all about how I can share that and inspire the next generation to believe those — all of you that raised your hand, and then didn’t raise it. When I said, Do you believe that you can go to space in your lifetime? I hope that after hearing this, that you now believe that is possible that you too can go and experience Earthlight for yourself someday in your lifetime.”
Disclosure: The organizers of the event paid my way to New York, where I moderated a panel. Our coverage remains objective.
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