It used to be that charities had to plaster your environment with posters to get noticed. Now, people who wouldn’t spend 30 seconds flicking through a brochure will happily spend fifteen minutes playing an online game with the same messages in it, as long as the game is compelling enough.
Depaul UK, a charity that helps young homeless people, created the free iHobo app for the iPhone. It puts a virtual homeless person inside the phone, and shows the phone owner the impact of their actions as they offer food, money or emotional support.
Players are encouraged to enter their real name, to help them build a relationship with the virtual person living in their phones.
The app has been downloaded over 600,000 times, and has helped the charity to reach many people who didn’t previously know about it and probably didn’t know much about the issues around homelessness either.
Another Flash game called Spent challenges you to live on a low income, taking key decisions and seeing the impact of those. One player I spoke to described the game as depressing, but it clearly made an impact on her, and even though she didn’t think it was fun to play, she did think it was a worthwhile experience.
Games can be used to educate people about health too. The British Heart Foundation created a game called “Yoobot vs Yoonot” to teach teenagers the importance of good diet and exercise. In the game, players create a character that looks like them and choose the food it eats and how much exercise it performs. The game shows the health impact of the chosen lifestyle, and encourages young people to take responsibility for their own health.
It might seem odd to say it, but these games point to the conclusion that games don’t necessarily have to be fun. They can be satisfying, educational, illuminating.
They can challenge our beliefs, our politics, our lifestyles. The worlds of film and literature have taken their medium seriously for a long time now, but we’re just starting to get to a stage where game developers feel confident tackling ideas like poverty and health head-on.
There’s never been a better time to make games like this. If you want to change the world, an app is the ideal conduit for your ideas. People have the app habit, and regularly look for interesting new software for their devices. Many people spend more time interacting with their computer than they do reading newspapers, watching TV or listening to the radio. People are more receptive to interactive experiences, and are more likely to remember them, too.
Through the Intel AppUp developer program, you can distribute your app for free to Windows-based computers all over the world, or you could sell it to raise funds for your cause. One app at a time, one player at a time, you have the power to transform lives. Could your next game idea change the world?