As video games have matured over the years, its reach has increased significantly, offering unprecedented opportunities to affect a diverse and global audience.
At the same time, the pace at which the internet can highlight tragedies and injustice in the world has set the stage to use that audience to enact a positive impact on the state of the world. How are games doing this today, and how could they deliver a lasting impact?
In-game fundraising provides the most obvious, short-term opportunity to target gamers who might not otherwise consider donating to a charity. It can help raise funds for a concrete, immediate project and works particularly well when tied to the purchase of a free-to-play item type that the user is already familiar with. While expanding over the last few years, this type of sponsored model is still infrequently used and doesn’t allow a charity to establish a lasting relationship with the donor, due to app store or publisher restrictions.
Rather than immediate donations tied to an item purchase upfront, other charities choose to raise awareness of an issue and set the foundation for a longer-term relationship. Provided the publisher is keen on them leaving their game, a charity will have more of a player’s attention and space available to highlight their cause on a web page they can control and update.
Even if they can’t get them to follow them on social media or get them to subscribe to a mailing list, allowing them to spread their message to people’s social circle will further their reach better than individual IAPs.
Such awareness-building may even take alternative game-like forms and not be directly tied to a charity, like the BBC’s Syrian Journey interactive story about the plight of migrants from a war-torn country.
And yet all of these cases are carefully planned projects with a number of dependencies that took time to plan out. Campaigns like this represent a fraction of the $350bn raised for charity in 2014 alone. Donations alone may also not be the only way games can affect change.
I would argue that the most impactful way games can improve the world is by changing longer-term behaviour and mindset. Consider a generation of kids growing up and playing Minecraft, collaborating together in a shared world with other players and finite resources. These values will shape character traits that can transcend gaming and lead to a more inclusive approach to the world around them.
A study in the Journal of Adolescent found that kids who play games ‘reported higher levels of family closeness, activity involvement, attachment to school and positive mental health’. Game designer Jane McGonigal believes harnessing some 21bn hours of gameplay a week can lead to real world improvements.
Games also strengthen problem-solving skills and reward players for researching new solutions when you’re stuck playing them. As players learn the value of seeking out new info, they’ll apply it to non gaming issues too, and increase their understanding of the world.
There will always be the need for short term aid and traditional fundraising to alleviate a current crisis, but I believe true change will come from shaping habits that ultimately benefit the world, and gaming can be a part of that. Changing the world starts one gamer at a time.