If you’re like many Americans, you spent part of your Christmas holiday playing with your Wii, Xbox360, PlayStation 3, or Nintendo—or know someone who did. According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, by 2008 more than half of American adults played video games. (And all that gaming, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, consumes as much energy as does San Diego in a year.) As digital culture expands, so do opportunities for diversion.
But what if these forms of immersive entertainment are good for you, helping you develop cognitive skills—even helping you do your job better? And what if you, too, can learn how to develop “serious” games—e.g., games that do good? The growing field of game development, while still aimed primarily at young people, offers intriguing possibilities for adults facing workplace challenges—such as better stakeholder engagement, sustainability reporting, and board representation.
Increasingly, researchers, game designers, software manufacturers, educators, companies, and policymakers agree: “Serious games” can be fun while promoting purposeful learning, engagement, and positive social impact across a range of categories. Even Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has joined the bandwagon, spearheading an online interactive game called iCivics that helps teach students how to actively participate in our democracy. But AMD Foundation‘s Changing the Game education initiative goes one step further. Its Activate! platform, launched last June, helps teens 13 to 15 move from “players” to “producers” who design and program video games with social content in areas such as energy and the environment. AMD – along with other tech firms such as Mozilla Labs and Microsoft – supports independent game development, well-suited to the widespread use of smartphones, iPads, and other mobile devices.
Youth game design offers many educational benefits, according to Ward Tisdale, AMD’s Director of Global Community Affairs, while providing a vital means for building knowledge, opening opportunities, and improving the world. “We think this is an effective way for kids to learn, particularly in the STEM area,” Tisdale said, referring to the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math. “Games provide a great way to learn in general, but game development teaches the value of systems thinking.”
AMD backs this belief with its partnerships with Parsons The New School for Design, Games for Change, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGCA). The design for Activate! took about a year, following the successful launch of the BGCA Game Tech program, part of its “Club Tech” initiative that promotes technology literacy and access. Both Activate! and Game Tech build upon the Scratch computer programming language (downloadable, free of charge) developed at MIT to encourage young people to create interactive stories, games, animations, art, and music.
Game Tech adds a social component, teaching players to solve real-world problems, “such as saving energy, or reducing poverty, or helping the environment,” Tisdale writes on AMD’s Corporate Responsibility blog. “So not only are your kids learning STEM skills, they’re become better citizens in the process.
Outside the US, AMD is testing youth game development in Malaysia, Germany, and Canada, Tisdale said, as well as exploring sustainability game development within the US. The longer term goal: collaborate with school districts to foster innovation and education. To this end, AMD will again sponsor Game On! Texas, a symposium that brings together thought leaders and educators to discuss video game education in the state. The 2011 event features Justice O’Connor and Warren Spector, Creative Director & General Manager of Disney Interactive Studios’ Junction Point (Spector produced Epic Mickey).
With all this going on, perhaps it’s time for some innovation and education within the sustainability ecosystem, drawing initially on Gamemaker, GameStar Mechanic, Activate!, and Scratch. Imagine that: a multiplayer online game involving board elections, a whistleblower, or stakeholder engagement. The possibilities are endless.
Author’s Note: In this instance, as in previous Posts, the term “gaming” applies to immersive experiences that entertain, educate, and engage. We make this distinction because there’s another, more insidious meaning: playing games of chance for money. The gambling industry has perfected the art of preying for profit on human vulnerabilities through the use of game technology. We abhor these predatory bait and switch practices, and hope you appreciate the difference.