Playing social change

Despite being interested from a distance for some time, we have only just started to explore the potential of gaming to affect social change and, like many before us, found this potential to be almost endless.

One of the influences behind this new work has been the opportunity to collaborate with Tom Chatfield, the author of Fun Inc – Why games are the 21st Century’s most serious business, amongst other things. I was at college with Tom (and he is still far, far cleverer than me) and we’ve ended up with the chance to work together ten years after graduating because of the growth of our Historypin project, which is perfectly placed for a whole load of playfulness in its next stages of development.

Beyond this Historypin work (which the Historypin blog will keep you posted on), we’re going to be applying some gaming principles to other social issues that we’re working on.

The first step of this work will be to make sure that we avoid the things that so often go wrong when gaming meets do-gooding and seeking out the right reasons and methods.

On the things to avoid side, you don’t have to look very far and the whole idea of edutainment has something odd at its core.

Firstly, it separates education and entertainment and appoints itself as an innovative meeting place for the two. But when has education ever been good without being entertaining?

Secondly, and mainly as a consequence of the first problem, it presents one activity as fun and the other as boring. So, the logic follows, you can start with some boring ingredients and add a few fun ingredients and end up with something palatable. Unfortunately, what you actually end up with is something clearly pretending to be fun and that children would happily eat their own fingers off to avoid having to “play”. As a result, edutainment crime rates climb every year.

On the flip side, you find the best examples of games with positive social and educational benefits where their creators haven’t separated the two. A lot of the time, they have simply set out to create something engaging, rewarding and intelligent and the incidental educational or socially positive benefits have flowed naturally from this.

Minecraft is a great example. I was introduced to the game by an 11 year old who, by sharing his love of the game, found himself sharing his sophisticated understanding of alloys, compounds and elements, as well as explaining the need for a subtle balance between competition and co-operation. Within formal education, teachers are exploring these features of the game and many more.

Minecraft, and other games like it, can achieve profound, progressive collateral effects on users and society because it is really good and people love it (over 21 million people in fact).

Setting out to create something that is really good and that people love is, as always, where we will start.

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Can Consumer Product Design Really Drive Systemic Social Change?

A recent Forbes piece by Ashoka’s Michael Zakaras takes product design to task as a source of transformational social change. To provide an antidote to the fashionable fascination with “things” as the answer to all our social ills, the article uses examples like Toms Shoes‘ one-for-one model and the distribution of mosquito nets as evidence that products normally fail to engage with the roots of complex social problems.

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