How video games can create real-world impact

Kids -- and plenty of young-at-heart adults -- love video games. Targeting a captive audience, Area/Code uses fun and flashy games to tackle such real-world topics as debt and even crossing the street.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

Kids -- and plenty of young-at-heart adults -- love video games. Targeting a captive audience, the New York City company Area/Code uses fun and flashy games to tackle such real-world topics as debt and even crossing the street.

I spoke last week with Kati London, vice president and senior producer at Area/Code, about how games can create real-world impact.

Why do you use games to teach real world skills?

We use games to engage with the real world. It's not always a didactic teaching of skills through games. That's an important difference. We started out making games that were played on the streets running around. It's important to remember that games can look like and feel like many different things from baseball to a mobile game on your phone.

Games are dynamic systems that players live inside. Instead of describing a complicated system, like debt, and people tuning out from the complexities of it, you can put people inside that system. [You can] give them the opportunity to play in different roles that they wouldn't have the opportunity to play at in real life, to take that risk that you don't have the capital to take in real life and experience the effects.

[Games] are stylized systems of social interaction, so they involve social mechanics. You're translating complex systems into social systems [so] people can try out different things and can fail. We don't want to fail in real life. A game space is a great safe space for people to try and fail and learn. There's all that great reinforcement internally, socially, reputation-wise. There's collaboration [and] cooperation.

Your Power Planets game seems like an interesting way to teach people about the environment. Talk about how it works and what you hope people get out of it.

Power Planets was commissioned by Science Channel. It was designed in conjunction with the television event Powering the Future. That show was about the future of energy and resource production. What we were hoping to do with Power Planets was take that idea and give people the ability to play with it on their own. In Power Planets, you're managing your own little planet. You can invest funds in researching new technologies. You're making choices about what sorts of technologies to use to power your planet and what kind of housing and manufacturing are required to sustain the planet. After a period of about two days, the planets get passed on. That's an accelerated multi-generational effect. It's hard to think about your great-grandchildren, but if we're passing those generations on through friends and can have a discourse about it on Facebook, it's a fun and accessible way to have those conversations.

Talk about the game, Code of Everand, meant to help children in the United Kingdom cross the street more safely.

The [U.K.] government came to us and said the highest at-risk group [for being killed or seriously injured while crossing the street] are nine to 13-year-olds. [The government was] really interested in using a game for this purpose. We did multiple rounds of testing with children throughout the U.K. to get their feedback and we continue to update the game. It's available online.

In the game, [the player is] a hero character. [Your] role is to cross this very dangerous land. As you traverse the world, you're required to go through crossings, which replace what typically in a game of this sort would be a battle. Instead of slaying a monster, your action is to look right and left and assess the dangers and then to choose from your contraptions and skills to determine what you need to [traverse the crossing]. The game is designed [to make] sure players are going through as many crossings as possible.

If players play a game over and over again, they dream in that game and start to see it in life around them. This is not a direct simulation. It's a metaphor. The idea is, when I'm in the real world [at a crossing], I have this subtle, unconscious reinforcement of looking right, looking left, assessing danger.

Are most of your games for children?

The majority of the games we do have been for adults. We have a bunch coming up. One launching in October is for Macon, Georgia. Through the Knight Foundation, we're designing and developing games for multiple American cities. They're designed to deal with local issues. The project in Macon is called Macon Money. The goal of a game there is to drive community engagement.

Macon is a fairly impoverished community. They have a great university there called Mercer. We found there was a pretty substantial disconnect between the university community and the rest of the downtown community. We've created this game designed to connect local people to each other and local businesses. It does this using a local currency.

Players sign up to get Macon Money bonds. Each bond has more than one match. We will distribute the bonds in a way such that someone who is a resident in the Mercer community would need to reach out to somebody in the downtown community to find their match. When you find your match, you go to the game's headquarters, which is a physical location, and that bond is worth Macon Money. Those bills can be used at local businesses. Bonds might be worth $10 or $100. There's quite an incentive to step out of your comfort zone. In turn, you're rewarded with money that goes back into the community, but also introduces you to a host of goods and services and proprietors that you might not have known.

Image: Kati London

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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