How social impact gaming can help nonprofits reach higher levels
What’s the best way to reach young people (or anyone, for that matter)? Meet them where they are. And if you’re trying to connect with teenagers, that often means via the bits and bytes of video, mobile, and online games.
But most nonprofits, government agencies, and funders lack the experience, organizational flexibility, or risk tolerance to develop effective, compelling games.
Enter Games for Change (G4C), a New York–based nonprofit that acts as a catalyst for the creation of high quality, high-impact educational, health, and social impact games. They’re pushing the social impact gaming field forward—and they partner with organizations like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to help create change through games.
Sex education and video games seem made for each other…or at least, to a foundation willing to experiment with nontraditional avenues of targeting audiences, they do.
At the Packard Foundation, they believe that reproductive health information and services are fundamental to the well being of women and young people. Their work in the U.S. seeks to advance reproductive health and rights for women and young people by improving access to quality comprehensive sexuality education, voluntary family planning/contraception and safe abortion care.
The Foundation decided it would be an interesting experiment to connect interested grantees with the world of social impact gaming.
“The groups we support, and the reproductive rights movement overall, need more creative ways of doing advocacy and communications,” said Lana Dakan, program officer at the Packard Foundation. “Innovation is key to changing the conversation.”
In 2013, the Foundation partnered with G4C—right as the social impact gaming industry was starting to explode. The partnership not only supported Population and Reproductive Health grantees in exploring a new medium for communications, it also supported G4C at a crucial moment in the gaming nonprofit’s history.
The goals of the project:
Provide the Packard Foundation’s Population and Reproductive Health grantees with an ability to experiment with games and game thinking.
Explore the role that social impact games can play in supporting the goals and strategies of the Population and Reproductive Health program—and other issues of high priority for the Packard Foundation.
Support the fledgling field of social impact gaming and G4C. Help G4C and the industry by funding research for a landscape report that answers the key question: How can digital games change social behavior for the better?
In 2013, Games for Change hosted a high-level professional development workshop for eight of the Packard Foundation's Population and Reproductive Health grantees. The workshop walked the organizations through the principles of game theory and helped them develop a smart chart for a game, akin to a communications strategy.
Over the course of the workshop, all eight organizations developed ideas for games that they felt would help them reach their audiences and advance their programmatic goals in some way. G4C picked one organization’s—Answer’s—idea for a game and hosted a public design competition, inviting agencies and game developers from around the world to submit proposals inspired by the idea.
Answer provides sex education training for teachers and also runs a website called Sex, Etc., which provides comprehensive sex ed information by teens, for teens. They were interested in creating a safe sex awareness game aimed at teens between the ages of 13 and 19. Their idea called for a web-based game that would motivate teens to explore sexuality, give them a safe environment to experiment, and help them understand what behaviors are healthy.
The Game Design Competition drew 64 entries from around the world that reflected Answer’s vision.
At the 2013 Games for Change Festival, the top 3 finalists presented their designs. A jury of game experts chose the winning design team and they were awarded a cash prize of $35,000.
G4C and the Packard Foundation felt that the experiment successfully helped grantees better understand the potential of social impact games. In 2015, they replicated the workshop.
Many of the Population and Reproductive Health grantees that participated in the first workshop had been excited about the possibilities of games. But after the workshop, they didn’t have support in developing the projects. Games are extremely complicated to make—they require not just an idea, but also a team of experts, designers and developers (much like a website or a mobile app). These small nonprofits didn’t have the capacity to pursue their ideas.
So for the second grant, instead of a design competition which could only advance one organization’s idea, G4C and the Packard Foundation offered the Population and Reproductive Health organizations a mentorship package—essentially, one-on-one consulting—to help them figure out how to put their visions into action after the workshop.
The Packard Foundation’s Population and Reproductive Health grantees now have working knowledge of the social impact gaming industry. They’ve been exposed to a new tool and are connected to an organization that can help them figure out how best to use that tool if they so choose.
To date, none of the organizations have developed a social impact game past the prototyping stages—they have not yet successfully used games to advance the mission of improving reproductive health knowledge, services, and rights for women and young people. It’s difficult for any game-maker to get any type of game to the public. Not only are there market forces at play, but there are also technical challenges that impede building even the most consumer-friendly games.
This grant was primarily focused on exploring games as a potential new communications tool for Population and Reproductive Health organizations. It was intended as a small step in the right direction—an information-gathering mission—and in that, it succeeded.
G4C has experienced remarkable growth in the last few years, and the social impact game industry has gained attention and momentum.
The Packard Foundation was on the cutting-edge of the philanthropy sector, one of the first to explore how to use social impact games to advance programmatic goals.
“The aim of this grant was to try and educate ourselves about the potential of this medium,” said Kathy Reich, Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the Packard Foundation. “The role of philanthropy in this is to at least ensure our grantees and our program staff have some basic understanding of gaming, who is using it, and what it might offer or imply for strategy.”
Production quality matters.
Experimentation helps everyone.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Playing is hard work.
Games must be entertaining and well designed in order to succeed. That doesn’t mean games always have to be light-hearted. But if a game isn’t appealing in some way, your audience won’t stick around long enough to learn whatever social messages you’re trying to impart. It’s the same thing with communications—to rise above the noise, to catch your audience’s attention, you have to create the right product.
“Games don’t always have to be fun, they just have to be immersive, like a book,” Dakan said. “They have to be an experience.”
Experimenting with nontraditional channels of communication has a ripple effect. It can advance your program objectives, contribute to organizational learning, and also support emerging social change movements.
G4C is a nonprofit, and they’ve benefited enormously from the Packard Foundation’s support. “The Packard Foundation grant opened a whole line of programming for our organization,” Burak said. “They gave us credibility in this field.”
“We introduce a decision-maker, many times a communications director, to a medium that’s the most dominant medium of the day, especially with the younger generation,” Burak said, explaining what happens during G4C’s workshops. “They go from complete doubt to really embracing it. My hope is that even if they don’t end up engaging in the full project, their perceptions of this medium are changed forever.”
Investing in contemporary goals requires investing in contemporary communications tactics. Whether it’s social media or impact games, organizations need to invest to keep up in a constantly changing landscape. If you want to be relevant, then make yourself relevant by engaging in forward-thinking ways. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.
Helping organizations develop new skill sets requires dedicated and consistent support, much as developing new programs does. While many of the grantees in the workshops have been excited by the possibilities of social impact games, they don’t yet have the resources to actually create games. The Packard Foundation and G4C are providing technical assistance to help them work towards game development.
Founded in 2004, Games for Change facilitates the creation and distribution of social impact games that serve as critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts. They bring together organizations and individuals from the social impact sector, government, academia, the gaming industry, and the arts to grow the field, incubate new projects, and provide an open platform for the exchange of ideas and resources.
They are the only nonprofit dedicated to uniting the various parties needed to create and distribute successful social impact games.