Cutting-Edge Games Fest Has Something New for a ‘Change’

“Jupiter & Mars” lets players control a virtual dolphin. | Image via playstation.com

BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | The Games for Change Festival has always been ahead of the game, in terms of the social impact of video games. Each year, its panelists and curators examine how games can be used to promote positive change in civics, education, and health. With its 15th installment taking place June 28-30, the festival looks back at its own history, while looking to the future.

Attendees will be able to play cutting-edge games and virtual reality, as well as see innovative technology at the festival’s marketplace — and in a new feature this year, fledgling game designers will be able to meet potential mentors in a “Mentor Lounge.”

Games for Change (G4C) is especially relevant this year, with one of the panels set to feature a discussion about the recent addition of “Gaming Disorder” to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Classification of Diseases. G4C was already planning on discussing the matter before the WHO made their decision to classify video game addiction as a disease.

This panel is taking a rounded view, according to G4C’s lead curator, Alexander King. “The reason we wanted to have it be a panel, specifically, is to hear about the issues and the different pros and cons,” King told us. “It’s not like [The WHO] are saying ‘Games are bad!’ and we’re going to discuss how they’re good. There are definitely some potential benefits to people taking gaming addiction seriously. But there is also some potential for overstep.”

King elaborated: “This is breaking news in the games and health world, so we wanted to bring together some people who could tell us what’s going on and help inform our audience.”

In addition to such hot topics, the festival will also have a set of “Well Played” panels that look in-depth at some older games, to measure their lasting effects. “At the 15th year,” King explained, “we wanted to include some programming that was critical assessment of things that happened, not things that are coming in the future.”

“Brain Age” is a venerable Nintendo franchise, and one of the early games that was thought to benefit the mental health of players. They’re entertainment puzzle games, but some neuroscientists claimed that playing them could help fight dementia and other conditions. Thirteen years after their launch, a “Well Played” panel will evaluate the series’ legacy.

“September 12,” a 2003 indie game that was made to examine wars in the Middle East, also gets its own “Well Played” panel. In it, players fire missiles into a virtual town to blow up terrorists hiding among civilians. It’s impossible to not incur some degree of “Collateral Damage,” and the game proposes that brute force can never stop terrorism.

“September 12” was released the year of the first Games for Change Festival. | Image via gamesforchange.org

“It’s curious, what [September 12] means to us today,” King pointed out, “looking at it as a historical artifact… and how it stands on its own merits, stripped of that context.” Is this an all-time classic, or is it of its time? King wondered. “What does ‘September 12’ tell us about the games for change that we’re making today? In 10 years, will they be historical artifacts, or things that speak across the ages?”

Even some of the big commercial game franchises are included in the festival’s mission. “Assassin’s Creed: Origins” is set in ancient Egypt, and the recent “Discovery Tour” content pack for it lets players explore the historical setting in an educational manner.

The developers of the “Assassin’s Creed” games will be doing a keynote address about the project as part of the Games for Learning Summit at G4C. We spoke to Rebecca Rufo-Tepper who co-curates the educational programming along with Arana Shapiro. She explained that “Assassin’s Creed: Origins” is “an entertainment game, but it is educational. Even though its main goal wasn’t necessarily to be used in schools, but it actually is a game that has been used in classrooms to impact learning engagement.”

The new “Assassin’s Creed” game adds educational elements to its historically accurate adventures. | Image courtesy of Games for Change

Rufo-Teppler also noted there has been “a movement in the past 10 years around teachers using games that weren’t originally designed in an educational context… The more engaged you are, the more you learn, because engagement is part of learning.”

New to this year’s festival is a full-day event (Sat., June 30) devoted to Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. The “X” in XR for Change stands for the combination of “Virtual” and “Augmented.” While VR has been growing in popularity, Augmented Reality, which uses “smart glasses” to superimpose content over the real world, has been lagging behind as an art form — until recently.

Ryan Seashore curated the XR for Change Summit. Although many of the projects deal with environmental issues, he said that this wasn’t a deliberate decision. “It was just some of the most stunning, breathtaking, amazing work that we came across were focusing on [the environment],” he told us.

Among the 360-degree VR movies are ones that are shot in the middle of real wildfires, or underwater with sharks, and on the edge of glaciers that are melting. The VR experiences also include a dolphin simulator, and a separate mermaid sim, which both deal with environmental matters.

“She Flies By Her Own Wings” is one of several VR films shot in 360 degrees. | Image via oculus.com

One of the unique things about a VR experience is that it can literally give the user the POV of another person. Among the empathy-generating projects at XR for Change is one that put players in the shoes of a TSA agent (“Terminal 3”). Seashore also recommends attendees experience “She Flies By Her Own Wings,” which he describes as being about “a transgender service member… It gives a window into another situation that people wouldn’t normally be aware of.”

Many of the projects seen at G4C will be available to download after the festival ends, and some are on virtual shelves right now. People who miss the festival can also keep an eye out for their year-round Student Challenge, which runs in several cities, including New York.

The Games for Change Festival happens June 28–30 at the Parsons School of Design at The New School (66 Fifth Ave., at E. 13th St.). Festival passes for individual days or the entire event range from $179—$499. Special discounts for nonprofit employees, educators, students, and indie developers. Our readers can get a 20 percent discount by using the code NYCCM18. Visit gamesforchange.org, call 212-242-4922, or email festival@gamesforchange.org. Social Media: #G4C18.

“Terminal 3” puts players in the role of a TSA agent who screens travelers. | Image via gamesforchange.org

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