The 2018 Games for Change Festival wrapped up its 15th annual event in New York over the weekend. Its celebration of the social impact of games caught its hometown’s attention, leading the New York City mayor’s office to proclaim June 28 to be Games for Change Day. However, the organization’s work extends beyond just that one day and the festival.

The nonprofit Games for Change runs the event, which features different tracks like Neurogaming and Health, Games for Learning, Civics and Social Issues, and XR, which includes virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. Aside from its festival, the organization is active all year round, hosting programs that help students in public middle and high schools learn how to code and make games.

The Games for Change Student Challenge is in its third year, and it’s available in Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Pittsburgh. It partners with local companies, like General Motors Corporation in Detroit and Pittsburgh and Riot Games in L.A., and tries to address the different needs and challenges of various schools.

“We designed this program that not only gave youth an opportunity to design video games, but we added a twist. They have to be games about impact,” said Games for Change president Susanna Pollack in an interview with GamesBeat. “We provide the social impact themes, the active prompts, and we offer a game design curriculum for schools so they can run a 20-week course. Through this program we have kids learning how to make games, developing 21st-century skills, STEM skills, and exploring what game design is all about. We have a generation of gamers, and now we’re making them creators and designers, empowering them.”


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The Student Challenge’s themes have covered topics like news literacy and wildlife preservation. It’s an approach that other programs have taken as well, like NuVu Studio, whose students put out a game earlier this year about the Catalan Independence Movement. Pollack calls it “project-based learning,” using games as an entry point to exploring other issues.

Based on her experience, more people than ever are interested in creating games for impact or giving back to communities.

“On the impact side, I honestly feel that we’re reaching a point where there are two cultural shifts, two coming of age moments for people interested in social responsibility. You have a younger generation who I think are growing up feeling like they have a place in this world and they have a responsibility to this world, and they want to give back and have an impact. There’s that generation coming up,” said Pollack. “Then I think you have an established generation of people in the games industry all over the world who are coming to a certain age, where they’re realizing that they want to have an impact on the world. Maybe they’re having kids and seeing that they want to give back. They want their kids to live in a better world than they grew up in.”

That cultural shift may be one of the reasons why Pollack is interested in including more esports in Games for Change’s agenda. She says she’s exploring it for next year’s festival, and had some speakers talk on the subject at this year’s event as well.

“How do [students] learn about all aspects of the games they love? There are some interesting things happening already in high school and middle school with esports,” said Pollack. “We actually talk about that at the festival a bit. We’re having a group from UC Irvine come and talk about research they’re starting to do. They’re starting an esports league for high schools in Orange County, and they’re going to do some research around the social and emotional skills that kids learn — anyone learns, really — from being part of a team. It’s not just about physical sports teams. There are the benefits that being on a team that plays these sports has on character building and communication and collaboration.”

Pollack says she sees a lot of opportunity in esports, especially because it’s a newer space that skews toward a younger demographic. If Games for Change got in early, it might be able to help “develop an inclusive and diverse and non-toxic environment” for everyone involved.

This speaks to the power of games. Though many of the games and experiences featured at the Games for Change Festival are geared toward exposing attendees to different perspectives — Asad Malik’s augmented reality project Terminal 3, for instance, puts players in the shoes of a U.S. customs officer — that’s not the only thing the event does. It also looks at ways to expand and improve the ecosystem, and it examines how games are a multifaceted medium that extend beyond just the screen.

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