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The game industry has a growing number of festivals that tackle issues such as diversity, like the Game Devs of Color Expo and the GaymerX Convention, but the Games for Change Festival is still the only one that focuses solely on social and educational impact in games. Now in its 14th year, the event is prepping for its July 31 to August 2 run in New York City. As in the past, it will feature panels and demos examining the intersection of games and other fields such as neuroscience and public policy, as well as awards for innovative and impactful titles.

“Our mission is to support and empower game creators and innovators to drive change in games,” said Susanna Pollack, the president of Games for Change, in a phone call with GamesBeat. “We’ve found over the last 14 years we’ve been running the festival that we have a growing community of participants in this space, ranging from both game designers and game developers making great content, but also a community of researchers, scientists, academics, and more and more nonprofits and government agencies and brands that see the value games have inside and outside their individual domains.”

Games for Change started in 2004 and is a nonprofit organization that holds events and competitions, such as its student challenge, throughout the year. Its annual festival’s talks are organized into four different verticals: Neurogaming and Health, Civics and Social Issues, Games for Learning Summit, and the Virtual Reality for Change Summit.

This year, the Games for Learning Summit’s cohosts are Microsoft and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which runs the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo game-industry show. Pollack says that the partnership with Microsoft will materialize in a kind of “hack jam” (hackathon and game jam) centered around Minecraft: Education Edition, the educational version of the hit open world sandbox that’s available for an annual fee of $5 per user. Ahead of the festival, developers from Microsoft will work with teachers to create lessons and educational exercises using the game. The materials created will be available online for other teachers to use.

“It’s curricula made by teachers and partnered with teachers that other teachers can use. It’s a really interesting model,” said Pollack. “We’re super excited to have teachers and developers together for a whole day session before the festival begins, and then at the festival we’ll be featuring work that comes out of that program.”

Another game jam ahead of the festival brings together neuroscientists and VR developers. Organized through a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, it’s part of the Neurogaming and Health vertical and will investigate how VR can be used to tackle challenges in, for example, cognitive development.

This the first year the festival will have a VR for Change Summit track. The panels will cover topics such as the future of journalism, empathy, and other various issues. Attendees can try out some VR experiences as well, such as Across the Lines. Its presenter is Planned Parenthood, and it puts viewers in the shoes of someone who has to walk through a protest to go into a clinic.

Pollack says that presenting diverse stories and voices is top of mind for the planning committee, inviting speakers and showcasing work that ranges from small independent projects to larger projects that are funded by institutions.

“We did make a big effort to identify women and people from diverse backgrounds to present at the festival,” said Pollack. “We feel like this is a platform that allows and encourages people from different communities and backgrounds to present.”

Last year, around 900 people attended the festival, which Pollack says started as an extremely small, mainly academic discussion of how games can intersect with different sectors. Now, she says, the festival is seeing more interest from the broader commercial games industry. Ubisoft, for instance, is giving a talk along with the health startup Amblyotech Inc. about Dig Rush, a game they collaborated on that helps treat lazy eye. Last year, Take-Two Interactive and Firaxis Games presented CivilizationEDU, a version of the classic Sid Meier’s Civilization designed specifically for schools.

“There’s an established business model that works very well for triple-A game developers, but we’ve been working and developing relationships to bring them more into our community and see the power they have participating in the creation of products and projects that could have a significant impact,” said Pollack.

Earlier this week, Games for Change announced the finalists for its annual contest. They are:

Best Gameplay

  • Minecraft: Education Edition (Mojang)
  • Sea Hero Quest (Glitchers)
  • Tracking Ida (Lishan AZ)

Most Innovative

  • Epistory – Typing Chronicles (Fishing Cactus)
  • Everything (David OReilly)
  • Pry (Tender Claws)

Most Significant Impact

  • Liyla and the Shadows of War (Rasheed Abueideh)
  • Walden, A Game (USC Game Innovation Lab)
  • Minecraft: Education Edition (Mojang)

Best Learning Game

  • 1979 Revolution: Black Friday (Ink Stories)
  • Dragonbox Big Numbers (WeWantToKnow)
  • At Play in the Cosmos (Jeff Bary and Adam Frank)

Correction, 9:27 a.m., Pacific: Minecraft: Education Edition is not free; it’s available for an annual fee of $5 per user. The Games for Learning hack jam will be in partnership with Microsoft developers, not MinecraftEdu developers.

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