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“Can games have a real effect on society’s problems?”

December 3, 2007

Alvaro Cavalcanti posed this question in a comment elsewhere on my blog. I thought it was an important and interesting question, and I wanted to post it separately.

The context in which he asks the question is this:

… a brazilian designer, Fabio Lopez, has recently created a version of Risk (known as War here in Brazil) that takes place on the city of Rio de Janeiro instead of the entire world. The goal of his game was to generate discussion over Rio’s worst problem, the urban violence and the high murder rate due to the conflicts between the police and drug-dealing gangs. He designed every element of the game, from the board to the territory cards. The game’s blog URL is and you can find some photos there.

And here I leave a question: Can games have a real effect on society’s problems?”

Before I answer, and since I have morning Scrabulous games to attend to, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. jabberwookie permalink
    December 3, 2007 7:59 pm

    As much as I’d like to say otherwise, I don’t think that games can have a profound effect on society’s problems. They simply do not reach a large enough audience, and, in the case of War in Rio, it will not convey its message to the people who need to hear it. I don’t envision Rio gang members sitting around a table playing War in Rio. Along the same lines, I don’t foresee Janjaweed mercenaries playing Dying for Darfur.
    However, as Dying for Darfur proved, games are effective as social commentary and as tools for raising awareness. Depending on the level of publicity it receives, War in Rio can alert a wide audience of people to the violence in Rio de Janeiro. This will not solve Rio’s problems, but it might get the message out to people who can. At the very least, it will increase the number of people calling out for a change.
    Can a game like War in Rio have a real effect on society’s problems? Not really, but it’s a good place to start.

  2. December 3, 2007 9:36 pm

    Only to the extent that other popular media like music or movies can have an effect on society’s problems. Which is to say, absolutely, but they excel mostly at raising awareness.

    Some examples of games that are already affecting society, or at least trying to:

    Peacemaker (, a simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A challenging game in its own right, when you understand the mechanics you also understand the nature of the conflict and why it’s so difficult to resolve. This kind of understanding is the necessary foundation on which any kind of lasting peace must be built.

    A Force More Powerful (, a strategy game that teaches Ghandi-style passive resistance. I believe the developers were giving away free copies to any groups attempting to liberate their people from an oppressive regime, though I don’t know how exactly one would prove such a thing.

    McVideoGame ( I don’t know about anyone else, but I had a hard time eating fast food after playing this and realizing all of the unsustainable choices necessary to support the industry. It had a different impact than the movie “Supersize Me”, but still an interesting one.

    One could argue that Ultima IV, V and VI came dangerously close to starting a new religion based on 8 virtues, over 20 years ago. I could only imagine the impact those games would have if updated and re-released today, now that games are so pervasive in our culture.

    All of this is just the tip of the iceberg, really. As we learn more about the medium and what it’s capable of, I expect we’ll see some world-changing games during the course of our lifetimes. We might not have a game analogue of “Citizen Kane”, but we’ll certainly have one for “Fahrenheit 9/11”.

  3. December 4, 2007 2:26 am

    “Can games have a real effect on society’s problems?”

    No. YES! Well, maybe… err, maybe not…

    The industry is still a baby, and much more research and observations needs to be done on games and how these games interact, as a whole, with society.

    My initial thoughts lead me to think that they don’t. They, couldn’t. Games reach a lot of people, true. But, we have no idea how “THE GAME(S),” interact with the people IN the society, let alone how those people could possibly take those experiences and somehow cure the problems within society, or cause the problems within society.

    Critics argue that violent video games, for example, are the cause of increased aggression, therefor leading to mass killing sprees, among other crazy things. Through my short term doing research on violent games, I found way to many conflicting papers, which just points me into the direction of complexity.

    How can we truly identify what and how a game physically alters somebodies mind, to the point where they will act on what they’ve experienced in a fantasy world? Are FPS games real killing simulators, as some would argue? Do people really become numb after they’ve fragged 10,000 people in Halo, to the extent that they can now go kill somebody in cold blood because of that experience?

    This is all extremely difficult to say. I spent several months playing much more advanced “shooting simulators” in the Marines, and training hundreds of Marines on these simulators. I spent time in Iraq, and listened to stories, and walked the streets. I can’t say through any of this, that myself, or my comrades, after “training” on these simulators with the ‘specific’ intent on learning how to shoot/kill IF we needed to, ever made it any easier, or ever made us numb. I thank god I never had to, but those that I knew that did, never show signs of pleasure from it.

    If games were a killing simulator, then going to war would be easy as eating cake. But that is far from reality. I’ve played a LOT of games, and that adventure was a grueling experience.

    How about the other side, the non violent side.

    Could video games help urban kids, learn, grow, and provide opportunities of being an Astronaut, President, or whatever else they set their mind to? Thus leading to an improved society? Video games won’t be the answer to everything, but they could help — pending that the technology can get to them.

    Video games are a powerful learning tool, and if we can take advantage of this through swift and patient development of quality educational games it could help a society.

    You even showed signs of this yourself, when you went to a school to conduct a Game Design workshop. All they need is motivation, and I think games can give that. They’re fun, they allow people to be creative, and they get people away from the real world, which might not be exactly a bad idea.

    Case in point: Yes, No, Maybe… We just need more concrete evidence. Nothing out here has convinced me that video games can cure societal problems, nor can they inflict pain upon a society. Humans are complex, and with that, it’s hard to know the underlying issue of a person’s true motives and how a game really conflicts with them.

    Only time will tell, and sorry for making this comment so long. =X

  4. December 4, 2007 2:53 am

    “I can’t say through any of this, that myself, or my comrades, after ‘training’ on these simulators with the ’specific’ intent on learning how to shoot/kill IF we needed to, ever made it any easier, or ever made us numb.”

    Wow, David. Thanks for your post. That’s an amazing statement.

  5. playlater permalink
    December 4, 2007 6:56 am

    The question at hand is a great one, because even if video games right now can’t have a real effect on society’s problems, it might still get people thinking about how it could in the future.

    But whether games or not games have already had a “real” effect on society’s problems is hard to gauge. There are tons of games out there which have certainly raised awareness of issues, like that McDonald’s satire game. And raising awareness is a great help towards motivating real change. But the step from thinking about an issue to actually doing something is a big one, and we’ll probably never know if someone took action because of a video game unless the come right out and say it.

    I know that I’ve had actions influenced by words in a book, but the author will never know unless I send him a letter or whatever. So how could we know if this game or any other game of this sort has encouraged change or not for sure?

    And to say no, it doesn’t, out of hand is a poor choice because games have a unique way of making people think about things that other mediums simply don’t. To ignore that potential to do good things would be pretty stupid wouldn’t it? Games *do* have a chance to inform people that might not give a book the time of day, and that can only be a good thing. We should at least try, shouldn’t we?

  6. ThomasJLKastner permalink
    December 11, 2007 9:14 pm

    It would widely depend on what the situation society faces, the quality of the game, and the popularity of the game to the target audience.

    The situation society faces is extremely important. It really is the key factor on if an impact can be made or not. Is it a global or local issue? How many different sides are there to the argument? Are you familiar with the situation? Are you biased toward the solution to the problem? How important is the issue? Is the issue a well known issue?

    All these questions seem to be important ones when determining if you can make a game that will have some kind of impact on a problem with society and what that impact will be.

    Example, Climate change is obviously a global issue and a popular one at that. If you wanted to truly make an impact you’d have to be smart about it and not let your personal agenda get too much in the way. So if you wanted to include pollution producing factories but not volcanoes and other natural entities then you’d obviously limit your audience. You’d have to make the game fun but make it to where the player experiences the problem and comes away with some kind of new knowledge which means you have to really do your research.

    Elections are another thing that can be effected. Situations like elections are tricky especially in early stages. It requires constant updating or really excellent foresight. Excluding candidates, even if you don’t think they have a chance in hell, is foolish. Elections are meant to be fair and balanced so the game must reflect that. Unless of course the main goal of the game is to reflect how elections are not fair and balanced.

    Local issues seem to be the most difficult to make a game that will have some kind of impact. First you have a small audience and two you have to find a way to tell them that the game even exists and then inspire them to play it. That alone is a challenge and now you have to make a local problem into a interesting game with a strong statement. Because of these reasons I don’t think it is too probable that a game about a local situation would be a success.

    It is important to not be obviously biased in games. You can still reflect your side of the argument but I think its really lame to only see one side of the situation. It hurts your credibility and would either turn a player off or validate the players opinion on the topic. Either way you didn’t make an impact so you have to be open minded.

    If it is a well known issue you probably won’t have as strong of an impact if it is a lesser-known issue.

    Also it is important to know about the issue. Nothing is worse than being preached to by someone that had no idea what they are talking about. This kind of goes into the quality of the game issue. Obviously the game should be playable and fun.

    So enough of the ranting. Do I think that games can make a real impact on society? Absolutely. I think that games already DO make an impact on society.

    Have you ever learned anything from a game? I know I have learned tons from games. Civilization is one of those games that teaches you little tidbits of information constantly. Hangman was a fun way for me to learn how to spell words. Hell, when I was kept from being in class in high school I was keeping my brain sharp by playing Magic: The Gathering. For all I know if I had nothing to do I probably would have just dropped out. Dude, go back even farther in your memory. Did anyone play educational games in elementary school? I know I did. Teachers were always trying to create some fun way to present new information to us.

    Maybe we are over looking the real way to impact society. If you are looking to change the future you should be looking to educate the youth with games that are fun for them. Perhaps educational games that are extremely fun for children is the best way to truly make an impact on society. How could it not have an impact on society if the game was fun and really improved the intelligence of children?

  7. Ricky Rombo permalink
    September 24, 2008 7:27 pm

    When I play games that are in the strategy categorie, it gives my brain an exercise. But when I play goofy little arcade games and other games such as, say, Pacman World 2 or Star Wars Lego I’d say it’s just wasting my time. It;s like movies: You can watch The Kite Runner, or you can watch The Simpson’s Movie.

    Sometimes you might learn things from video games – in James Bond Goldeneye 007, I learned what covert means. When I was in 5th Grade, our computer teacher made us do a typing video game to improve our typing skills.

    But as much as we can learn and increase our knowledge, I don’t think video games have a very big impact on the society’s problems or helps solve things. But I also don’t think that violent video games make kids more prone to violence.

    However, I think that it might impact what kids do in their free time. Instead of roaming at night and thinking about what they should do, video games help them keep busy and not have time to break the law, And the Wii Fit system is helping families get in shape.

    Who knows?

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