Where is the AAA Social Impact Game?

By Sara Winegardner

American University

Washington, DC – When the average person thinks about the videogame industry, flashy images from first-person shooters and action-packed experiences are the first to enter their minds.

No one imagines being placed in the shoes of an individual living with a low income, or in those of a family struggling with their infant son’s cancer diagnosis.

While fantastical adventures and tactical shooters continue to stand at the forefront of the industry, a segment of the gaming space deserving mass attention remains in the shadows, waiting for its time to shine. This segment includes the games created for social impact.

Created to serve a higher purpose than merely entertaining audiences, these games are used as tools to drive conversation and action. Rather than serving as virtual escapes from the real world, players must often confront the problems those around the globe are facing on a daily basis.

Lindsay Grace, the founder and director of the American University Game Lab and Studio, sees the medium of gaming as a unique platform through which people can make positive change in their world, making it the focus of his career as a designer as well as a key component of his program at AU.

“It’s not just about employing engagement strategies in games, but it’s actually about trying to make the world a better place through game design,” Grace said.

Although a few projects have broken through to receive critical recognition, barriers continue to exist that block games for impact from becoming commercial successes and household names.

Grace, whose game designs have been honored by a number of organizations and conferences supporting this subcategory within gaming, sees inherent differences between the typical AAA title’s development and that of games for impact that are, and will continue to be, what keep the genre from expanding beyond its niche audiences.

“The social impact game space is always going to struggle the same way that a documentary is going to struggle,” Grace said. “When you’re comparing yourself to what we call AAA games that are the equivalent of a Hollywood film, the lure is different.”

While there are some examples of AAA games tackling historical reenactments and the like, Grace argues that recent growth in the social impact space can be attributed to independent games that are made by small teams with tight budgets, targeting very specific audiences very well and owning those spaces.

However, other industry players see a future where these games with a higher purpose begin to rise to the level of more popular AAA titles, especially with games like That Dragon, Cancer, which tells the story of a family dealing with the terminal cancer diagnosis of their young son, receiving recognition at the Game Awards 2016 and the Games for Change Awards 2016.

Susanna Pollack, president of Games For Change, a not-for-profit organization working to “empower game creators and innovators to drive real-world impact using digital games,” has hope for a future rise in the popularity of games with a greater social mission following attention surrounding critical darlings like That Dragon, Cancer.

“I think that what we’re seeing is that there is more of an acceptance of smaller titles with different modes of experiences that may not have the production values or the typical kind of gameplay that would attract the more commercial critical eye,” Pollack commented.

“I’m very encouraged to think that more titles like That Dragon Cancer and that are made by independent studios will bubble up to receive attention from more of the larger game categories or awards ceremonies.”

Although independent studios are beginning to see more success, there is still the question as to how to create the first AAA social impact game backed by a major distributor like Sony or Microsoft, something that Pollack referred to as the “million dollar question.”

“Games that are now ubiquitous in our society have this fantastic opportunity to bring some of these strong messages and learning opportunities to a society that’s spending a significant of time playing games,” Pollack said, encouraging a bridging of the gap between AAA franchises and social messaging.

Both Grace and Pollack noted that the greater accessibility into the profession of game design, as well as a greater number of game design programs, could be the key to creating the next big game for change.

“To have an opportunity to inform these game developers that the work that they’re doing doesn’t have to fit solely in the entertainment space, that there are real societal benefits that can happen through game making… That’s where I think we have a big win,” Pollack said.







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