31 Jan 2017

Video game changers

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:10 pm on 31 January 2017

The first things that spring to mind when video games are mentioned are seldom positive, more likely bloody gun battles on the battlefield, or the adventures of Mario trying to rescue the Princess Peach.

But what about aspiring leaders attempting to negotiate peace in the Middle East or young people with cancer understanding the battle going on in their bodies?

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Photo: Pexels

Asi Burak is a former Israeli army captain who has spent the last twelve years creating video games that encourage social change.

He has worked with the White House, NASA, World Bank and The United Nations chairing a group Games for Change.

He says he's seen the upside of time gaming time for teenagers and has co-authored a new book called Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World. 

He says games such as PeaceMaker, iCivics and Re-Mission help players interact and learn.

Peacemaker, a high level strategic game, he says offer players the chance to understand different perspectives.

“We believe empathy is crucial for the political discourse, and a lot of the games for change are being created around that principal, ‘how can we generate empathy and understanding’? Even if we speak about very thorny issues or disagreements.”

And he says evidence backs up the idea these games can change behaviour.

“People are actually taking action and can see consequences and this is something you don’t have if you watch a movie or read a book because you’re passive.”

Power Play book cover

Although there’s no point being pious, the games have to hold the attention, he says.

“It’s great that you have this do-gooding message but it needs to be fun, it needs to be engaging, it can’t be preachy. It can’t be too obvious a public service announcement it needs to give agency to the player.”

Video game iCivics was created in 2008 by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“She was very concerned about civic engagement and ignorance about how the government works,” Burak says.

“She thought she needed to start with kids, she looked at several ways to do it and stumbled upon video games and started a non-profit that created 19 of those games.”

Players can be the president or make laws or work in the court system and the games are so popular 50 percent of social studies teachers in the US play them.

Re-Mission he says has had significant results for children with cancer and helping them stick to medication routines.

“Many of those kids, even if they know rationally that they should take those drugs, they are not really feeling that war is going on in their body every day.

The game says ‘guys this is a battle we give you the ammunition and if your army doesn’t have ammunition you’re going to lose this battle’”.