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How commercial games can engage players in social causes

Video games designed for commercial purposes can act as a springboard for engaging players in social causes, according to a panel of developers who recently spoke at the Games for Change Festival in New York.

The developers explained that commercial games can benefit social causes through a number of ways, which range from surface-level partnerships with charities, to working with non-profit organizations to design game levels that have social benefits for the players.

One example the CEO of Direct Relief Thomas Tighe cited was the charity's partnership with social game developer Zynga. In this partnership, Zynga sold an in-game item in Mafia Wars, the proceeds of which went to Direct Relief's humanitarian medical aid program. The $6 special item sold more than 100,000 units, which resulted in more than $600,000 raised for Direct Relief.

Going deeper, CEO of Pixelberry Studios Oliver Miao spoke of how his studio's game High School Story resonated so much with victims of school bullying that it partnered with cyberbullying charity Cybersmile to design its cyberbullying quest-line.

"We've had messages directly from players where they had just helped someone reach out to Cybersmile because of our game, or some players were texting Cybersmile while they were on their roof because they were contemplating suicide," Miao said.

"Every week more than 100 players contact Cybersmile directly because of our game, and those are teens who are being bullied, are self-harming or considering suicide. So we wrote our cyberbullying quest-line with Cybersmile to make sure we were imparting the right messages from within our game."

The developers said gamemakers can leverage commercially successful games not only for their reach, but also for their inherently educational components.

Lead game designer of GlassLab Games Erin Hoffman said the studio saw the potential for education in EA's SimCity, so it sought to tap into that potential through SimCityEDU.

"Computers and video games have a history of teaching technology skills just by being the way they are, so to be able to get them into classrooms is a very powerful thing," she said. "I think you can make the argument that the new SimCity is the most sophisticated toy that's ever been developed, and it's just mesmerizing to look at and it's very real and empowering.

"[Because of that], we had the engagement of kids right away."