Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock has a lot of experience with educating people through entertainment, and he gave a keynote address at Games for Change today to discuss the potential of entertainment to produce activism and effect change. Spurlock is the director of films such as 2004's Super Size Me, which examined America's obsession with fast food, and 2011's The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which focused on brand marketing and product placement. It's crucial, he said, to make your message palatable and make it available to as many people as possible.
"There's a chance to use entertainment for good," said Spurlock, addressing a crowd of educators, students and game developers at Games for Change in New York. He noted that creative people can begin with a big educational idea — such as highlighting the ill effects of unhealthy eating or explaining why a higher minimum wage is necessary — but ultimately, it's very difficult to anticipate how your work will be received.
Early in his half-hour talk, Spurlock presented an excerpt from Super Size Me in which he had asked a young student about the meager, unhealthy hot lunch provided by their school. Later in the clip, a school official dismissed Spurlock's concerns about the school's lack of nutritious meals. Following Super Size Me's release, Spurlock heard of eighth-grade students who saw the film and became activists for healthier meal options at their school. Spurlock hadn't expected that result.
"You can hope to effect change, but you need to plan for impact," said Spurlock. And the best way to guarantee a high impact is to go big: "The greatest thing you can do, if you want to effect change, is make it accessible to everyone."
Sometimes that means carpet-bombing every U.S. state legislator with an episode of a documentary TV show, Spurlock's 30 Days on FX, about the inadequacies of the minimum wage. Sometimes it means partnering with brands like General Electric to create short films that highlight the incredible work being done by cancer researchers. Sometimes it means putting up 20 short films for free online to educate people about the economy.
"How do we reach as many people as possible?" said Spurlock of the guiding principle behind these decisions. "For us, it was about a return on education much more than a return on investment."
Spurlock then moved to the topic of educational games, which he likened to documentaries in that they can entertain while educating — that they can provide an answer the question, "How can we make ... medicine taste like cotton candy?" He pointed to Zombies, Run!, the 2012 mobile fitness video game from London-based studio Six to Start, as a great example of an experience that is fun and also requires players to exercise. The series' latest iteration, 2014's Zombies, Run! 3, costs $3.99 on Android and iOS.
Creating entertainment with a mission to educate is vital, said Spurlock. But furthermore, "The greatest thing that you can do is to have it in the hands, the hearts and minds of your audience."