Changing the Game: Interview With Susanna Pollack of Games for Change


Last month, I had the chance to attend the annual Games for Change Festival. What I found at the festival was an interesting mix of games that didn’t adhere to conventional standards. Though some were mass-market titles, a great deal of the titles focused on things like education and raising awareness on social issues.

During my time at the festival, I got to chat with Susanna Pollack, who is the president of Games for Change. We spoke about the organization’s origins, its mission statement, and some of this year’s festival highlights. We also spoke about the different non-gaming entities affiliated with Games for Change and what folks can look forward to seeing in the near future.

How long has Games for Change been around?

We’ve been around for 15 years. Barry Joseph, Benjamin Stokes, and Suzanne Seggerman founded Games for Change in 2004. It was originally organized to bring people together who were interested in this concept that games could actually have an intentional purpose to improve our community or society in some way. It started off with forty people at a meet up in a conference room. Year on year, they’ve just been growing this community. It has grown into a conference that brings together over 1000 people interested in exploring and developing amazing games. It’s also a really interesting cross-sector community. We’ve got game developers, people who work in research and academia, tech companies, people who work at not-for-profits, foundations, policymakers, the government, brands. People love games, right? So they come from all different verticals and are finding ways to actually use this medium beyond just entertainment.

Can you talk about some games that really capture the spirit of what Games for Change is all about?

We gave an award to Ubisoft for industry leadership. [Ubisoft] also won Best Learning Game for Assassin’s Creed: Discovery Tour. I’m so pleased it won that category. What was exciting about how that evolved is we invited Ubisoft to join us at our very first Games for Learning summit five years ago. We wanted to include some industry partners who work in AAA games to understand that there are communities out there, particularly in the education space. Kids played the games which informally taught them about the world. Assassin’s Creed wasn’t an educational game. It’s just the authenticity and the accuracy of the research that went into making it has inadvertently gotten a generation of kids falling in love with world history.

When Ubisoft came to the conference five years ago we also, as part of our community, had educators and teachers that communicated how they’ve been trying to mod the game so it could be appropriate to bring into the classroom. They couldn’t bring it in the way it was because of the violence. We didn’t realize Ubisoft really heard them. [Ubisoft] allowed and empowered a team that created a version of the game that stripped out the violence. It provided educational opportunities that still had the fun of Assassin’s Creed as well as the gorgeous assets they created. Now they have a version that can go into the classroom.

Part of what we try to do is encourage the bigger studios to realize they have an incredible audience. Their reach is unbelievable. This form of entertainment is super dynamic and people love it. We want to apply some of those principles to education, to raising awareness around social issues. What we’re learning more and more, even in healthcare, is that games can actually change the way our cognitive brain works. We want to bring people together that can [make that happen].

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How do you advertise or let people know about games that don’t necessarily have mass-market appeal?

Honestly, that’s the challenge for any indie developer. It’s an added challenge if you have an impact game. Anyone interested in seeing an archive of some of the best social impact games we believe are out there can go to our website, gamesforchange.org. It has over 200 games (including past winners) and other games we think are exemplary.

Otherwise, the App Store and Google Play have the educational front. It doesn’t necessarily mean educational games. It could be apps. It’s a little bit of a problem because, unfortunately, they’re not curated and vetted in the same way an academic institution would [vet them]. You’re not quite sure what you’re going to get. But what I think is encouraging is these distribution channels are recognizing the categories are more than just travel apps or First Person Shooters, or Multiplayer games. Now if you go into the Google Play Store, they actually have a Social Good category, which is really cool.

We are making more of an effort to highlight these games. But at the end of the day, it comes down to savvy marketing, distribution, and user acquisition strategies. All the things an independent developer has (without going straight to businesses). There’s a whole industry of game designers and researchers who are making games and selling them to schools. They’re going straight to schools designing games with a core curriculum in mind. These games can work alongside an algebra lesson, which is great. That’s a great channel.

Then there are games and VR experiences we’re seeing for the healthcare sector. Games are being made to treat ADHD. Dr. Adam Gazzaley is a neuroscientist from UCSF. He has a lab called Neuroscape. He’s partnering with game developers in his lab to create games that can treat different mental health issues and cognitive issues. He has a game called Project Evo, which is one of the first games submitted to the FDA to treat ADHD in young kids. For the past three years, he has conducted clinical trials with young people with ADHD. Playing Evo for a period of time has rewired the way their brains were thinking. This helped some overcome the challenges they had with ADHD. If the FDA passes it, then we can start seeing digital medicine; where doctors can prescribe a video game instead of traditional pharmaceuticals.

FDA approved games. Digital medicine. Those aren’t terms one would expect to hear or even know exist.

I think it’s taking a while to get there because they need to do the research. You can’t just claim this will make you smarter. To have evidence-based research, they have to spend the time doing those randomized clinical trials. But there are other things we’re seeing too.

The University of Washington created this game called SnowWorld, and it’s a VR experience. Basically, you’re in a cold environment throwing snowballs at penguins while listening to Paul Simon. It sounds kind of silly and light-hearted, right? They found that if burn victims play this game while they’re having physical treatment in the hospital, they have a level of pain reduction that alleviates the need for more pain medication. I’m not a neuroscientist so I can’t quite describe what is happening in your brain. But through these trials, they’re showing that being in a VR headset playing a game — in this case in a cold environment — you’re distracted by throwing snowballs and listening to uplifting music. This actually redirects neurons in a way that registers pain. It’s incredible.

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How has the advent of VR changed things with Games for Change?

We saw that a few years ago a lot of the game developers in our community were looking at this new platform and started exploring that space. At the same time, we saw the big foundations and not-for-profits who have been using games to reach people also looking at this new technology and ways to connect people.

There are a lot of similarities between VR and AR that truly immerses you in an environment. It’s an alternative to achieving certain impact goals because that’s what we’re all about. It helps develop empathy and immersing yourself in role-playing. It also has a whole bunch of rehabilitation potential. We realized that — independent of us — our community was starting to explore this and that we [Games for Change] would be a good place to have that conversation.

What non-gaming related organizations has Games for Change worked with in the past?

Bringing new people into this world of gaming is probably the best part of my job. We had a keynote from UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Environmental Peace. They truly believe games can transform education. As such, they are launching a three-year program to help develop a community and portfolio of games that demonstrate games used effectively in learning. They would potentially distribute games all over the world to U.N. member countries. It’s mind-blowing what they might be able to achieve.

We’ve got people like that on the global level, which is incredible. We also have St. Jude’s Hospital thinking about making games. There’s also The Wildlife Federation, the federal government, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, the Department of Education. They’re all funding games. Not a lot of people know about it, but they’re all here.

Another cool thing is social impact investing. There’s this trend now in the investment community about intentional investments or intentional capital. People are making investments into companies that can do good; that can deliver on the double bottom line. They can make money, return the revenue for the investors, but they can also deliver measurable impact. We recently developed a relationship with a social impact investment group called i(x) investments. Howard W. Buffett (Warren Buffett’s grandson) partly founded it. This organization believes in the potential of games and XR for Change to drive impact and be a worthwhile investment from a financial perspective. We’re launching the Games for Change Accelerator, which is going to give funding, support, and programs to startups that are making games and XR projects that could deliver impact, whether it’s healthcare, education, as well as being a solid investment and deliver on returns.

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During E3, we learned only 23% of games presented were non-violent. I wanted to get your take on that since most of the games I’ve seen at the festival were not violent at all.

My take is everything is in moderation. I think entertainment — even just for the sake of escape and relaxing — is awesome. I think having a variety of options is really what we want to provide. If people want to play FPS games or world-building games, then that’s awesome. If they want to play a game where they’re also learning something, there should be commercial-level games that give them those options. It shouldn’t solely be the small independent mission or passion project by a creative community. That’s why I’m happy Ubisoft participates. Take-Two is also active in our community. Facebook gaming is with us. I’m encouraged we will eventually see more than 23%.

What can people look forward to from Games for Change in the immediate future?

This Accelerator program is awesome. We’re accepting teams. It’s two cycles per year. We’ll open it up again in the fall for more teams that want to apply. We’re excited to see what comes out of that. We have a project going on right now which is really cool.

Sometimes we executive produce projects. We’re not a studio but if we find something we think could be groundbreaking or do something really unique, we’ll [support it]. We are executive producing a VR experience with Princeton University. It’s about nuclear weapons threats. It’s pretty intense, but that’s the challenge. How can we get a generation of people talking about nuclear weapons risk? How do we get them passionate about the subject so that they can feel empowered to do something? We want to use the power of VR to tell a story that [makes it] personal.

When you think of a nuclear threat you think of an apocalypse, someone pressing a button and the world blowing up. There’s this incredible story that happened a year and a half ago in Hawaii where there was a false alarm. For 38 minutes people really thought a missile was coming. We decided to tell a story through the lens of people who lived through that. Imagine if you got that message. How do you react? We’re telling this immersive VR experience through that lens and hopefully frame the issue in a way that makes people understand we all have a responsibility.

There’s one more thing. This is something we’re launching in January and we want to get the word out. We are doing a partnership with AARP, which serves an aging population. They were doing a lot of work within games and VR and they developed a platform called Alcove VR. It’s a platform for seniors to aggregate experiences that help enrich their lives. There’s a real interest to use this tool to help with isolation to bring people together. If you aren’t mobile enough to go visit Europe or go on a vacation, you can visit these places in VR or you can have conversations with your loved ones and play chess. They’re looking for new game concepts that could live on the Alcove platform. We’re helping them to submit projects that could feature in this platform as a way to engage with a very significant population of over 50.





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