After more than a decade, the field of social impact games may be mature enough to step back and investigate how “impact” is understood. To start the conversation, Games for Change has released a new report, published by ETC Press. (The report was co-authored by myself, Nicole Walden, Gerad O’Shea, Francesco Nasso, Giancarlo Mariutto and Asi Burak. Our advisory group included game scholars and designers like Tracy Fullerton, Debra Lieberman and Constance Steinkuehler.)
Right now may be an inflexion point in the evolution of games in the public interest — from civic learning to fighting asthma. The funding base for such games is broadening, but so is the language and fragmentation. Gaps between practice and research can calcify all too easily. To better connect learning, is special effort needed to look across sectors?
I have personally worked on several sides of the fence — from funding to research — and I’m convinced. We need an umbrella language of “impact,” especially to bridge fields. Without this broader frame, I fear that some of the deepest learning may be siloed and sidelined. No one wants a narrow palette of games, but the pressure is growing.
The diversity of games that claim social impact was a bit unexpected. Growth came organically (“let a thousand flowers bloom”) rather than from a single research program. Many of the early examples came from surprising places, including student games launched by MTV (“Darfur is Dying”) and passion projects from the UN (“Food Force” from the World Food Programme).
Our great games are often profoundly cross-disciplinary, and cross-sector. Sure, some games are intended just to teach — but others coordinate labor, foster civic dispositions, and even build social capital. Are we learning across these impact types?
In our research and interviews, we found that it’s not just beginners but our leading journals and game awards often overlook entire categories of impact inadvertently. For example, we tend to focus on gains for individuals, rather than measuring community-level change. We often disagree on what counts as evidence — and what constitutes success.
This report makes five basic claims about fragmentation that we need to address as a field, specifically:
- Impact is defined too narrowly: When impact is defined too narrowly, some games are dismissed for the wrong reasons and their impact is overlooked.
- Key terms are politicized: When stakeholders use core terms (like “game” and “assessment”) polemically, productive debate often breaks down as the community becomes polarized.
- Evaluation methods are inflexible: When researchers have just one gold standard for evaluating games, honest inquiry into complex games is undermined and design becomes more siloed and rigid.
- Applicants are confused by calls for funding and awards: When organizations advertise a call for proposals, new applicants are often confused about the categories and debate is harmed by a premature (and unintended) sense of consensus.
- Typologies are deep but not connected: When experts summarize the field they must draw boundaries, but consumers of research need ways to connect various frameworks, literature reviews and typologies.
Sound bleak? We think that’s OK, as a first step. We are pushing for diagnosis in order to get at solutions more systematically, and through a broader and more transparent conversation.
In the report, we start to sketch how “impact” can help provide an umbrella language. Such language is needed for meaningful comparison, and to improve coherence across stakeholders. Impact is the shared goal of every social impact game: to have an effect, an influence — to make a difference. Types of impact abound, but there are deep differences in how the word is understood.
Sound familiar? Of course. Fantastic prior scholarship has proposed how to bridge research and practice, how to share power in action research, how to seek praxis and value formative assessment — not just summative judgement! Such ideas are vital and must be built upon. But, ideas alone have not proved sufficient to bridge fields in practice. Our report is thus an applied effort to jumpstart the conversation beyond disciplinary journals, including with this post to help link DML and social impact games.
Our goal is to build the connective fabric between sectors, and to ensure that no one approach is accidentally dominant. Every discipline (even yours and mine) carries assumptions that are useful to question on occasion, especially for hard problems with real-world complexity. To bridge nodes, we may need sneaky ways to design across disciplines, and retain creativity alongside expertise.
Initiatives like connected learning are key nodes in the broader conversation on impact. Success will also likely require much we haven’t considered yet. We invite you to help identify promising solutions to increase cohesion across projects.
To download our free report in PDF, see our project website, GameImpact.net, and please let us know what you think. We would love to build on your field building work and research.