Creating Addictive Games That Actually Do Good
Asi Burak is in the business of creating games for mobile devices and Facebook. But his clients aren't limited to your typical 9-year-old Angry Birds aficionados. Instead, they include noted human-rights advocating journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife—who is his frequent co-author and an American business executive—Sheryl WuDunn. That's because Burak makes digital games that aim to have a meaningful social impact, by letting gamers get into the world of global politics and international development to experience first-hand how tough it really is to solve to global problems. Israeli-native Burak is co-president of Games for Change, a social enterprise devoted to crafting video games and mobile games that engage your typical gamers with global social issues. Burak is most noted for Peacemaker, a video game that tackled issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ultimately, though, he wants to create an impact-game that's as popular as Farmville. Inc.com contributor Esha Chhabra spoke with Burak.
So why is it that impact games are not exactly mainstream? What's lacking?
We're a massive $60-billion industry with 85 million people playing games where they tend to their digital farms in Farmville. Recent research by Nielson suggested that people can spend over 400 million hours playing games. For some, that's more time than they spend on e-mail. But impact games are a small group that has to discover and develop the distribution channels each time it comes up with a new product. The educational world, for example, which has been a difficult market to penetrate. You don't see games in classes enough. You're beginning to see it, but it is minimal. And then, when you look outside the classroom, it's really hard to find these kinds of impact games. Compare that with documentaries or books, the distribution challenges are solid—there are publishers or producers that you can go to for a book or movie. But in our area, that isn't the case. We have to find an outlet.
What is Games for Change doing to change that?
We're taking games to the public. So, during our annual festival in New York, we not only cater to the designers, engineers, and gaming companies, but also to the public. It's a place to network, to learn about each other's work, and see what's going on in the field. But, we also take it to the streets—literally. For example, this year, we launched a new mobile game called Commons in Lower Manhattan in June. Its designed to let New Yorkers communicate with each other on problems that they come across in the city.
What does the Games for Change partnership with Kristof and WuDunn entail?
We're working on two different types of games for Half the Sky. One will be for users here in the U.S., and will operate through Facebook. That's more centered around creating awareness about girl-related issues and supporting different NGOs. The other games will actually be for girls in India to play with and understand their rights. One is on the public health issue of intestinal worms. That tends to be a common problem plaguing young girls. So, the game is designed to educate them on how it happens, how to avoid it, and how to treat it, which is rather simple—it's a matter of just have a few de-worming pills. Another game is also on health, but maternal health. Many of the complications with maternal health can be corrected through education.
Is it possible to create a marketplace for impact games?
Yes, absolutely. Educational-impact games are a great place to start. I'm confident it'll happen. BrainPop, for example, is already doing it with flash movies and they've got thousands of classrooms across the United States that are participating. They've done it slowly over the past decade with sound business sense. So, it's only a matter of time before we see a company who can crack this and then more will follow suit.
Who else has been able to cross over into games for impact?
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor developed a game a couple years back that gets young kids to learn more about their government. She went to a classroom and asked them about the three branches of government, and the kids didn't know. She asked them for the names of the three judges on American Idol, and they all knew. So, she worked with developers and came up with OurCourts, a game around civic education. That's turned into iCivics, a video gaming platform that looks at local, national and international political issues in a kid-friendly way. There are other games like Darfur Is Dying, FoodForce, and WeTopia, as well that have all used the video gaming model to engage audiences on some very serious issues.
What would you like to focus on in coming years?
We'll keep working on the many games we're developing for Half the Sky. But, ultimately, I want to help other people who have ideas and the talent to develop these impact games, but also need to pay the rent. That might mean helping them find distribution channels, funding, mentoring, or something else. I'd love to help the space grow and help others in this field who are passionate about social change.