Games for Change 2017: A Reprise for the Humanities 1

In a calendar now saturated with conferences about video games, Games for Change, remains one of the very few I attend religiously. Part of the reason is its location in New York City. Although, I preferred its coinciding with the wonderful TriBeCa Film Festival, the event is still always engaging and draws first rate presenters. This year had some interesting additions. A third day was set aside specifically for a VR for Change Summit. The festival also hosted two interesting pre-conference events: A Minecraft Education Curriculum Hackathon and a VR Brain Jam. Both these kind of extra conference events are invaluable contributions to counter the potential for talking heads and Power Point overkill that too many conferences now feature. In the case of Minecraft education, you have the practical outcome of actual lesson plans and activities that classroom educators can use to in their classes. The VR Brain Jam brought together neuroscientists and game designers in a collaborative effort to explore the applied benefits of research through immersive technology. In both instances, presenting the preconference work at the actual conference is a terrific way to showcase the results of collaboration and often startlingly discoveries.  I thought “Spark of Memory” was quite an effective way to show the poetry of neurons. It is impossible to produce anything meaningful in a short workshop, but these pre-conference events that allow for extend brainstorming that promote synergy are rich opportunities for game designers to work with researchers, educators, urban planners, physicians and social activities to find innovative ways of solving problems and advancing society.

Games for Change now divides into three tracks: Neurogaming & Health, Civics & Social Issues and Games for Learning.  This strikes me as a wise and useful division for talking about applied games. I have a mixed mind about neurogaming. For instance, I think the work of Dr. Adam Gazzaley at the University of California, San Francisco is pioneering and invaluable in the application of neuroscience to cognitive function in the elderly. Neuroscience can also be truly helpful in addressing attention disorders, and such devastating illnesses as Alzheimer’s. My hesitation regarding neurogaming concerns the blind faith the collective “we” places in science and technology to solve our problems, when, in fact, in many cases, science and technology create or contribute to the problem in the first place. You can scan the brains of ‘addicts’ or substance use disorder sufferers and those suffering from schizophrenia to the end of time, but don’t be so naïve as to think dopamine is the key to the cure or that medication solves extraordinarily complex problems of which many components are not neurological.  Easy to forget, but Freud was a neurologist and turned to therapy because ‘hard science’ did not provide the cures his patients sought. As a response, Freud turned to talk about the mind and analysis of that talk. In other words, he went from science traditionally conceived to a new science that was essentially a form of the Humanities. Granted science has come a long way in 100 years, but not that far.

I make this slight digression to segue into the happiest moment of Games for Change. The final keynote on Monday was entitled “Games of Life: exploring Arts and Humanities Through Play” by Tracy Fullerton from USC’s Game Innovation Lab. Games at USC are housed in the School of Cinematic Arts. I like that location. Film is another art, like video games, that first entertains, but through that entertainment allows learning to shine through at unexpected moments in profound and lasting ways. Soon after her talk Tracy’s game (I subsume her entire team in her name as she is the lead designer and driving force of the lab) Walden based upon Henry David Thoreau’s brilliant mediation on life with in the woods won Game of the Year. I will write specifically about this game a later time, but now congratulate Tracy’s team for designing and brining the experience of Walden to a new generation of both students and adults and I congratulate Games for Change for making such a smart choice for its top award.

Thoreau took nearly a decade to compose Walden, (published in 1854), from his notes, and the deliberate and careful composition of the work reinforces its message about the importance of deliberation, simplicity, self-reliance. He published the text as a message to citizens in the mid-19th century when urbanization expanded and commercialism aleardy threatened to eclipse the deeper values of the life. Thoreau wanted people to once again take heed of Socrates message about the need to live an “examined life.” The message is much more urgent today. I teach an online Alternate Reality Game course about cyberculture to adult students in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. These students have their own children “born digital”, and the course pushes them to examine their digital lives in a technology dependent society. The following post by a student in my just completed summer class coincided perfectly with attending Tracy’s talk at Game for Change:

“With this class, I realized just how involved I was with Facebook and Instagram. I noticed how I was constantly on my phone, not paying attention to   conversations, and wasting my battery. When I should have been enjoying time    with my boyfriend and pups, I was too busy trying to take the perfect picture and          post it on Instagram. I will be taking a break from social media for a while but it          makes me wonder how our future generations will be.”

Using a contemporary, digital-based game to express the need to step away from technology, expresses a paradoxical, but necessary truth. Unless, this digitally immersed and dependent generation learns to step back from social media, smart phones, the entire web- from time to time- and think about the world they are living in, nature will be totally poisoned, our ability to think through the problems we create will be stunted, our spirituality will be impoverished, and technology cannot replace nature, the mind, or the soul. Not really.

David Seelow, PhD©



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One thought on “Games for Change 2017: A Reprise for the Humanities

  • Hap Aziz, Ed.D.

    Interesting post, David. Video games have long been seen as an entertaining extension of technology, when, in fact, they have more in common with the arts and storytelling. (And yes, even Pac Man has a narrative.) We really don’t classify films by the technology behind the cameras used. I haven’t had the chance to take a look at the game Walden, but it’s on my playlist. Sure, games can be nice diversions, but if they drive introspection, that could be truly significant, especially in these troubled times.