"Papers, Please" screenshot (all images courtesy Games for Change)

“Papers, Please” screenshot (all images courtesy Games for Change)

Games about border crossing, American Indian relocation, and exploring identity are leading the way for the medium as a social tool. Using narrative and interaction, gaming is continuing to provide a level of emotional engagement with societal issues.

“Based on the evolution of the medium in the past years, I am more convinced than ever about the potential of games,” Asi Burak, the president of Games for Change, told Hyperallergic. “Personally I am most interested in this for social impact, real-world events, and of course learning and education. The power of interactivity, the participation, the idea of feedback loops make games a great area of discovery, exploration, and meaning. So it’s mostly about how to do it right, because we no longer need to prove that it could be done.”

Mission 3: A Cheyenne Odyssey

Mission 3: A Cheyenne Odyssey

In other words, gaming is beyond the need to show its significance as a platform and is into a realm of refining and experimenting with what works. At this year’s Games for Change Festival held at the end of April, the 11th in its history, they also teamed up with the Tribeca Film Festival for the first time, unlocking a wider audience than before. Alongside speakers and a street festival were awards for 2013 games. Most Significant Impact went to Mission_US: A Cheyenne Odyssey, an educational game from the perspective of an American Indian boy at a time of relocation and the loss of traditional way of life; Most Innovative and Best Gameplay went to Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, where players approve or deny entry to a fictional communist dystopia; and Game of the Year went to the Fulbright Company’s Gone Home, where you wander an empty home to discover a family conflict of social norms and relationships. Burak noted that all these games “are challenging assumptions, whether these are gaming industry’s assumptions or real-world context constraints.”

The festival also highlighted games like the educational TyrAnt about how ants eat, the trippy trance experience of Soundself, the underage drinking roleplaying game Start the Talk, and Súbete al SITP that introduced people in Colombia to the new Bogotá transportation system.

“The way to change the gaming industry and the real world is by presenting something different and new,” Burak stated. “Sometimes the disruption is aggressive and drastic, and sometimes it causes you to think about your prior assumptions and re-consider them in a subtle way.”

2014 Games for Change Festival

2014 Games for Change Festival

Although very different in design and gameplay, all three of the top games at the festival — A Cheyenne Odyssey, Papers, Please, and Gone Home — are in a way instilling empathy. The story-driven A Cheyenne Odyssey has you making choices that are marked as “brave” or “wise,” yet even while you can prove yourself to your tribe in these situations, the inevitable arrival of the train and its invading outsiders, the disappearance of the buffalo, and the reservations are still on the horizon. The only thing you’re able to alter is how you react. Papers, Please, gives some sympathetic perspective you don’t usually get on the tedious bureaucracy of border patrolling. Do you let in people with the wrong papers if they seem like good people and endanger your job? Or just follow each order as best as possible while drowning in paperwork? Then there’s Gone Home, where teenage alienation and fragmented familial relationships are evoked through digging through the detritus of an empty house.

Burak noted that the new wave of game creators “want to say something meaningful about the world as much as they want to create a compelling piece of art or media.” And what seems to be meaningful is transporting the player into another person’s place.

The 11th Games for Change Festival was April 22-24 in various Manhattan venues, including the NYU Skirball (566 LaGuardia Place, Greenwich Village, Manhattan), NYU Kimmel Center (60 Washington Square South, Greenwich Village, Manhattan), and Center for Architecture (536 LaGuardia Place, Greenwich Village, Manhattan).

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...