Global Kids, a New York-based urban youth nonprofit, launched a video game yesterday (from the fifth annual Games for Change conference in New York City) called Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City. In the game, set in New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, players follow the struggle of a fictional character named Vivica Water as she searches for her mother and helps her neighbors during the storm. Targeted toward inner-city high school students—and made in collaboration with a group of them at Canarsie High School in Brooklyn—this most recent offering from the new “cause gaming” movement aims to “celebrate New Orleans culture and draw attention to the continuing struggle in New Orleans as residents fight for housing in 2008.”

Similarly, a video game released in February called ICED: I Can End Deportation also seeks to engage the voices of society’s dispossessed. Made by the small human rights nonprofit Breakthrough, this game tries to promote immigration policy reform, Breakthrough’s mission.

Both games, thanks to their interactivity, pack emotional resonance as they tell the stories of the victims of social problems and policy disputes. To be sure, this is important, as empathy is the first step toward effective social problem-solving. But consumer, beware. Some of these games don’t go far enough.

ICED profiles five teens of different ethnic backgrounds and invites players to “walk in their shoes” to “learn how immigration laws deny due process and violate human rights to all immigrants.” Gen X and Y care a lot about social issues and there’s an opportunity for game-makers to influence these future leaders and decision-makers. But wouldn’t this game be even more powerful (and socially responsible) if players were given more shoes to fill? What if you could also play the role of an immigration officer, or a border patrol cop, or a senator fighting immigration reforms on Capitol Hill? Wouldn’t the nonprofit’s work be even more credible among policymakers or wealthy donors looking for social issues to support with their dollars?

There’s no question that the games for change movement represents an exciting and deservedly hot new trend for tech-savvy nonprofits: Games can be a powerful new way to raise funds and bolster waning membership rosters. Further, letting people of all ages “live” in new worlds and try on new behaviors can help nonprofits better engage the people they serve, as well as draw more public and private aid to the plight of society’s dispossessed.

But how carefully these games portray all sides of the social issues they’re advocating will be critical to their effectiveness and credibility in the long term. Indeed, solutions to social problems don’t occur simply because people gain a better understanding of the victims of poor social policy-making. Exploring the complexity of social problems, all sides, is what games can do best.

Consider World Without Oil, for example, a year-old game that bills itself as “a serious game for the public good” and attempts to capture multiple viewpoints by letting players imagine the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis and how it affects their lives—oil company leaders included.

Or take a look at Peacemaker, a game about the Middle East conflict developed by a team at Carnegie Mellon University. It lets players take on the role of either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader, so as to better understand the kinds of decisions either one of them might be forced to make. It puts people into the decision-making shoes of one, or ideally both, of the leaders in that conflict.

Additionally, the United Nation’s Food Force engages kids aged 8-13 years old by sending them out on six realistic aid missions. It had more than 2 million downloads in its first couple of months of release in 2006 and it’s now up to 4 million. One key feature of this game is its ability to effectively portray the challenges of delivering aid amid a variety of real-world challenges.

A newer game that focuses on complex problem-solving from the start is UNICEF’s Ayiti: The Cost of Life.
It transforms poverty into a type of strategy game, asking players to “manage a family of five over four years and keep them healthy and alive, educated and out of debt,” says co-creator Barry Joseph of Global Kids. It’s tough: winning isn’t easy without innovative problem-solving.

As journalists have long realized, quality content is not simply about how well one can argue one side of an issue, but rather how deft one is at arguing multiple sides of it—indeed, acknowledging that multiple sides even have an argument to make.

Don’t believe it? Just ask some of the kids starting to play ICED. In a soon-to-be-released survey, a majority of them said that while they like the game and find it an authentic portrayal of the impact of current immigration policies, many students also “felt manipulated and like they were being asked to play politics for somebody else,” says Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology, which collaborated with developers on the game. “These games represent a good start, but there’s no question that they will need to become more sophisticated as the games for change movement evolves.”

Viva the evolution. In the dawn of new media, the public’s ability to understand the multiple grays of an issue should count the most when it comes to making change that matters—and that sticks.

Says MIT professor Henry Jenkins, an expert in youth media and an enthusiastic supporter of the emerging social games movement: “We have to think of ways to use games not just to escape reality but to re-engage with reality.” Amen.

imageMarcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.