Video games and our children: If you can't beat 'em, nudge 'em in a transformed direction

“If it’s true that 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games, this movement has incredible potential to reach and inspire teens. Soon, we’ll be saving (not shooting!) civilians.” YES!

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Video Games to Change the World

March 7, 2012


When most people think of video games, they think of teenage boys screaming at the TV, shooting civilians with the flip of their thumbs. With all the controversy over explicit game content, it’s hard to imagine video games as a positive force. But the new push for “social impact gaming” is changing people’s minds.

“I want to take the power of play — the feelings you get when you are gaming like crazy — and channel that energy to put an end to human trafficking,” said Chelo Alvarez-Stehle. She’s developing a new video game: SOS_SLAVES: Changing the Trafficking Game, which she hopes will change the way teenagers game, so they can game for global change. SOS_SLAVES visits scenarios all over the world, from a cocoa plantation in Africa where kids live and work in slave-like conditions, to temples in Nepal where women get sold into prostitution.

Picture this: a girl sits down to play, Hershey’s chocolate bar in hand. After she frees a virtual slave, the game directs her to a site where she can check if her favorite brands — like Hershey’s — are doing their best to fight slave labor. She can watch a micro-documentary on sexual exploitation. She can connect with the CNN Freedom Project and other initiatives to end slavery. She finds out that Hershey’s products are “almost certainly produced in part by slavery” from West Africa. Who knew?

Chelo’s aim is “to create awareness among teenagers, and empower them with digital tools to fight and boycott exploitation.” And she is not alone.

America 2049, a game created by the humanitarian organization Breakthrough, is shaking up the Facebook gaming system. There are no zombies to shoot, houses to decorate, or soybean plants to water: the player is thrust into a dystopian future, where human rights have disintegrated. The game tackles issues like immigration, discrimination, and sex trafficking, with the hopes of rallying people to social justice causes.

These games are changing more than just the stereotypes of video games — they are changing the way teens connect to social issues. I’ve heard before about the genocide in Darfur, but I never understood the reality until I played Darfur is Dying. With the click of my mouse, I jumped into the shoes of the 2.5 million Sudanese refugees. As my 14-year-old avatar, Elham, foraged for water in the desert, the Janjaweed militia, wielding rifles, crept up and captured her. I learned that captured girls could face abuse, rape or murder. Behind the safety of my computer screen, I refreshed the page, retried and beat the level. But then it hit me: thousands of miles from Los Angeles, Elham would never have a second chance.

Now we can play — not just pray — for change. If it’s true that 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games, this movement has incredible potential to reach and inspire teens. Soon, we’ll be saving (not shooting!) civilians.


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