4 Lessons on Building Games for Change | Beth's Blog

4 Lessons on Building Games for Change

Digital Wellness


Note from Beth: While I’m facilitating “Networked NGO Workshops” in Delhi for Packard grantees in India,  I’ve lined up a few guest posts.  I’ve been following the Games for Change Festival since 2005 and now that more nonprofits are incorporating gaming strategies in their marketing approaches,  this article share some valuable insights.   This year’s festival takes place on Monday, June 18.

4 Lessons on Building Games for Change – Guest Post by Josh Spiro

Old attitudes die hard, and one such attitude is that games can’t be anything more than light entertainment. If you’re unfamiliar with the games for change movement, which both advocates for and demonstrates how games can be a rich medium for making a social impact, I’ve collected some advice intended for newcomers to the field from nonprofits who have successfully developed games for change.

The nonprofits I spoke to are all nominees for awards at the upcoming Games for Change Festival, which I’m planning on attending. (http://gamesforchange.org/festival2012/ )The festival brings together thought leaders, designers, and government and nonprofit professionals in a crosspollination of ideas from the game design and social good sectors. At the festival, awards are given out for the most significant games for change and, looking over the nominees (http://www.gamesforchange.org/2012/05/2012-games-for-change-awards-nominees-announced/ ), I noticed that three out of the eight them were produced by nonprofits.

Meet the Nominees

Zamzee (https://www.zamzee.com/ ) – An online platform that offers kids and their families rewards for increasing their level of physical activity to combat obesity and sedentary lifestyles.
Developer: Zamzee, funded by HopeLab and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Nominated for:
Most Innovative Game

Spent (http://playspent.org/ ) – Players step into the shoes of a person living on a fixed income and see if they can survive for a single month.
McKinney, funded by Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD) and McKinney
Nominated for:
Most Significant Impact

Fibber – A Game About Political Deception (http://seekchange.org/lab/?page_id=301# ) – This “political strip guessing game” uses a quiz format to get players to weigh statements made by Romney and Obama, and try to sift fact from fiction.
Nominated for:
Knight News Game

What These Nonprofits Have Learned About Making Games

  1. Call in the experts When I spoke to Ralph Vacca, from Seekchange.org, I asked him what strengths or weaknesses nonprofits have in terms of making games for change. He said that while nonprofits have the benefit of their experience working with a specific social need, “increasingly you’re seeing all kinds of for-profit social enterprises, CSR departments, and b-corporations also doing this work.”


Since most nonprofits are not equipped to build a game on their own, they need to seek out game design experts. That might seem like a daunting prospect on a tight budget, but UMD found, in McKinney, a partner who was passionate enough about the cause to take on the yearlong project pro bono.


  1. 2. Have set goals, but be flexible about how you reach them That’s Richard Tate’s advice to nonprofits looking to make a game. And the VP of communications and marketing at HopeLab should know. Zamzee isn’t the first game that HopeLab has produced. Before Zamzee, their game Remission, which was designed to help boost treatment adherence in pediatric cancer patients, was distributed for free to hospitals.Because childhood obesity is a much more widespread problem than pediatric cancer, “we realized that philanthropic dollars alone would really not allow us to reach nearly as many kids as might benefit from this,” Tate explains. So HopeLab decided to launch Zamzee as a for-profit social enterprise to expand their reach.

    3. Think carefully about your audience


UMD knew they wanted to target people who are “living fairly comfortable lives and don’t fully appreciate how difficult it is for others” to make ends meet, says Patrice Nelson, the nonprofit’s Executive Director. But even though their work takes place in Durham, they were open to sharing the game with a broader geographic audience.

Thanks to social sharing features and widespread press coverage, the game was played by over 2 million people in 190 countries. But creating the game also conferred trust in UMD’s brand in its own backyard. “It has helped us raise our profile locally… we got a lot of people who were really interested in supporting the agency because we were trying something different,” Nelson says.

4. Baking social media into the design


The games that use social media well incorporate it into their core design. When building Fibber, for example, Vacca and his team asked themselves if the answers the players submit could be put to greater use. They decided to take the most effective lies (i.e. the false statements from the politicians that players most often mistook for truths) and use that information to spark political debate on Twitter.

Do you think some causes or issues are too serious to be addressed well by a social impact game?

Josh Spiro blogs about games for change (www.willplaygamesforchange.com) and dabbles in designing them.


4 Responses

  1. […] Old attitudes die hard, and one such attitude is that games can’t be anything more than light entertainment.  […]

  2. […] 4 Lessons on Building Games for Change [Spiro/Beth’s Blog] 0 Comments […]

  3. Josh Spiro says:

    Here’s a longer excerpt from my interview with Richard Tate of Zamzee about making the decision to go from nonprofit to for profit and his advice on nonprofits making games for the first time: http://www.willplaygamesforchange.com/nonprofit-vs-for-profit-games-for-change

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