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The 2020 Games for Change Festival

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Written by Isabella Harford, Stephanie Fletcher, Melissa May, Nicholas Uster, and Jeff Hanrahan

Edited by Brittany Eide


Due to social distancing guidelines, the 2020 Games for Change (G4C) Festival was held virtually from July 14th to 16th. While this new structure may have worried some people, it increased the accessibility of the event by removing geographic and financial burdens that may have existed for attendees in the past.

According to the G4C twitter, last month’s festival had over 200 speakers, 70 hours of content, and an astonishing 6,800 attendees. While an all-access pass for the festival in previous years has cost upwards of several hundred dollars, registration for this year’s festival was completely free for all participants. The festival is typically held at Parsons School of Design in New York City, but the remote platform offered participants a similar experience with panels, talks, and workshops along with a virtual marketplace and a new 1-on-1 text and video chat feature for networking.

“[G4C] empowers game creators and social innovators to drive real-world change using games and technology that help people to learn, improve their communities, and contribute to make the world a better place,” the Games for Change website states. To achieve this goal, G4C hopes to help show today’s youth the positive impact video games can have on our society, as well as work with educators on teaching students about impactful games. Thus, their festival centered around four central themes: Civics and Social Issues; Games for Learning; Health and Wellness; and XR for Change.

The Esports and Games Design (EGD) Collective participated in the festival’s interactive panels, Q&As, and ceremonies, and staff members have written about the event for those that were unable to attend.

The special sessions provided a wealth of information for anyone looking to research their way into the gaming community. For those getting their start in game development or the study of gaming, funders and government officials alike gave away their business emails and links to for-profit and nonprofit researchers and game designers.

Lakita Edwards, an Arts Education Program Specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts, discussed the inclusion of electronic media and technology as an artistic medium in a Q&A format. After explaining the grants offered by the National Endowment for the Arts, she described the “ecology of support” for the arts at state, local, and regional levels, and invited listeners to email her their questions.

Marc Ruppel, Senior Program Officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities, further discussed the digital aspects of humanities, expanding the arts discussion into history, literature, and civics. He described the funds available for history, civics, culture, philosophy, politics, and literature projects presented in any format, so long as the work is connected to a nonprofit organization. He provided examples of exhibits which use VR to explore cave dwellings and the Giza Necropolis, and he described Walden, a game, which teaches history by delving into Henry David Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond. Ruppel pointed out that there needs to be more educational content for students to engage in distance learning and virtual field trips.

Dr. David Miller spoke about his experience at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Cancer Institute and his work as a computational physicist. He promoted the National Institute of General Medical Sciences’ ZoomGov workshop for the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) to support those who create educational content in the biomedical field. He reminded those who apply for grants to have patience and persistence.

Funders and officials hope to provide resources which can open the world of gaming to new developers. Their goal is for games to be classified as not only entertainment, but as educational and medical advancements as well. In a similar vein, the civics panels discussed the importance of keeping representation and equality in mind before any larger goal in game production.

Civics and social issues cover a wide range of topics, but this year’s Games for Change festival particularly focused on managing in-game harassment, portraying neurodiversity, and appropriately representing transgender individuals.

Leo Olebe, Global Director of Games Partnerships at Facebook, boldly addressed how “Games Can Heal The World” in his keynote. After working more than 20 years with BioWare, EA, Disney, and Warner Bros., among other big names, Olebe has found himself at Facebook. According to TechCrunch, he promoted “how Facebook will feature new games in the Gameroom to give developers a leg up.” He described the ways in which people are more connected than ever before, even when physically distancing, thanks to social media and video games. He praised specific projects such as Social Cipher’s new game, Ava, which features an autistic protagonist, for supporting neurodiversity. He also applauded community-based initiatives like the Stack Up Overwatch Program (StOP), which provides crisis support to veterans and active duty military personnel through Discord, for promoting safety and mental wellness. The rest of the speakers dove into how civic and social change can be created on an individual level.

“Building Bridges to Fight Hate in Games” was a talk given by Kat Schrier, the Associate Professor/Director of Games at Marist College; Kimberly Voll, the Co-Founder of Stray Bombay; and Gabriela Richard, an Assistant Professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Education. They spoke about the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and their survey of online games which can be summarized by the statistic: “Sixty-five percent of players experience some form of severe harassment, including physical threats, stalking, and sustained harassment.” Schrier explained that it is difficult to use some games in a classroom setting because of the hate the game’s community fosters. Richard brought up the “stereotype threat” faced by many women and players of color which affects their gameplay in the moment, and their choices to avoid games in the future. It is similar to women being told they do not belong in STEM, as the pressure can cause poor performance, which in turn results in fewer women pursuing a career in the field. Voll described how muting the game can help, though the player will miss out on a large part of the experience, including the connection and growth which Richard mentioned. Schrier offered that everyone’s biases affect the game and therefore it is everyone’s responsibility to make the game a safe space. Advocacy groups, such as ADL, connect people, promote research, and bring experts together to continue having conversations such as this one.

With a goal of rearing responsible game players, panelists presented Raising Good Gamers, which is also the name of a Games for Change initiative which works “toward a future full of positive, inclusive, fair online game communities for youth.” Four experts tackled the question: “What does research tell us about what it takes to play well together?” Dr. Kishonna Gray, an assistant professor in the Department of Communications and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said, “for my work, being a part of creating is everything for these youth...I call them co-narrators and co-designers.” Her research in playing games with youth has involved conversation about immigration, race, gender, and deviant behavior; for more, check out her book Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live. Dr. Lynn Fiellin, founder of the NIH-funded play2Prevent lab at Yale University, emphasized the importance of building games for youth, by youth; she shared the story of developing and testing PlayForward: Elm City Stories, which focuses on educating teens about sexual health through playing as a teen encountering difficult scenarios in a high school. Celia Hodent, an independent game UX (user experience) consultant and writer of The Gamer’s Brain, stressed that it is important to be observant of what sort of environment we are creating in games, and observed that we need to put rewards in games for behaving in a way we would like to see. Dr. Katie Davis is a founding member and Co-Director of the University of Washington Digital Youth Lab, and she values distributed mentoring in fanfiction communities, discovering the ways that complex informal learning is happening through peer-review relationships online.

Blair Durkee, a Special Consultant for Gaming at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), discussed how the gaming industry can improve in her presentation entitled, “Accelerating Acceptance through Transgender Representation.” Durkee works to create a world in which everyone can live their daily lives without fear. Acceptance of all identities is the first step towards creating that ideal world, and representation matters when it comes to acceptance. She highlighted the ways in which transgender people have been portrayed in the past, explaining that ambiguity is often associated with humor, depravity with evil, and deception cited as one of the leading pretexts for violence against the community. Sometimes transgender characters are depicted as someone to be pitied or looked down upon, which is just as unhelpful if the goal is to view everyone equally. Durkee cited Krem from Dragon Age: Inquisition and Lev from The Last Of Us Part 2 as two positively portrayed characters who have meaningful stories and are not defined by their transgender identities. She still hopes to see a playable transgender character, so that players walk in their shoes. Greater diversity of transgender characters, stories, and inclusive games were called for in the presentation and Durkee emphasized that someone who is transgender must be involved in development of those games.

The inclusivity of games is important in opening the eyes of those who are already immersed in the world of gaming, but learning about equality and inclusivity is even more important when it comes to the education of impressionable children and youth.

School and fun are often viewed on two separate continuums, but people across all industries are working to incorporate both learning and entertainment to engage children and adults alike and stimulate deeper emotional and logical connections.

Girl Scouts of the USA’s Digital Content Strategy Lead Sarah Keating provided “Lessons from 100 Years of Gamified Learning” alongside a couple of troop leaders. They discussed how Girl Scout troops across the country have moved online and taken advantage of educational games during the COVID-19 crisis. The panel mimicked a meeting in which they opened with a game of Kahoot and closed with a song with lessons taught in between. Troop leaders discussed how Girl Scouts is a gamified system with badges and awards as measurable achievements, larger awards requiring more effort like boss battles, uniforms as costumes, bridging to the next level of membership to level up, and kapers which designate chores to girls like choosing a role in a game. Girl Scout meetings are also places where many girls can escape their daily routines and façades, where they can open up and be themselves. The troop leaders described this place as a magic circle which is often lost to household distractions when stuck at home. Games help the girls remain connected to their peers and immerses them in the meeting so that they can learn more. This immersion through gamification aids all of the educational games discussed.

A group of students from Carnegie Mellon University presented “Tackling Toxicity with Play,” featuring DTOX, an interactive experience exploring toxicity in online gaming. The DTOX experience seeks to “dispel popular misconceptions about disruptive behavior online.” The interactive panel took the Girl Scouts’ decision to open with a game to the next level by allowing the audience to play through an hour-long experience and learn the most efficient ways to punish toxic behavior. Banning toxic players on its own was ineffective since not all disruptive players are bad people; some players just had a bad day. AI moderators can automatically detect and ban players who have gone beyond toxicity and have become abusive in their language. Empathy training can create a wave of change as one positive and resilient person can cause a wave of positivity. During the virtual simulation, a mix of both AI moderators and empathy training proved to be the most effective. The panel was very interactive, not only because it was a simulated game, but also because Parker Ramsey asked the audience for the pros and cons of each method and typed them into the presentation while adding some of his own. Other games being presented showed interest in implementing this interactive game-based method into classroom environments.

In their panel entitled “Gamestorming Curricula,” Nandini Chatterjee Singh and Robin Sharma from UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP), and Matt Farber, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado, discussed how the story-based adventure game, Bury Me, My Love, educates youth on global citizenship through a Syrian refugee’s experiences. The social and emotional learning framework of the game is abbreviated EMC2 for empathy, mindfulness, compassion, and critical inquiry. Bury Me, My Love takes advantage of situational design with anticipatory play designed to encourage players to step into the character’s shoes. Pauses in the narrative induce the student to activate their imagination. A three-week global citizenship course, which can be paired with the Bury Me, My Love, dives into emotional vocabulary and specific terminology used in the game.

Robin Burgauer and Robbert van Rooden are the co-producers of When We Disappear, a story-driven and history-based game that informatively portrays World War II history through the perspective of a young girl. As a puzzle platformer, When We Disappear portrays historical events while keeping the player actively thinking about the next move they must make. The Lucerne Institute of History Education and Memory Culture provided research and biographies, aided the design team, and ensured that everything was historically accurate, down to the inclusion of meaningful locations. In the game, the playable character’s younger sister who survived the war tells her older sister’s story. The producers believe that the past needs to be remembered to promote respect for people from different backgrounds and work towards better futures.

With the same end goal of a better future in gaming, Stephanie Harvey, the Director of Esports Franchise Development and Outreach of Counter Logic Gaming, gave a presentation on “Learning To Be Better Digital Citizens.” She promotes healthy gaming habits and equality in gaming to a large fanbase as a former pro CS:GO player, coach, caster, and game designer. First she explained that toxic online communities stem from the fact that the internet is still fairly young and no widespread codes of conduct have been implemented or followed. There are no consequences to action given anonymity behind a computer screen, without online borders there are culture shocks, and tone is difficult to interpret over text. Harvey highlighted the importance of educating on the three C’s: cyberbullying, cyberdependence, and cybersecurity. Prevention against cyberbullying has been taught in some schools and organizations, but reliance on internet and personal security are not discussed as often as they should be. Harvey wishes to see inclusivity, legitimacy, and growth among members of the gaming industry.

These speakers and dialogue partners showed that growth can occur emotionally through empathy training and rationally through immersive learning. Reaching to another realm of human experience, more panelists showed how games have also been implemented in the medical field to help treat mental, neurological, and physical conditions.

Health covers a wide range of human functionality, but games have proved to be helpful to the entire field. The Akili Interactive Labs team has proven that games are not just about entertainment, and can aid in assisting with good mental health. Akili produced EndeavorRX, which was approved as a prescription medicine for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by the Food and Drug Administration on July 15th, 2020. This paves the way for a gamified future in technology and healthcare.

Games can also benefit people’s wellbeing when they are suffering physically or are differently abled. Ryan Green and Mike Perrotto explained how they have been “Designing One-Button Games for Accessibility.” The Numinous Games team became known for That Dragon, Cancer, an artistic and poetic game which tells the story of Ryan Green’s son, Joel. They are currently working on The PlayAbility Initiative and actively learning how to create for the muscular spinal atrophy community. They hope Painted Waters will be fun for everyone even though the game is designed for the abilities of one child with muscular spinal atrophy. They plan to partner with The AbleGamers Charity to add a feature to assess the player’s needs and suggest other accessible technology and games. Numinous Games hopes to “find the fun” instead of dwelling on player movement and encourages anyone making accessible games to do the same.

Making games more accessible for all was another theme which presenters emphasized. Senior Accessibility Evangelist Megan Lawrence explained the work that her company, Microsoft, has been doing in the area of “Accessibility in Gaming.” She brought to light how common disabilities are and how everyone ages into a disability, so none of us are immune to its effects. The Xbox adaptive controller allows players to customize their gaming experience and play with a foot pedal or switches, and Lawrence showed a video which demonstrated how the packaging of the controller is accessible as well. She continued by describing social and emotional disabilities and how The Mindful Knight, a Minecraft game mode, was designed for social-emotional learning. She briefly mentioned how gaming can be a form of self-care and reduces isolation while sheltering in place.

Games can also encourage players to take a role in promoting the greater good of the world. “Outbreak Squad: Keeping Your Community Safe” was a presentation given by Pamela Martinez, an Assistant Professor of Learning Technologies at New Mexico State University’s Learning Games Lab. Outbreak Squad is a browser game in which children can play as enforcers, researchers, educators, or healthcare professionals, mirroring careers such as regulatory food safety officials, microbiologists, community health workers, and epidemiologists. Players are given information and resources to learn more about these careers. The outbreaks which the player fights are based on actual outbreaks in the United States such as E. coli, Hepatitis A, and Salmonella. The game even involves uncontrollable events, such as government policy, which decrease the effectiveness of research.

In another effort to get people more involved, graduate student Jenny Xu presented “How Does Turning into a Potato Get People to Run?” To summarize the research portion of the presentation, it does not, so Xu focused on positive reinforcement to initiate activation energy and encourage people to take the first step to start their run. The game features partnership, personalization, and positivity with virtual running companions who urge the runner on. The runner can also see other users through the app and give them a safe, virtual high five.

“High School Students Impact Patients with VR Design” presented by Marie Graham, the Director of the VR/AR Program at The Mount Vernon School, explored the varied implications of VR in education and health. After facing difficulties getting her students to empathize with refugees, Graham assigned them to watch The Displaced, a VR New York Times documentary, and noticed that significantly more students were able to connect. She explained that VR is useful at a younger age to help kids trace letters and immediately draw connections between phonics and letters. Near the end, Graham suggested that VR’s ability to decrease pain could help with the opioid crisis. She showed a video about a game her students made which had physical therapy applications that she had not predicted as well.

Games can be made relevant to nearly any field within the domains of health and education, and the games mentioned are only a small portion of those out there to help train healthcare workers and improve the lives of patients. Due to the recent interest and advancement in VR technologies, Games For Change devoted a whole topic to “XR For Change” which combined health and all of the other topics under one genre.

XR refers to extended reality, which can be experienced through virtual reality with a headset and augmented reality with holographics. The panels covered civics and social issues, games for learning, and health and wellness through the lens of XR, displaying its adaptability to many changing fields.

Dr. Courtney Cogburn presented a keynote speech on “Anti-Racism + XR.” Her profile at Columbia School of Social Work demonstrates an extensive background in transdisciplinary research on the adverse health effects of enduring racism. 1000 Cut Journey, a virtual-reality experience of her creation in collaboration with Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, “highlights the social realities of racism, for understanding racism is the essential first step in promoting effective, collective social action and achieving racial justice.” She believes that empathy means nothing without action. "Anti-racism is not a badge, it is an orientation,” she says, which requires one to actively engage themselves and speak up against microaggressive language as well as overtly racist actions. Artists, computer scientists, developers, social workers, and psychologists like herself came together to create 1000 Cut Journey for white liberals, as well as people of other identities, to get “a better feel” for the lived experiences of an African-American woman. Intervention is required outside of the headset to encourage anti-racist behavior and translate the experience into something meaningful, which is why the team partners with educators. They may also bring the experience into the corporate environment to accompany training. According to Dr. Cogburn, racism is not a problem for black and brown people to solve, it is a problem for everyone to come together and consistently work on. 1000 Cut Journey is a step in that direction.

Other issues also require XR to connect people who are not directly hurt by problems to experience the damage that has been done. “Be Earth: A VR Activation on Climate Change in Times of Crisis” was researched and created by Boo Aguilar, and it allows the person wearing the headset to see themselves as part of the Earth through hand tracking and textures matching the surrounding environment. There are plenty of peaceful scenes for the person to build a connection to their persona, before burning and deforestation wreck the Amazon rainforest which they have become. They turn into the ashes and question: “how do we allow this to happen to ourselves?” rather than “how do we allow this to happen to the Earth?” This testimonial exemplifies the responsibility felt for the health of the environment that most people walked away with thanks to the immersivity of VR.

“Access for the Future of XR” was a discussion centered around accessible game design for all populations given the current context of COVID-19. Kai Frazier, the founder and CEO of Kai XR, believes that XR is too expensive to be inclusive, especially for students who wish to create their own content to make themselves feel included. Frazier tries to view COVID-19 in a positive light as it has forced people to acknowledge different communities which they would not have interacted with in person, through social media and games. Erin Hawley, the creator, writer, and editor of The Geeky Gimp, agrees that affordability is the biggest barrier into the world of XR given that people with disabilities often live off of Supplemental Security Income. She also has COVID-19 to thank for being able to attend virtual conventions that were not accessible otherwise. Angelina Dayton teaches in remote areas with very little internet access, where she brings VR. Her disconnect from the call demonstrated this, as well as the school's floppy disks and film reels which she displayed. Dayton believes that a barrier to entry into XR is that it is a space where failure is more common than success. She appreciates COVID-19 for teaching the world about unpredictability. Keisha Howard, the founder of Sugar Gamers and co-owner of Live CGI, believes that language barriers are difficult to combat in XR since the language does not lean into the communities that can benefit from the technology. She looks at COVID-19 as an opportunity for people to start envisioning a world like Ready Player One in which characters live in virtual reality. Katherine Mahon, the founder and CEO of HomeAgain VR, brings VR to assisted living and nursing facilities, so the largest barrier she faces is the weight of the large headsets and the accessibility of controllers for those with arthritis. Mahon believes that COVID-19 has exacerbated an already critical problem with loneliness among older adults, and she has therefore been offering services for free and remote service hours for teens who wish to travel a virtually created part of the world with the elderly.

These events were only a handful of the twenty offered from Tuesday, July 14th to Thursday, July 16th. Good efforts are being made in the realm of XR. On Tuesday night, Games For Change celebrated the work being done across all platforms.

The 17th annual Games for Change Festival Award Ceremony was held virtually on the evening of July 14. According to Gamasutra, this was the most competitive year in the award ceremony’s history, with over 200 submissions from established AAA studios to indie developers and college students. Finalists and recipients were chosen from a panel of 70 industry professionals, with participation from the public through the “G4C People’s Choice Award” for favorite game.

In June, Gordon Bellamy of USC Games and Gay Gaming Professionals was honored with the Vanguard Award for his contributions to the games industry and LGBTQ+ community.

“Everything he has done in his career has been driving inclusivity and accessibility within the games industry… I hope his energy will be inspiring to others,” Susanna Pollock, the president of Game for Change, said in an interview with GamesBeat.

Microsoft was also awarded the “Games for Change Industry Leadership” award for their work towards inclusivity and accessibility in the games industry, specifically highlighted through their Microsoft Education Initiative, Adaptive Controller, Minecraft: Education Edition, and their partnership with UNICEF, which is helping students to continue their education during the pandemic.

“We celebrate Microsoft’s breadth of work to harness the transformative power of games and immersive media across education, mental health and accessibility to pave the way to a more inclusive video game world and affect real social change,” Susanna Pollack, President of G4C, said on their website.

Also in June, finalists were announced for the remaining six categories: Best Gameplay; Most Innovative; Most Significant Impact; Best Learning Game; Best Student Game; and Best XR for Change.

Thatgamecompany’s Sky: Children of the Light received the Best Gameplay award. Players of the adventure puzzle game must join a team and work together to return stars to their constellations. Sky’s website encourages players to “let courage and compassion light [their] way” through the game. The game can be found on iOS and Android, and an edition for the Nintendo Switch is expected to be available later this summer.

The Most Innovative award was given to Media Molecules’s PS4 game, Dreams. The game is a creative outlet by offering players a platform to make games, movies, music, and paintings. Dreams - like its name - allows players to escape with their own imagination and creativity.

As previously mentioned, Jo-Mei’s Sea of Solitude was awarded the Most Significant Impact award. The game follows a woman as she combats traumas that have manifested themselves into tangible giant monsters. Sea of Solitude explores themes of isolation, loneliness, and depression as players navigate a submerged city with monsters alone.

Ubisoft’s Rabbids Coding received the Best Learning Game award. Players must use blocks of code to prevent “Rabbids” from turning players’ spaceships upside down. Ubisoft’s game offers both entertainment and knowledge, by teaching players programming and algorithmic logic, including sequential programming, loops, and conditions.

The Best Student Game was awarded to Drexel University’s Sungrazer Studio for their senior capstone project, Resilience. The socially conscious game aims to teach players about refugees through city building. Players assume the role of a refugee camp manager, as they learn to grapple with the daily struggles that exist for those living in a refugee camp. Sungrazer Studio sought out resources from Drexel University’s Game Design, Computer Science, and Political science departments, so as to create both a compelling and educational game.

Lastly, Nimrod Shanit’s The Holy City received the Best XR for Change award. The immersive experience uses XR technology to inspire empathy and understanding by offering “visitors” a subjective experience of holy sites through a locals perspective.


The Games For Change Festival showcased how video games have expanded beyond the games industry into many other professions and advocacy groups that train, inform, and entertain diverse populations. Games are to be taken seriously in education, yet can be implemented to relax after a long day or hospital stay as well. The industry is continuing to grow by developing technology to improve game accessibility, furthering a vision of a world in which creators and players are represented, and propelling a desire for everyone to become a better digital citizen.

The festival will be back next year, but in the meantime there are countless other ways to network and stay informed on advancements in the gaming industry. Games For Change promotes other festivals, such as PlayNYC, through Twitter. Both Games For Change and EGD share a similar goal, and EGD “will continue to support all of us who know that affordable education, the games industry, and the communities these institutions create are important.” EGD provides many resources through Ask Me Anything panels with industry professionals as well as daily articles and opportunities shared through their Discord server.

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