At the last iF Salon, a captivating collection of game designers, entrepreneurs, educators, and professional players gathered at Intentional Futures space to eat dinner and talk games. Our question for the night was how games can be used to change minds and provoke life-improving behaviors among its players.

Participants were enthusiastic about the fundamental benefits of game-playing, like winning and losing gracefully, waiting your turn, and learning how to interact with people of different ages. For kids, learning how not to cheat and developing a desire to not cheat is a developmental win. Over time, players can improve confidence and social skills, develop empathy, and combat loneliness. Those insights applied equally to Dungeons & Dragons, Minecraft, and poker, among many others.

As one participant put it,

“Everything about you will be different once you’re really good at this.”

That insight applies to games whose point is play and the social and emotional benefits are side effects. What about games that have an overt behavior-changing goal? Basic human motivation and an intrinsic desire to change could be prerequisites to play. We already trick ourselves in a myriad of ways to drink more water, stop smoking, hit 10,000 steps, and call our families. Can games make a lasting impact?

One problem is that lots of social games are simply not fun. Game designers struggle to educate, inform, implore a change, and make a game engaging at the same time. These games also risk getting mired in mechanics and points gathering. We might figure out the secret to paying the mortgage as a driver in The Uber Game, but repeat plays can lead the player to focus more on memorizing steps than on what a tough road it is for Uber drivers. It’s natural for players to try to win by gaming the game.

We’ve discovered in our own research some social games that show promise. Arranged! aims to teach players about the challenges of arranged marriages in South-Asian societies. And Mind Light uses therapeutic techniques to help kids overcome fear and anxiety.

Further disruption is underway, and it’s badly needed. A lack of diversity in gaming companies leads to tokenization and misrepresentation. Troll culture brought us #Gamergate. And while trolls represent the tiniest minority of gamers, toxic online communities dominate the outside perception of gaming. That deteriorates trust in a platform that could be used for positive change. 

Thankfully, game development is rapidly becoming more democratic, with free design tools, hundreds of schools teaching game development, and thousands of kids pulling their teachers along for the ride.  

  • Minecraft Education offers more than 300 free Minecraft lesson plans for teaching and learning K-12 students spanning Language Arts, History, STEM and Social Emotional skills
  • According to Kickstarter stats, gaming commands the most funding of all categories, with $840M in lifetime dollars. Over 100 of those projects secured funding of $1M or more.
  • Last year’s Resist Jam by itch.io and IndieCade, encouraged game designers to make games that increase diversity and combat authoritarianism. More than 200 game entries cover a wide range of topics from human trafficking to encouraging fact checking.

And a few games are already contributing to scientific research. In the last decade, the data generated by game playing has helped to model proteins, map the neurons of mice, and understand the brains of people with dementia. Playing involves hand-eye coordination and pattern recognition, and every time you play, you’re solving a problem that’s bigger than all of us. We’re currently fond of Sea Hero Quest and EyeWire.

The iF Salon closed on notes of hope for the transformative power of games. Games help you get lost in your own concentration. They provide us with a reason to get together with other people, and they are a platform for self-expression. Better diversity and new forms of gaming will lead to additional options to use games for social and behavior change. As more people create games, our next challenge will be to ensure that enough of them are designed to create healthy outcomes for everyone.