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Issue Date:  March 7, 2008

-- Games for Change

ICED! I Can End Deportation is an online interactive 3D role-playing game that teaches the player about current U.S. policies around immigration that destroy families and fundamental human rights.
For a virtual dose of reality, a different kind of video game


The sit-in, the boycott, the prayer vigil and the video game -- no, it’s not a Sesame Street exercise about which of the four doesn’t belong. This is a wake-up call to activists about what is going to create social change in the digital age.

“Games are a young medium and they are evolving, they are growing up and becoming more able to sustain a different kind of content,” says Suzanne Seggerman, president and cofounder of Games for Change (G4C) (

The New York City-based nonprofit has been called the “Sundance” of digital games for social change. It educates organizations and foundations interested in entering the field.

“Our biggest goal is to activate the nonprofit sector,” Seggerman says, “to let them know that games are really good in engaging young people, especially, in social issues.”

Understandably, resistance to the idea abounds. It’s reasonable to ask whether kids accustomed to shooting their way through virtual dangers will suddenly be willing to adopt more worthy gaming goals: save the environment, feed the hungry or help an immigrant get her U.S. citizenship, say.

If market testing for ICED (I Can End Deportation) is any indication, the answer is yes. ICED is a free, Web-based game created by Breakthrough, a human rights organization that uses pop culture to advocate for their causes (

ICED was conceived by Breakthrough staff in collaboration with Hunter College’s Integrated Media Arts program. Initially, the students wanted to create an art installation that looked like a deportation detention center. The idea evolved from there.

“An installation is only going to have a limited number of people [as viewers],” says Mallika Dutt, founder and executive director of Breakthrough. “A video game is going to reach a much larger number of people. And it has the same first-person immersive component to it.”

Over two years, with just $50,000 (a paltry amount to create a video game), Breakthrough was able to create a product that looks and sounds professional and makes the social points without appearing overly preachy.

There are several characters to choose from in ICED, most of whom are not illegal immigrants. Some have green cards, some have asylum, one is a veteran in the U.S. Army. But each has to keep a low profile, stay out of trouble and avoid deportation.

While testing the game, Dutt says, Breakthrough learned that gaming has to look beyond the problems, and even the potential solutions. It has to look at the vision for a better world.

“The young people came back to us and said, ‘The game is a real bummer, because there’s nothing you can do to win,’ ” Dutt says. “So we added the outcome of becoming a U.S. citizen in almost the last iteration -- because current laws are such that it is extremely unlikely that you’re going to end up with citizenship. However, adding the goal of citizenship reinforced the values we were trying to communicate.”

But will ICED change attitudes toward immigration?

“The range of audience that we’re reaching out to has been quite astonishing,” Dutt says. “Whether that translates into changed attitudes, it’s really too early to know that.”

Games for Change has compiled a list of best games on its Web site. You can raise a family in rural Haiti (Ayiti: The Cost of Life), you can play the role of child in a wheelchair (Pete Arm Strong), you can solve problems through nonviolent means (A Force More Powerful and Peacemaker), you can play the role of your U.S. congressman (My US Rep) or you can be a farmer in a developing country (3rd World Farmer).

The objective, Seggerman says, is for gaming titles to merge into the mainstream and compete with Grand Theft Auto or Madden 2008.

“This gaming model is only getting bigger. There will someday be a game like An Inconvenient Truth,” based on Al Gore’s global warming products, “or a game like Nickel and Dimed,” based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about living on the low end of the economic scale, says Seggerman, who is working with corporations such as Microsoft and MTV on creating a viable market of socially aware games.

Perhaps the most notable resistance is coming from the very organizations that could use video games for added outreach. Activists, advocacy groups and especially foundations have been resistant, or just as likely, unaware of gaming’s reach.

To continue raising awareness, G4C is building buzz through its own Games for Change Festival, now in its fifth year. This year’s event, scheduled for June 2-4 in New York City, will include “Let the Games Begin: 101 Workshop on Making Social Issue Games.” The workshop was funded through an award in the first Digital Media and Learning Competition of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

“More and more people, once they play a game like ICED, and they see the richness of the experience, they are going to see that things are shifting,” Seggerman says.

Michael Humphrey is a Kansas City, Mo., freelance writer.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008

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