Video games - A tool for teaching human rights?
Are video games able to increase awareness of human rights issues? New evidence points to games' ability to engage players in initiatives extending beyond the virtual realm. Previously, following the devastating Haitian earthquake in 2009, video game developer Zynga teamed up with the World Food Programme and raised in excess of 1.5 million dollars to donate to relief efforts. Players of Zynga’s popular Farmville and other online games were able to purchase virtual goods that would advance their online game play, using actual currency to benefit a philanthropic cause.
This integration of virtual game play and real-world consequences is significant. While many games do portray graphic violence and employ tactics in direct opposition to human rights values, there has been a growing interest in a particular genre known alternatively as “social impact games.” The nonprofit organization Games for Change (G4C) has been developing and supporting digital games with a social justice framework since 2004, educating gamers about social ills and engaging them in addressing injustice. As a joint venture between different sectors – including governments, media, education and the gaming industry – G4C develops and hosts a platform for games that aim to increase awareness and prompt action around a host of human rights concerns. Over one hundred games span a wide array of social justice and human rights issues. The games are organized in a database according to age appropriateness and topic. A category labeled “Human Rights” includes games built around specific concerns, such as ICED: I Can End Deportation (unfair immigration laws); Sweatshop (offshore manufacturing); and Inside the Haiti Earthquake (disaster humanitarian response). Negative media attention often results in vilification of digital gaming, rendering it an unlikely tool for education. Often, the term “video games” is used pejoratively, denoting an experience that is violent, aggressive and unrealistic, or simply a waste of time.
The G4C community is working hard to overcome these stereotypes and promote benefits of gaming, including the opportunity for teachers to incorporate games into curriculum and increase student engagement in the learning process. Digital games can be a motivator for student engagement simply because they offer an enjoyable and interesting experience that may not be as easily accessed in strictly non-digital educational venues. The experience of playing a game together can help students bond and use teamwork to solve problems, mimicking the real-world need for generating collaborative solutions. Games bring human rights concepts to life for students in a way that textbooks and lectures may not, connecting principles with current global challenges and problem solving strategies. Classroom game play also provides a starting point for conversation or debate – both about the human rights’ issues as well as students’ experience of playing the game.
Beyond just being fun for students, some games increase motivation by linking action online to outcomes offline, as was the case with Zynga’s Farmville. Game designers trust that players will be increasingly invested in the game experience if they perceive positive real-world consequences to altruistic behavior. This connection between education and concrete application is especially important for human rights educators trying to encourage action extending beyond classroom walls. Students are more interested in learning when they perceive a direct connection to their own personal concerns and if the learning has relevance for their families, friends and communities. Skills developed through digital gaming have many useful real-world applications. Incorporating game play into curriculum can increase students’ ability to think critically about complex situations and develop creative problem-solving approaches to human rights issues.
Educators can be agents of social transformation by fostering students’ ability to analyze important social issues both in their own communities and worldwide. Benefits of incorporating social impacts games into curriculum include improved student learning of information and more active involvement in real world issues, using new skills. If games are thoughtfully implemented they can help bridge learning occurring within a classroom with actual human rights challenges, prompting students to think critically about how to engender social change.
As a worldwide phenomenon whose influence will continue to grow, educators cannot afford to ignore the potential impact of digital gaming on society, as well as the significant human capital disappearing into virtual reality. Educators can benefit from channeling the energy and motivation behind gaming into creative problem solving for real-world challenges. Social impact games can help teachers and students cultivate skills necessary for leadership and problem solving at all levels of education.
-Rebecca Joy Norlander