Observations on play, player/subject positioning, and social change

(A sub-section of the overall discussion on play and real-world social change.)

The civic “tripod” focuses on the growing number of mobile games that seek to foster connections and pathways among players, places, social change, learning and engagement structures. These mobile games can help players identify social causes that are meaningful to them (see AOK), discover ways to volunteer (Sparked), coordinate with strangers interested in similar issues (Groundcrew, WildLab Bird), collect and send evidence of neighborhood concerns to regulatory entities and elected officials (DIY Democracy, Commons, Tenants In Action, Hollaback), participate in the urban planning process (Community PlanIt), cross neighborhood lines and forge new relationships (Macon Money), discover local pasts and imagine future narratives (Flashback, Re:Activism), and find ways to engage in philanthropic opportunities that may otherwise seem too complicated or inaccessible (Raise The Village, WeTopia). Alongside this rapidly expanding genre of games is a growing number of designers, stakeholders and players, and this requires greater critical scrutiny, more nuanced analysis and design, and more thoughtful and appropriate methods of evaluation.

In late 2007 Freerice launched; Freerice is a website with simple multiple-choice quiz games where every correct answer clicked equaled a donation (paid for by advertisers on the site) of ten grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to “help end hunger.” Freerice is a simple site, with a simple mechanic for a simple idea. Although one could comment on the learning efficacy of Freerice given the disconnect between gameplay and the subject matter (more on that below), the point here is to focus on the game’s real-world civic and philanthropic effect (see video of rice being distributed in Bangladesh to 27,000 refugees from Myanmar). At the time, Freerice was one of a small but growing number of games that challenged the virtual/physical dichotomy and helped extend the idea that the real world need not be impervious to the effects of virtual play and in turn, online and video games need not discount urgent subject matter rooted in lived experience.

A more recent test case of a casual game with in-game mechanics designed to foster real-world micro-donations is Raise the Village, an iPhone game by New Charity Era. The player’s goal is to become the chairman of their village, which is accomplished by helping the virtual village prosper. The first unique aspect to Raise the Village is that it is modeled after a real village in eastern Uganda called Kapir Attira. Like many other games, virtual goods purchased in-game with real money benefit the player’s virtual world (and therefore the player’s status). The second unique aspect to Raise the Village is that this money is used to purchase the same exact goods in the real world and actually deliver them to Kapir Attira. The fieldwork and relationship building conducted by New Charity Era in Uganda and in Kapir Attira specifically seems commendable and well intentioned. The collection of virtual goods available for purchase change depending on what the ongoing fieldwork suggests is most needed in Kapir Attira at a given time. As feedback, photographs are sent to the phones of players documenting the deliveries (which, according to the website, take place approximately every month).

The language describing the game suggests it is a “fun way” to impact those “in need,” clearly an attempt to merge play with consumer activism. This seems like a logical exploration, considering how much money players spend on virtual goods in free-to-play games. And, considering how dubious in-game spending schemes can sometimes seem (for example, the ease with which children can unwittingly spend hundreds and even thousands of dollars on Smurfberries), Raise the Village displays a fair degree of ethical coherence, goodwill and transparency. This game is not so much an analysis on extreme poverty from a systemic standpoint. Instead, it’s an attempt to wrap familiar game mechanics onto a specific situation and intervene on an immediate local problem in an actionable and literal way. And while this is an admirable experiment, something just doesn’t feel entirely right.

The elephant in the room here relates to the myriad questions raised by playing at or through fantasies about another community’s welfare. It is essential to posit the critique that this can amount to positioning the player as tourist, and neither the player nor the subject as truly empowered agents of change. However, equally necessary is the defense that it points towards at least the possibility of a transformative experience via play that offers new sorts of perspectival orientations, discoveries and agency.

The kinds of questions that arise in regard to ethics, power and the subjectivity of others – of either oppressed or oppressors – may be relatively new for the game community because the typical game doesn’t take on such difficult or complex perspectives; that is, games more often than not deploy familiar fantasies of control and progress. However, other practitioner communities have longer trajectories wrestling with these issues in their own unique ways, some of which are Theatre of the Oppressed, documentary filmmaking, and social work.

Established by Brazilian theatre practitioner, theorist, and activist Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed is a practice and set of techniques that advance a participatory and politically charged theatre. In documentary film, debates about filmmakers’ responsibilities to abide to ethical standards and avoid exploitation and coercion have been rigorous for decades. As applied in social work, anti-oppressive practice openly challenges discrimination and promotes rights and voice of those groups on the margins of society. It is grounded in specific understandings of equity and incorporates a sense of ethics that requires an individual to reflect upon their own behavior and assumptions, as well as society’s norms. It encourages an individual to work toward closing the “power gap” between those who experience oppression and those who hold greater social privileges. As this genre of games grows and game design increasingly seeks to play within and catalyze communities, it is more essential than ever that we weave together a diverse variety of theories and traditions of practice from the arts, social change, and learning domains.

At the 2011 Games for Change Festival, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sheryl Wudunn moderated a panel entitled Philanthropy, Movements, and Making Media Matter, with Laure Pincus Harman from Zynga.org and Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski from the United Nations World Food Programme. Zynga.org was started in 2009 in order to connect players to charitable causes. Explaining that Zynga’s expertise is play and only play, Harman noted that Zynga works with partners that do “other things really well.” In part due to the success of Freerice, the WFP continued to explore gaming, and, in partnership with Zynga.org, launched the Haiti campaign soon after the October 2009 earthquake. Across several of their pre-existing top games, players could purchase limited edition virtual goods that benefitted WFP’s efforts in Haiti. According to Zynga, the campaign raised 1.5 million U.S. dollars in three weeks.

This is a very different approach from the one deployed by New Charity Era, as Zynga is not interested in expanding their domain of expertise or in closely aligning their game narrative content to their campaigns. This is in many ways easier and safer because it is not requiring its designers to learn much about the situation in Haiti, nor is it asking players to delve into a new and unfamiliar game, much less one that is about an extremely sobering and complex issue really happening somewhere in the world.

Every individual gamemaker, game company and/or stakeholder may differ in approach. If driven to affect social change, the gamemaker takes stock of their values and assesses how they can contribute the most with the resources they can devote. For example, is it important to raise as much money as possible, or is it most important to provide context and structure for the player to learn and affect change in their own way? Ultimately, these are challenging questions. But they are not to be avoided because they also gesture toward an invaluable and galvanizing aspect of activist games that in one way or another seek to spotlight and challenge social power imbalances. Moving forward, ethical frameworks (such as anti-oppression principles and Values at Play) are required that encourage gamemakers, companies and players to disagree productively and reflect on their values and on the contributions they aspire to make.


Special thank you to Steve Anderson, Andrea Gunraj, Virginia Kuhn, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Veronica Paredes, Huy Truong, Holly Willis and Ashley York for their invaluable support dialoguing with me about these ideas.


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  • Boal, A. (1985). Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
  • Clifford, D., & Burke, B. (2008). Anti-Oppressive Ethics and Values in Social Work. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Frasca, G. (2001). “Videogames of the Oppressed.” Masters Thesis for The Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • Global Exchange. (2006). Anti-Oppression Reader. Retrieved from http://www.seac.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/AO_Reader_2007.pdf
  • Gunraj, A., Ruiz, S. & York, A. (2011). “Power to the People: Anti-Oppressive Game Design.” In Schrier, K. & Gibson, D. (Eds.), Ethics and Game Design: Models, Techniques and Frameworks. New York: Information Science Reference.
  • Nichols, B. (2006). What to Do About Documentary Distortion? Toward a Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.documentary.org/content/what-do-about-documentary-distortion-toward-code-ethics-0