Games and Gamification as a tool for Social Change

Different coloured people shapes

Games make a difference, today more than ever. When people play, they get inspired and open to learn new things while interacting with each other. In fact, if one looks at the developments in the game industry, it is hard to ignore the economic impact that games have had in the past 20 years. From the dark dusty corners of the stereotypical nerdy obsession to everyone’s living room, the game industry has been through a dramatic change and is now even bigger than Hollywood (Econo Times 2019).

Desire for Play is Inherent

What does this development tell us about games? On the one hand, it shows that the desire for the joy of playing is inherent in human behaviour (Yee 2007). On the other hand, it reflects the fact that with the principle of games – interaction, achievement and reward – it is not only possible to make money, but also to profit from deeply rooted human behaviours; discovery, social interaction and amusement (Wu et al. 2008).

The principle of gamification is utilised by various companies to increase their visibility and to profit from the mechanisms of fun (Wily Global 2018). This could be interpreted as a milestone in the modern recognition of games and as the victory of games over triviality and into cultural mainstream. However, it is crucial to retain a critical stance on the economization of gamification, especially if companies use the mechanisms of gamification to increase revenue rather than being dedicated to the idea of valuing fun as a component of transformation (Peterson 2013). We should rather go back to the roots of games and interpret their rise as part of a social transition embedded in the technological revolution of the last century. If games have the power to instil enthusiasm and excitement, why not use these strengths of games to make a difference in the social sphere? In this context, it is time to see games and gamification as a tool for social change.

Games and Gamification for Social Change

With this background on games and the infinite potential for gamification, we would like to introduce our understanding of gamification as a tool for social change. Following the idea of applying games and gamification methods to create a space for intercultural dialogue, we recognize their potential for the humanitarian field. The workshop “Gamification and Game Design for Social Change” is designed and facilitated in order to introduce the power of games in creating social cohesion by including all the diverse identities on the same board.

In the context of supporting vulnerable people, games are an excellent tool to empower and build resilience. Unlike in life, in games everyone has the same starting point and moves according to their choices. For these groups, life is often characterized by inequality, but games provide a space to be the decision makers for themselves. In games the rules are equal for everyone, in the beginning the materials are distributed equally, the rest is the responsibility of the player. All the players agree on the conditions of winning, and, more importantly, everyone has equal chances to win. For these reasons, games establish a feeling of equal opportunity and a convivial space for agency. Either in front of a screen or at the table, players gain a new identity that they define with their own choices during the process of playing. The magic circle does not have borders.

Target Audiences for the Workshop

Following these ideas, the target group of the workshops are people who are working with marginalized communities, migrants, or vulnerable groups under risk. So far, they have been delivered in different countries with teachers, youth workers, different NGO members and humanitarian workers. The workshop is for all the active citizens who have access and motivation to build dialogue with diverse groups.

Kolbs learning cycle
Source: Kurt, S. (2020): “Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory & Learning Styles,” in Educational Technology, December 28, 2020

The workshop is using non-formal education methods, and Kolb’s (2014) experiential learning cycle[1] is taken as the base of the design. More concretely, the workshop has four chapters: Game & Play, Simulation, Gamification and Game Design. In each section we experience a game, then reflect on our experience, discussing from different angles and critical perspectives and finally considering the process of implementation into the field. Not only inside the flow of the section but also between the sections,

Kolb’s Cyle and Games

  1. Game and Play: Through playing a simple game (an energizer or a well known childhood game) it is possible to reflect on the concepts of game and play. This is the section more based on dynamics of the game design. With this approach the focus is on the fun element, and how to make games fun for everyone. This opens a space to discuss the inclusivity of the games in terms of gender, cultural sensitivities, disabilities etc.. The critical questions here are; who can play this game and who cannot, what can we do to include everyone and what can we do to play together? As the first step of the cycle, it is the concrete experience gathering part.
  2. Simulation/Role plays/Serious Games: In the second round, using example games provides a good insight on the player experience. Designing the roles that the group is familiar with is especially effective in getting the participants out of their comfort zones and reveals the characteristics of the players. After the exercise, it is useful to discuss more about feelings. Reflection is the crucial outcome of this section. How does it feel to be another person, to make choices as another person? How does it feel to be in that particular role? These questions try to focus on player experience and how game design is shaping that experience powerfully.
  3. Gamification: The participants are introduced to the term gamification through example videos. The focus is on the change effect; both behavioral and motivational change. An open discussion is facilitated about which aspects of gamification can encourage a positive change in socially sensitive (polarized) topics. The advantages and disadvantages are discussed. As a cumulative process, the previous parts are always referenced as a start of conceptualization and to give a more holistic view on the process.
  4. Game Design: This is the part where participants have a chance to practice the previous steps. Now, they are getting to actively experiment with their learnings. In groups, they are encouraged to design a simple game prototype, based upon a goal with the given materials. The task is “design a game to X”. The goal can sometimes be an easy task like “teach to count to 10 in a different language”, or it can be more complex like “there is a tension in a school against migrant background students”. It can be good to challenge the participants during the design process to make sure they have their critical eyes open (especially when they start falling into the comfort zone and think it was easy; we found something nice). There are challenges that will create problems in their designs. They can be related to inclusion (there is no common language in the group), or social conflict (girls do not want to play with boys). But these serve to encourage flexibility and inclusion, starting from the design. This is an advanced version, but it is important to underline that the game is an active space that designer and potential players always needs to be engaged with. Also, it helps to complete/restart Kolb’s experiential learning cycle.

We are United by the Passion for Play

With this simple design, it is possible to capitalize from the potential of games and to use the human desire for joyful interaction for social interventions. The trends in the game industry and the increasing recognition of games as change-bringing activities are crucial to underline the positive effects that games can have. When using games and the principle of gamification as a tool for social change, we do not only want to stress the idea that games can make a difference, but also that this difference can be based on valuable transformation; valuable for vulnerable groups such as migrants, but also for the common understanding that we are united in the passion for playing.

References and further reading

EconoTimes (2019). The Gaming Industry is now bigger than Hollywood 

Kolb, D.A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. FT press.

Petersen, Rob (2013). 21 companies that use gamification to get better business results 

Willy Global (2018). How Gamification uses emotions to drive big profits

Wu, Jiming, Li, Pengtao, and Rao, Shashank (2008). Why they enjoy virtual game worlds? An empirical investigation; Journal of Electronic Commerce Research 9 (3), pp. 219-230

Yee, Nick (2007). Motivations for Play in Online Games, CyberPsychology & Behavior 9 (6), pp. 772-75.

[1] Have also a look at Experiential Learning Institute .

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Beybin Elvin Tunc has experience in education, migration, and youth work. She holds a degree in sociology and is now finalizing a master’s degree in migration and intercultural relations. She has worked in child protection, psycho-social support and social cohesion with refugees and migrants in different non-governmental organizations and UN agencies.

Currently, she is working as a freelance facilitator. Designing and facilitating learning experiences internationally, delivering trainings on capacity-building of education practitioners, and youth organizations. She is interested in developing and implementing innovative and creative pedagogical approaches in the field of migration such as game-based learning.

Besides her background, games have always been her soft spot. Therefore, she is trying to bring in humanitarian approaches into game design and gamification. She is currently living in Brussels, residing in Germany and citizen of Turkey.
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Marvin Jammermann holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and is currently a student of the European Master of Migration and Intercultural Relations (EMMIR) working on Labour Migration & Human Development.

He conducts research on how the process of granting citizenship through birth is manifesting global inequalities and how international migration can bring about global development. In addition, he is studying the mechanisms of exploitation in the European food production sector.

He spent time in Eswatini to support the National Commission for UNESCO and is currently working with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) analysing EU policies, organising events, and supporting regional projects with a focus on the social orientation of migrants in European rural areas.
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