The Wii Fit is not the only game changer in town. As everyone knows, the Wii - the motion sensor-enabled video game console that gets players up and moving - is the hottest thing around. The core set of Wii games including tennis, bowling, and boxing are a big hit with women, girls, elders and others - a wide (and profitable) demographic that never really found their thrill in Grand Theft Auto and its ilk.
But commercial platforms such as the Wii are not the only place you can find game changing action. Activists have slowly been moving their social change agendas onto various game platforms. Issues from hunger to genocide, HIV awareness, obesity, and the making of the federal budget have all been 'modded' into game formats - with the brains (and funders) behind them hoping to ride on the interactivity, fun, and step-by-step feedback loops that make games so absorbing as a way of engaging people in the issues.
A new game making game, called GameStar Mechanic is "innovative educational software that will teach junior high through university students about game design by letting them create and modify games." This effort, which partners researchers, game makers, and youth organizations is funded by The MacArthur Foundation as part of its Digital Media and Learning program.*
Other funders are also in the game - The Kaiser Family Foundation and others just launched PosorNot (a play on Hot or not) which is aimed at debunking myths about HIV. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a large supporter of GamesforHealth. Hopelab created RE:Mission and the Ruckus Nation game contest. I'm on the board* of GamesForChange which receives funding from MicroSoft, MacArthur, and others (especially for its annual festival, coming up in NYC June 2-5). In April (just in time for tax season), American Public Media, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting launched BudgetHero, a game in which players get to allocate the federal budget. You can get the game widget here.
Data on the effectiveness of these games is still being collected - HopeLab has done several very cool studies of information retention, brain scans, and patient behavior regarding their drug protocols. Bringing games together with social agendas is not simple. There is still a lot to learn about how and why and when games work to help people learn. And, as every parent knows, stuffing education and information into a game isn't going to fool the kids for long - it is sort of the equivalent of trying to hide the peas in the french fries. But we are beginning to understand how interactive, engaging platforms can be structured as learning environments, as well as public message systems. As more and more gamers grow into decision-makers and more and more of us spend more and more time on the web, on our mobiles, and on games, it makes sense to get the info where the attention is.
*Full Disclosure: I am on the board of GamesForChange and my company, Blueprint Research & Design, advises the MacArthur Foundation on its Digital Media and Learning program and has consulted with The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I served as a (volunteer) judge for HopeLab's Ruckus Nation. I do not own a Wii but I do play games on my cell phone. I am a regular NPR/APM listener (and a supporter of my local public radio stations).