A decade ago Asi Burak developed a video game designed to encourage opposing parties in the Israel-Palestine dispute over land to better understand – even empathise – with each other's point of view.
That conflict may be no closer to a resolution, but the concept that interactive games can be used for more than mere entertainment, even as a tool for positive change, is looking like the next big thing in online gaming.
Next week, Burak's 11th annual Games for Change Festival will join forces with New York's prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in an effort to give video games greater recognition and counter the stereotype that this £39bn global industry can specialise only in war games, urban chaos and medieval fantasy.
"People understand that games are powerful, but they're also scared of this power," says Burak. "We need to change the perception that all games are shallow, violent and childish, because they are not."
Statistics show that gaming has outgrown its reputation as an activity for children and teenagers. The average age of players is now 30, 10 years older than it was a decade ago.
There are games for women in their 30s, and games for seniors to combat declines in mental function.
Collectively, the world now spends one billion hours every day playing video games – up more than 50% in three years. Meanwhile, the average young person racks up 10,000 hours playing video games by the age of 21, only slightly less than the time they spend in secondary education.
"People see the negative side and they talk about addiction, but there are many games on the positive side," says Burak. Games such as Minecraft, he adds, are "amazingly creative experiences and far more engaging than watching TV".
The festival will bring together leading software developers and thinkers on the subject, including Jenova Chen, co-founder of thatgamecompany and creator of the games Journey and Flower, and Jane McGonigal, the author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. McGonigal's thesis is that games can effect change in problems ranging from depression and obesity to global issues such as poverty and climate change.
Many of the new studies claim a wide variety of benefits from gaming, including improved attention, higher creativity and improved ability to manage difficult emotions, such as fear and anger.
McGonigal, co-founder of the health improvement game SuperBetter, believes technological advances in virtual reality will enhance the power of gaming for good. To encourage a change in behaviour, she says, you need more than a video or a pamphlet. "Gaming does seem to be persuasive in changing people's thoughts, attitudes, feelings and actions in a way other mediums cannot."
The author points to a virtual reality game developed at Georgia University that places the player in the sights and sounds of computerised woodland and gives them a virtual chainsaw. They are then required to cut down a tree using a vibrating controller. After the tree falls, the forest goes quiet and birds stop chirping.
"Just two minutes changed people's real-world environmental behaviour for an entire week," says McGonigal. "They used 25% less paper products." People who simply watched a video of trees being cut down did not change their behaviour.
"The visceral immersive experience seemed to make a difference," she says. "People seemed to understand the loss of the tree as the loss of a living thing."
A separate study at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab simulated disabilities such as colour blindness. Researchers found that people who experienced blindness not only expressed more empathy but contributed time to volunteer efforts.
The focus on virtual reality in gaming comes as the technology companies begin to invest heavily in the sector. Last month Facebook acquired the virtual-reality goggles maker Oculus for $2bn, giving a huge potential boost to a technology designed to produce the sensation of not just looking into a virtual-reality world, but actually being an integral part of it.
In announcing the purchase, Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, touted virtual reality as the next big computing platform after mobile. McGonigal identifies several companies – including Valve, the creator of Steam; Mojang, creator of Minecraft; and Zynga.org – as committed to creating positive experiences. She hopes Facebook will hire thoughtful designers who will be able to connect us to reality, rather than disconnect us from it.
"Who can we have empathy for? What can we have empathy for? And how do we rally the gaming community?"
Chen says the games he grew up with in the 1990s helped him to become self-aware and ultimately a better person. At his company, he says, developers aspire to create interactive entertainment that can touch hearts. Flower was recently accepted into the Smithsonian American Art Museum's permanent collection.
He is optimistic about the field of positive game development. "We have a huge video game audience today, but still a rather biased portfolio when it comes to the types of emotions they create and its social impact. Today's game creators are changing that. I believe we will see more and more positive games coming into existence soon."
The technology poses as many questions as it answers. If virtual-reality games connect us to the real world, what does that say about our lack of connection? Are video games a source of "real" happiness? Do the positive emotions contribute to real wellbeing, or are these feelings also virtual?
Philosopher Bernard Suits, author of The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, claims that, if we ever create a perfect society, games will be the only reason to go on living. We would have to play, or else have no purpose in our lives, Suits argues, because they can bring a sense of service and collective meaning.
Like real-world reality, there is no single virtual reality, says Burak. It's an open debate. Some want to use virtual reality for behavioural change; some to make political statements. "The festival, he says, "is about the idea that the platform is attractive to anyone interested in social issues."
But, speaking personally, he adds: "I would like to see more design purpose and effort going towards creating empathy."
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