Innovation & Design

Getting Activist Video Games to Market


A popular online video game, Darfur is Dying, defies the generic first-person-shooter formula, placing players in the role of escaping violence rather than perpetrating it. It also lacks the $50 price tag of most popular titles and reaps no revenues—it is free to download. The game, in which players assume the role of a Sudanese refugee dodging attacks from Janjaweed militia, is undeniably popular, having garnered more than 700,000 unique visitors to date. Not to mention extensive coverage in a variety of major news outlets ranging from The New York Times to Reuters, all of which cite it as a compelling example of a new kind of video game: activist titles.

The makers of activist games borrow from commercial role-playing, strategy, and other popular genres to engage players, but their primary goal isn't to turn a profit. Typically funded by foundation grants, the games aim to educate and mobilize players around a cause such as protecting the environment or fighting genocide. Many of the titles are distributed free to classrooms or are downloadable online without a charge.

FINDING FUNDING. But the makers of such games have been in a bit of a bind. To get their message out, they need money to produce their games. Yet they want to give away their titles for free, so that they can reach as many players as possible. Typically, they've solved the problem by getting funding from foundations, but their operations can only scale so far on grant money. And though such do-gooder games are clearly gaining attention from the public and the press, the commercial video-game publishers have been slow to show interest in these often politically charged titles.

Now, a few adventurous companies are beginning to take notice of the genre as the for-profit benefits of sponsoring nonprofit games are starting to emerge. For corporations and for-profit game developers and publishers, underwriting or sponsoring activist games is an opportunity to attract new, nonhardcore audiences to video games. “The more types of games there are out there, the healthier the ecosystem,” observes Evan Wilson, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities. “More people will eventually be drawn toward playing and purchasing video games when they see genres they know and are comfortable with.”

Then there's the publicity side. A tiny handful of activist games are currently sponsored by corporations who recognize that an activist game can be a powerful marketing tool, at a time when social entrepreneurship and corporate philanthropy are making headlines. The student developers of Darfur Is Dying won an MTV competition. And the game was co-funded by the Reebok Human Rights Foundation (with the International Crisis Group). Microsoft (MSFT) funded another recent activist game, Four Years in Haiti, about poverty-stricken children in the Caribbean country and their struggles to find the resources to go to school. All of these big-brand sponsors benefit from associating themselves with a good cause.

NETWORKING FOR EXPOSURE. That activist games are attracting more attention among the public at large was evident at this year's Games for Change conference, an annual event that brings activist game developers and designers together to discuss the topic of educational political games. More than 200 attendees—twice as many as last year—showed up at the annual event on June 27 and 28 at Parsons the New School for Design in New York.

Introducing activist and educational games to potential funders—corporate, government, and nonprofit—is one of the goals of the event. “Individually, each of these games is way too isolated in the world to gain attention. But seen together, they have more weight,” says Benjamin Stokes, co-executive director of the Games for Change conference. “We want to serve as connectors and bring the video-game industry into the social change sector.”

But there was a notable dearth of corporate types at the conference's “Expo Night,” a showcase of new activist games. While many of those in the room were academics, students, and nonprofit executives, representatives from the industry's leading companies—the Sonys and Take-Two Interactives of the world—were largely absent, even as casual observers or talent scouts.

When asked if any entertainment-game execs approached her at the conference with a job offer, Susana Ruiz, a University of Southern California student and the designer of Darfur is Dying, said no—despite the widespread buzz surrounding the project and the game's download track record. “They're not ready, I guess,” she says, laughing.

NEED BUSINESS MODEL. The main reason major gaming companies aren't knocking down designers' and developers' doors is that a viable business model for activist and educational games has yet to be proven. Another oft-cited reason is that the politically charged subject matter is too potentially controversial to handle.

“Why would Yahoo! Games put themselves in a situation where they might alienate some of their customer base with a politically themed game?” asks Eric Brown, CEO of ImpactGames. The startup is developing a title called Peacemaker, in which players choose to assume the role of either the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president. Via careful diplomacy and savvy military tactics, gamers must diffuse the tension between Israel and Palestine.

“Commercial companies are looking for good ROI,” says Brown. “And the popular notion is that games with a positive message are mainly educational, nonprofit tools.” Undeterred, Brown and his colleagues have set out to build a for-profit activist game company. And they've snagged at least one industry bigwig—Bing Gordon, a co-founder of Electronic Arts (ERTS)—to sit on the company's advisory board.

CLOSE MARGINS. ImpactGames' business plan is to leverage the low cost of digital distribution and generate a modest revenue stream from, say, $10 download charges. While Brown doesn't disclose the budget of Peacemaker, activist games—which range from simple Flash-based productions to those incorporating complex game engines and sophisticated graphics—can cost as little as $5,000 or as much as $3 million to create. That's a tiny fraction of bloated console-game budgets that can reach as high as $20 million. Even a nominal download fee may generate enough revenue to cover the production and distribution costs and deliver a healthy ROI, especially if ImpactGames can get a nice slice of the growing online gaming audience. A June 6, 2006, report from video-game industry researcher DFC Intelligence predicts that the online game market—which includes games distributed online—will grow from $3.4 billion in 2005 to $13 billion in 2011.

“We want as many people as possible playing Peacemaker, and that's why we're looking to market it to a very wide audience,” Brown says. To do that, and to produce future do-gooder titles requires funding beyond the initial startup costs. Which is why this activist game company decided that nonprofit was a nonstarter. A sales-revenue stream or sponsorship from a commercial gaming company is one sure way for activist games to build—and sustain—an audience that's big enough to make a long-term difference.


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