Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 3 (Mar. 2009)

Game Theory


AMD, for one, sees video games as an ideal platform for not only educating kids, but also for addressing social issues. And, AMD is not alone in its thinking.

A number of companies, organizations, schools, foundations, governments, and more are expanding the use of video games beyond their entertainment value. In fact, one such entity that is making a difference in this area is Games for Change (G4C), which provides support, visibility, and shared resources to individuals and groups using video games to spur social change, giving special assistance to nonprofits and foundations entering this field.

Recently, AMD teamed up with G4C to expand this initiative with an online tool kit, a guide to assist nonprofit organizations that are creating games containing social-­issue content focused on such topics as the environment, energy consumption, poverty, and health, for example. Offered through the AMD Foundation’s AMD Changing the Game initiative, the “Let the Games Begin: A Toolkit 4 Making Social Issue Games” contains resource information for those interested in creating these types of games. The kit (available at GamesforChange.org/toolkit) includes examples of successful titles with social content as well as in-depth presentations by game-design experts.

“AMD Changing the Game has created excellent opportunities for students to express their views on the world while learning important life skills through the experience of creating digital games,” says Allyson Peerman, president of the AMD Foundation, whose goal is to connect and empower individuals with knowledge, thereby opening doors to opportunity.

Game Partners
AMD Changing the Game is a signature program of the AMD Foundation and supports initiatives designed to help youth harness the power of video games with social content while learning critical life and educational skills in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). “We had been looking for the sweet spot in terms of an education signature program for AMD that we could deploy through our company sites around the world,” Peerman says of the initiative, which launched last June. “The primary criteria was that it had to tie closely to our business, and we wanted it to also reflect our long-standing commitment to education, which has been AMD’s philanthropic focus for more than 25 years.”


A Global Kids Playing for Keeps participant learns 21st century skills with an eye to social awareness.

According to Peerman, AMD has a vested interest in the development of STEM skills among today’s youth. “The more involvement we have with students now, the better the workforce we’ll have in the long run,” she says. “They will not always go into engineering, but the more we can get students engaged and excited about learning, the better off we all are.”

For this reason, AMD became excited about the gaming concept—that and the fact that AMD had acquired GPU/chipmaker ATI Technologies, at which time gaming literally became an even larger part of the company’s portfolio. After extensive research on gaming as a potential education initiative, the company discovered there is a strong connection between learning and gaming. In particular, when kids sit down to play games, they learn a great deal. “They acquire skills while having fun, and they don’t even realize they are learning them,” Peerman adds.

On another note, when kids become involved in the thought process of developing games—initially the conceptual process and then the more technical aspects—the skill sets they learn increase exponentially, Peerman contends. “That is pertinent to the STEM skill development,” she adds. “This is not just about meeting kids where they are; it’s not about games for the sake of games. They also learn about social issues during the process of learning about game development. It is turning games into a multifaceted education tool.”


Global Kids’ Ayiti looks at Haitian poverty.

Growing the Program

Changing the Game is focused on teens in late middle school and high school, between 13 and 18 years old. According to Peerman, while all kids in all socioeconomic groups play games, AMD’s focus is primarily on enriching the educational experience of disadvantaged teens. So far, the AMD Foundation has provided grants to five organizations through the initiative, including Girlstart, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit created to empower middle school and high school girls to excel in math, science, and technology, and Global Kids, a New York City-based group seeking to transform urban youth into successful students, community leaders, and global citizens (see “Making a Difference,” pg. 44).

“We would like to see them using games to express themselves and learning these critical-thinking skills as they go along,” notes Peerman. “We also want them to recognize the other component, workforce development. As the kids become involved and learn the process of making games, they are also exposed to the game development industry. Ultimately, some of them may choose that as a career path.”

That certainly may be the case with Girlstart: In Austin, where Girlstart is located, there is a shortage of game developers, and Peerman believes these studios will continue to look for good candidates to fill jobs.

While all the grants during the first year of AMD’s involvement have been to US organizations, the Foundation seeks to make this a global program. “Gaming is universal and transcends languages, and kids all over the world are using games,” says Peerman.

During this first-year build-up phase, AMD provided only monetary funding to the cause “because it took us a while to find the right candidates,” says Peerman, noting there are not many programs like G4C at the present time. “I think it’s an early emerging arena, and that’s good for us because we feel like we got in on the front end. We believe there is huge potential for this to grow.”

In addition, AMD provided monetary support for the Games for Change Festival. Now in its sixth year, this annual event brings together leading nonprofit groups, experts, and game developers to explore the real-world impact of video games as an agent for social change. Called “an early Sundance of video games for socially responsible game designers,” the Festival showcases some of the new, innovative titles in this area. During last year’s event, AMD, along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, co-funded a daylong workshop featuring presentations and brainstorming sessions by some of the nation’s leading authorities on social-issue game development. Topics that were covered included game design, fundraising, evaluation, youth participation, distribution, and press strategies.


Making a Difference

One organization reaping benefits from AMD Games for Change (G4C) partner grants is Global Kids in the New York City area. Global Kids embarked on this journey in steps through its Playing 4 Keeps program, which introduced teens to game design and how it could be applied to a serious issue. Next, a partnership was established with game-design company Gamelab, and a curriculum soon followed that combined serious issues with online game development.

With students taking the lead, the group created a rough prototype game called The Profiler, a casual game about racial profiling in airports. According to Barry Joseph, online leadership director, all the players claimed they had gained an increased understanding of global issues and game design by working on the title. “It was clear to us right away,” Joseph adds, “that game design could play a key role in developing 21st century literacy skills.”

After further steps, Global Kids launched a scaled-up version of the program at South Shore High School in Brooklyn, funded through a multiyear grant from Microsoft’s US Partners in Learning. During the first 10-month program, Playing 4 Keeps engaged 20 minority youth as they worked with professional game developers on the design, development, and dissemination of a professionally produced online game that could educate their peers on an important world issue.

Over the course of the year, the students were involved in weekly intensive and interactive after-school workshops that were divided into four sections: recruitment and training, learning about game design and global issues, building the game, and launching the game. They also attended workshops on global issues, such as defining human rights, racism, health, and more. Then, students combined these lessons by developing a game called Ayiti: The Cost of Life (CostofLife.org), whereby a player assumes the role of a family living in rural Haiti as they battle poverty.

In the years since, Global Kids leaders have developed Consent!, a virtual world simulation about medical racism in US prisons, and Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City (TempestinCrescentCity.org), a Web-based side-scrolled title developed with Gamepill about local heroes. All games have been featured at the Games for Change Festival; in fact, Ayiti won G4C’s first GaCha award for Best Awareness-Raising Game, and its development and subsequent impact are heavily covered in the G4C Toolkit.

“Within the after-school programs, students are drawn to games as a way of learning about global issues and are intrigued by the opportunity to develop a complex media project that has the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of people,” says Joseph. “They are gaining tangible skills that are applicable to a range of career paths and developing sophisticated 21st century information and communication technology skills. These include managing complexity, solving problems, and thinking critically; accessing and communicating information; understanding and addressing global issues; and learning from and working collaboratively with individuals of diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles.”

On a secondary level, says Joseph, is the educational impact the games have on those who play them.

“Because of their appeal, games possess an enormous opportunity to educate youth about substantive issues and to build critical skills,” Joseph points out. “Once engrossed, a young person playing a game about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, for example, can learn about the global impact of the epidemic, be directed to resources about it, and learn what he or she can do to address the issue through civic engagement. In the process, the person can gain digital-literacy skills by using a Web-based game and by using the Internet to research a substantive issue. Within the game, situations and strategies may exist that build the 21st century skills of problem-solving and critical thinking, among others.”  –Karen Moltenbrey



Program Expansion

Funding a handful of applicants was the first step. Now, AMD is taking its second step, expanding its involvement by releasing the tool kit as a way of helping other organizations wanting to become engaged with game development. Along with introductions, explanations, and examples of games, the kit features a compilation of presentations made during the Festival last June. It also contains advice from experts in the gaming industry.

“It is not a technical guide that says, this is how you make a game,” explains Peerman. “Rather, it provides an overview of the game-making process, particularly if you are running a nonprofit or some type of after-school or summer program, or are an educator looking for a way to start a game initiative for your kids.”

As Peerman points out, most teachers or on-site staffers who are guiding teens in this endeavor do not necessarily have the required technical game-development skills. Nor do they know how to get such a program up and running. To this end, the kit lists questions the educators or administrators should ask, informs them as to what decisions need to be made, and then walks them through seven stages of effective game design—what it takes to put a game together. “You hear from a number of experts in the field talking about different pieces of those seven steps,” says Peerman.

In a related endeavor, AMD is working with PETLab, a joint project of G4C and Parsons The New School, to create a game-design curriculum for teens. The curriculum, geared for after-school or workshop applications, will allow students to build their own social-issue games. It will be piloted in five communities this spring. “We want these kids to play around with it, to use it, and let us know what works and what doesn’t,” says Peerman. “Our intent is to standardize this curriculum and to distribute it open source to anyone running this type of program.”

In a future step, Peerman would like to see the Foundation contribute technology toward this cause, as well. Currently, she and others are meeting with AMD’s own gaming experts to find out what would be the ideal product to optimize this experience for the participants going through the curriculum. “Our ultimate goal is to provide a package to these nonprofit recipients whereby they not only get the tool kit and the curriculum, but also get the AMD technology to run it on,” says Peerman.


The youth-created Consent! is a world simulation game focused on medical racism in US prisons.

For the most part, participating organizations have the necessary hardware available, often acquired through donations. As for the software needed to create the games, most use one of two common, basic gaming platforms to create their titles: Gamelab’s Gamestar Mechanic (through funding from the MacArthur Foundation) and MIT’s Scratch.

With limited internal resources in terms of staff and money given today’s economic climate, the AMD Foundation is challenged to find the time and funds to grow this initiative. However, Peerman and her group are determined to do so, and are building an internal team of graphics experts and others who can help champion this program externally.

For Peerman and AMD, the benefits of the program add up to something special. “AMD’s graphics and processing chips are critical to AMD’s success and are a vital part of the gaming space.,” she says. “On the other hand, AMD has a long-standing legacy in terms of funding education. When the two pieces came together, it really created an exciting combination."

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Computer Graphics World.

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