Inside Games for Change 2017 + Award Winners!

By Harold Goldberg

The 2017 Games for Change Festival stunned me both in a bad way and in a good way. First, I thought I’d see far more New York-based reporters and critics than I did. The lack of mainstream coverage was a bit disappointing because of the deeply educational and wildly fantastic new ideas that were espoused in each session I observed.

I spoke briefly with Michael Gallagher, the president of the Entertainment Software Association who gave a morning keynote address, about the lack of reporters here. “That’s changing, though. This gets bigger every year. And this is a deeply focused event. Something like GDC has some of these kinds of presentations. But it might be harder to find them because you’re also hearing lectures about how to make water look more real.”

When Big Pharma Met Ubisoft

The first presentation I attended involved Amblyotech. It’s a U.S. company fighting against Amblyopia, better known as lazy eye, which affects three percent of the worldwide population. Amblyotech partnered with Ubisoft in Montreal to make Dig Rush, digital therapy which uses your “tablet as a neurological syringe.”

CEO Joseph Koziak said that after five years of development, 11 clinical trials with over 700 people, the FDA still has not approved the game’s release. Five years, as Ubisoft’s developer Luc St-Onge pointed out, is the length of one console cycle – a long time in the world of technology.

But five years isn’t a long time in the world of big pharma. Every moment of the game has to be carefully vetted and considered. If and when the FDA approves Dig Rush, we’ll update this story.

Smithsonian Videogame Pioneers Archive

Bethesda Softworks founder Chris Weaver spoke briefly about the Smithsonian Videogame Pioneers Archive. Weaver himself is an icon who helped make Gridiron! in 1986 before going on to helm The Elder Scrolls.

He said that when it’s completed, the archive will hold a vast series of videos and interviews with those who launched a fledging medium which today makes more money than the music and movie industry combined. Weaver softly pleaded with those in the audience to help in any way they can or, when it comes to journalists, interviews they may have with original pioneers.



All About Inclusion

In a smaller room, a group of educators gathered to listen to three makers talk about diversity in games and apps for kids. Ingrid Simone, the executive editor of Toca Boca, said the company has a checklist to add a wide variety characters in their apps and also has an external diversity board to oversee what they’ve missed. That careful planning regarding inclusion is one ingredient that makes Toca Boca’s mobile offerings so popular. It has released 37 apps that have been downloaded more than 150 million times in 215 countries.

Echoing Simone, Tinybop CEO Raul Guitierrez said that in their games construction kit Infinite Arcade and in their app The Human Body, the company goes out of its way to make sure they take inclusion seriously for all of its products. Even more, Barbara Chamberlin, who runs the non-profit design studio Learning Games Lab out of New Mexico State University, asks important questions like ‘How can every kid feel comfortable playing our game?’ She also has conversations with kids about their representation in games. One important question, posed Chamberlin, is whether kids “want to see themselves, people they like or people they aspire to be in games.”



As the day wound down into evening, it was time for the Games for Change Awards. Walden won two major awards. But the New York Videogame Critics Circle already knows the import of the Tracy Fullerton’s USC game. We’ve used Walden to mentor older adults about games at the Senior Planet Exploration Center. Here’s the complete list of winners.


Walden, A GameWalden, A Game, is a first-person simulation of the life of American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond. Players follow in Thoreau’s virtual footsteps, balancing their basic survival needs with a search for the sublime in the small beauties of the woods. 


Tracking IdaTracking Ida is an educational ARG inspired by pioneering journalism of Ida B. Wells and piloted in Watts in 2017. Players learned about Wells’ crusade against lynching by unlocking archives and solving puzzles. Connecting history to the present, they investigated police killings today and learned media making to spread awareness.


EverythingEverything is about the quiet explosion of life going on all around us. It is a simulation of reality where everything you see is a thing you can be, from animals to planets to galaxies and beyond – you can be the Universe or create your own.


Dragonbox BIG NumbersDive into the world of the Nooms and learn big numbers, long addition and subtraction! Your child is challenged to think strategically over the course of the game to trade resources and unlock new worlds.


At Play in the CosmosAt Play in the Cosmos puts players in the pilot’s seat, where they journey through space and time in a quest to solve mission challenges. The game helps students build an intuitive understanding of the scale of the universe, the tools astronomers use, and the process of science.

Constance Steinkuehler, Professor of Informatics at University of California, Irvine, was awarded the Vanguard Award for her contribution to the advancement of Games for Change.

Bernie DeKoven, Game Designer & Author, was awarded Lifetime of Play for his dedication to the conversation around play and games for over 50 years.

Harold Goldberg has written for Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post and others. He is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.


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