Ian Bogost speaks about Game-O-Matic at Games 4 Change 2012.

If there is one conference that brings together the who-is-who of “serious games” it’s the Annual Games for Change Festival in New York City. The Argentina Innovation Lab headed over to the big apple to see what’s new, meet the movers and shakers and lay the ground for our own games.

From the very beginning it was clear that the interest in games as a tool for social change continues unabated. Assembled at the conference grounds at New York University for the “pre-festival summit” were all the US government agencies you can think of (the “Federal Games Working Group”). From USAID to the FBI, from the US Department of Education to the Department of Homeland Security, all the way to NASA and the Department of State trying to get in touch with game developers, enticing them with funding pots to “gamify” government. There was a gold-rush atmosphere for sure.

While these are not easy company for Greenpeace, one of the reasons we were there was to get our hands on suitable satellite images from NASA for AIL’s upcoming forest monitoring social game. People from NOA and NASA were nice enough, and while Landsat 5, which has been providing free images for decades, has finally bitten the dust earlier this year, NASA is deploying a new Landsat satellite in 2013, which is promising great imagery free of charge to anybody. Good times to come for web-mobilized earth watching!

The second day the “real” summit started, and it brought many interesting presentations. After the ever-present Jane McGonigal reiterated her faith in games changing the world, developers from Vienna University presented “YourTurn! The Video-Game” in which players together create video mash-ups of YouTube content. Their game was designed to overcome ethnic boundaries between youth groups in Austria, but we could not help thinking “what if we deployed this to our cyberactivists and have them play to build collaborative video messages to Shell to stop drilling in the arctic”? Tribe-based competitive video production was also the theme of an Alternate Reality game called “Reality Ends Here” presented by University of California Media Arts School, and while a bit more local than what the Austrians did, really rocked,

Celebrity game guru Ian Bogost presented the “Game-o-matic” – a pretty cool tool that allows you to generate simple games in minutes through “concept mapping” of relevant actors and their relationships. Input a sentence like “KFC ← cuts down ← trees ← in Indonesia” and the generator will spit out a game it thinks represents the relationship. Some are pretty silly, others are quite nice, but all take just a second to generate, and if you don’t like what comes out at first, discard and try again. Once you have a game whose mechanic you like, skin it with your own visuals by uploading pictures, picking colors etc and voila. In a few minutes you have a quick game that you can use to spice up your text.

The tool is being released open source, and while its main target are newsgames, it should be great to try it out for Greenpeace. After all, both the media and ourselves face the same problem – how to produce something catchy and visual, quickly enough to not have the news be stale by the time the game is finished, and it be cheap to boot. Still in private beta, but check out the video of Ian’s session here. Bring it on, Game-o-matic!

There were also a number of anti-advergames (mind-bomb games) on display, such as “Sweatshop: The game” (should I hire more child workers or cut safety measures? Eliminate the lunch break? A poor sweatshop owner has to make hard choices to make that extra buck!) and Paulo Pedercini’s excellent satirical game “Unmanned”. Here, the player takes the role of a US drone pilot, remotely hunting terrorists in Afghanistan by day, and coming home to his family every day at night after a hard day’s work. But not all is as easy as it seems… ? Unmanned rightly took home several of the Games for Change Awards 2012, and we are trying to get Paolo to be a judge in our Buenos Aires Campaign Games Challenge later this year – keeping fingers crossed.

Amongst the other note(and play)worthy nominees have a look at “Spent” (which very effectively puts you in the shoes of a poor person’s daily squeeze), the simply charming “Way” (in which two random strangers must communicate only via gestures to navigate a labyrinth together to the end — only then can they get to know each other), and, last but not least, “The End” (a fascinating take on, well, death).

From the sheer number of presentations on the education capacity of games it must be acknowledged that teaching is still the mainstay of serious games. There was even a dedicated side-event only on that alone. But things are changing fast, and this is a very young field. Stay tuned!

Photo courtesy of Games for Change. Some rights reserved