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"Social Good" Festival Wants to Walk the Line Between Games and Gamergate

Now preparing its 12th annual event in New York City, Games for Change wants to mediate some of gaming's best and worst social elements.

Courtesy Games for Change

Last year was both great and terrible for the perception of videogames as more than pop entertainment.

Games for Change president Asi Burak.
Games for Change president Asi Burak.

Normally, the end of that sentence might carry a “depending on who you ask.” But both of these seemingly opposite claims are true for one person — Asi Burak, the president of the nonprofit Games for Change.

Burak’s organization is preparing to host the 12th annual edition of its festival, also called Games for Change, which tries to highlight the people and games that are using interactive entertainment to further “social good.” The event, scheduled for April in New York City, includes a three-day conference and an awards show, leading up to a free street fair where participants demo their games at a “public arcade.”

In an interview with Re/code, Burak said this year’s festival will spotlight the fact that more and more commercial games — such as Ubisoft’s World War I-inspired puzzle game Valiant Hearts, and 11 Bit Studios’ refugee survival game This War of Mine — are starting to explore mature, socially minded themes.

“Last year was the tipping point,” he said. “You could make a game, finally, that could sell and be of quality and not necessarily be commissioned by a foundation.”

Games for Change announced today that it is bringing in more representatives from the for-profit world to speak at its conference, including an educational team from Rovio and Oculus VR’s chief scientist Michael Abrash. But at the same time, Burak said the organization “obviously can’t ignore” Gamergate, a months-long (and arguably ongoing) clash among women in the gaming industry, largely anonymous Internet harassers and gaming journalists.

“We’re thinking very thoroughly about how to deal with it,” he said. “Our intention is to bring in Zoe [Quinn, an early Gamergate target] or other designers, most or all of them female, women who were attacked, to show what their games are.”

Independent developers like Quinn, who had their personal information exposed to the Internet and their physical safety threatened, are “the new generation of Games for Change,” Burak added, but the actual content of games such as Quinn’s Depression Quest was “kind of lost in the whole mess of noise” about gender. He also hopes to have a session dedicated to how more mainstream studios like Bioware, Naughty Dog and Telltale Games are “paving the way” in the aftermath of Gamergate.

I asked if the history of threats against critics of the online movement will change the security needs of the Games for Change Festival.

“It’s interesting,” Burak said. “I don’t know how we’re going to address it. At least in our communication, we’re not going to hide anything. We might deal with security on-site in different ways. … If we’re going to have Zoe Quinn, she’ll be promoted the same as any other speaker.”

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