It’s Time To Get Serious About Playing Games, / How Video Games Can Save the World

Gaming is big business—huge, serious business.

Worldwide, a $91 billion business in 2016, across multiple platforms: retail, online, mobile.

If Asi Burak has his way, games are going to get more serious still.

Burak is the co-author of the recently published Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World; CEO, Power Play; and Chairman, Games for Change. He’s also my fascinating guest on the Disrupt Yourself Podcast.

And an artist.

I asked him to read a short passage from his book, one which I think encapsulates his vision of video games as a force for good in the world:

“Imagine you walk in on an art form that most people don’t yet fully appreciate but that you know will grow into something incredible one day. A medium that many people consider shallow or violent, but whose potential to teach and transform is, in fact, limitless.”

Burak is seeking to upend the overflowing apple cart of the gaming industry, to move it from “shallow and violent” to become a transformative agent of social change; social good. Interestingly, his disruptive enterprise doesn’t bother industry leaders all that much—perhaps to them the movement is still too insignificant to worry about (after all, $91B is enough success to make any number of top executives feel confident and complacent about the future). But there has been pushback from the gaming community.

“It’s surprising how easy it is to convert people outside of gaming. For them it’s a very good story and they get it on every level once they have a chance to hear about it. To gamers, especially hardcore gamers—they feel maybe threatened, maybe it’s changing something they love so much and don’t think that you need to change. We get a lot of opposition….”

Burak is not discouraged. He believes in what he’s doing; believes that gaming is too big and too influential to be simply…well, fun and games. There is a power inherent in anything that captures the imagination, time and attention of so many throughout the world. Given time, he is convinced that gaming for social change is destined to make its mark. He points to the lengthy learning and growth curves of other highly impactful media: television, movies, even comic books. None of these burst on the scene in their present incarnation; all have evolved over time to fit their own substantial niches in society.

The idea that we will stay with what we have known about video games is just unacceptable because it will become more diverse. It will become something that will be 9 to 99 and everybody will learn to appreciate it. Even the word ‘gamers’…

“I’m talking about how weird it is that we have a medium where we separate gamers from non-gamers. You don’t have it with book readers or movie goers because everybody can appreciate a type of creation that is tailored to their taste.”

I have to admit that I’ve never thought of video games that way. Video games are for my adolescent son, mastering League of Legends in his free time, and some of his time that shouldn’t be quite so free. Video games are what kids do, instead of their homework. Right?

Is Burak suggesting that I could become a gamer? Really? Disruption indeed.

The games industry, ginormous as it is, is only in its pioneering stage, Burak insists. And the kind of product for which he advocates will have its day in the sun. What is required is a “commercial argument” as with documentary film. “Documentaries started to succeed in the theater in a big way; that attracted the attention of the big studios. I think that we’ll have the same here; something will succeed in a way that is unquestionable in the market….So far, they are very risk averse; they want to create the same stuff that’s proven to work.”

Burak’s origins lend gravitas to his mission. A native of Israel, he grew up in the shadow of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And his own signature offering in the games industry is an outgrowth of that early experience, as well as the time he spent in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), a compulsory two year, eight month service for men, and two year service for women, beginning at age 18.

After that service, while a Carnegie Mellon student, he pitched his idea for the video game, PeaceMaker, and brought it to fruition. PeaceMaker requires gamers to be decision makers in the long-running conflict between Israel and its Palestinian counterparts, decisions that then have visible life and death consequences. In an unprecedented fashion, the game utilizes real images and footage, leased from Reuters, making the gaming experience about as true to life as current technology will allow.

Burak admits that players can find it “stressful.” But he hopes it also advances the peace process in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts through education. “People…say, ‘I learned more by playing Peacemaker, your game, about the Middle East than I learned by watching the news for months….’ It’s very different than watching the news in a passive way.” Players gain appreciation for the seriousness of the choices, the difficulty, the gravity of the consequences.

Gaming doesn’t get much more serious than that.

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