MET:Simulation for Social Change

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This page originally authored by Jeff Maynard (2007)

This page edited by Oliver Applegarth (2008)

This page edited by Kirk Wilkes (2009)

This page edited by Bruno Chu (2013)

Games for Social Change

A simulation for social change is the attempt to harness and apply the collective experiences from models designed to represent real-world systems for the purposes of engaging collective social and political action. The conceptualization of simulations for social change exists in two parts: first the re-creation of captivating real-world systems encapsulated in a simulation model with both predictable and variable outcomes; and second, the acquisition of problem-solving skills rooted in critical pedagogy through the context of a simulated model for the stated purpose of social transformation.



A simulation is a representation of a real-world system. It affords us a safe, risk-reduced environment to model natural systems for research, training and education. Educational simulations have four general objectives (Paul, Eldabi, & Kuljis, 2003). These are to teach students;

  • How to learn ~ so students do not accept things "as they are"
  • How to think creatively ~ use or create models that spark debate
  • How to problem solve ~ develop an understanding of the complexity of the problem
  • How to be professionals ~ help students recognize biases and prejudices in oneself and others

Simulation content moves beyond the linear context we are most familiar learning in, and brings us to experience content that is not only linear, but systemic and cyclical. When learning with a simulation, the player can experience a narrative that is systemically linked, and can experience how making one choice will effect another. In this way players can learn "in motion", thus simulating the dynamic processes of social systems. This experience gives us an understanding of material and content that is "deep and flexible" (Aldrich, 2004). Simulations like civilization IV create this kind of deep and flexible understanding of history, as it allows the user to experience how history developed.

The debriefing process at the end of a game or simulation is critical for imparting understanding. The game itself might bring some realizations, however the discussion and debriefing allows us to transform game events into learning experiences. Many simulations may also create emotions and outcomes that were not expected. The debriefing allows the players to organize thoughts and emotions through self-reflection. Many simulations have this element build into the interface (example: Darfur is Dying), yet some have not fully harnessed this design feature.

Social Change

The term ‘social change’ in this context refers to the progressive development of human social behavior in a society. Thus the concept of social change is change in human behaviors for the betterment of the collective. This definition as outlined by Haferkamp and Smelser (1991) describes social change as the evolution towards a higher social order, in other words social progress.

Games for social change – This is a term referring to a subset of computer games whose themes revolve around such social issues as poverty, war, the environment, or race relations (to name a few themes). The purpose is not to study the outcome but to educate the player about the social issue in question. Gaming for social change should therefore not be confused with Social simulation, which is a term describing the use of computers to simulate every aspect of human behaviour in order to study outcomes.

Simulations and Social Change

As the nature of simulations enables users to learn inter-relationships, think creatively, problem solve and question biases, this model of learning 'in motion' makes them an effective primer for social change in issues like poverty, violence, justice, equality, environmental stewardship, and crime. These issues are dynamic and complex and can not be approached in a linear fashion. There are not seven steps to solving world hunger! Social change requires a deep and flexible understanding of the issues and their interrelations. Also, many social issues are rooted in cultural misunderstandings and are perpetuated by conflicting viewpoints and tensions between people who take different stances. The ability of simulation to provide role-play into different viewpoints helps to ease this tension.

Origins and Influences

Serious Games Initiative

Ideas surrounding the use of video games for social transformation began in the early 1990s when the commercially successful video games titles such as SimCity, Civilization, Hidden Agenda, and others have been used as learning tools in schools and universities across the globe.[1] Ever since, there have been concerted efforts to harness and apply the ideas, skills, technologies, and techniques used in commercial entertainment games for purposes other than entertainment. In 2003, the Serious Games Initiative (SGI) began hosting a series of summits with the stated goal of developing a “serious games” industry. Since that time, the SGI has hosted several major workshops and published several articles resulting in game designs which have attempted to solve problems in areas as diverse as health-care, education, homeland security, corporate management and many more.[2] Currently sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the SGI’s most recent mandate is to fund, support and promote computer games that educate on social issues.

Games for Change

One of the important offshoots of the SGI is the subgroup Games for Change (G4C). The group’s stated mandate is to use digital games for social change (Wikipedia). An individual game may also be referred to as a "game for change" if it is produced by this community or shares its ideals. "Games for Change" is also the name for the non-profit organization which is building the field by providing support, visibility, and shared resources to individuals and organizations using digital games for social change.[3]

Alternate Reality Games

The concept of alternate reality gaming is mostly attributed to the pioneering work of Jane McGonigal, a bestselling author, motivational speaker and world-renowned video game designer. According to McGonigal, an alternate reality game (ARG) is any game technology that can be used to organize real-world activity (McGonigal, 2011, p. 125). Specifically, ARGs are designed with the following four intrinsic rewards in mind: more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connectivity, and more meaning. Stated in another way, ARGs are games that players play to get more out of real life, as opposed to playing to escape real life (McGonigal, 2011, p. 125).

Since 2009, McGonigal along with the company "Gameful" which she founded in 2009, has helped create several award-winning ARGs attracting players from more than 30 countries in on six continents, partnering with organizations such as the American Heart Association, the International Olympics Committee, the World Bank Institute, and the New York Public Library. [4]

Past Simulations For Social Change

September 12th : It’s a Toy World

Septemeber 12th was explicitly designed to “explore some aspects of the war on terror.” It is important for students and adults alike to question the value of military action in the aftermath of September 11th. This simple simulation was designed to spark debate and illustrate a reality of the war. It's message is very political. In the simulation each time you attempt to bomb a terrorist, you end up killing civilians. Then the grieving citizens pick up guns and become new terrorists. It is a game that cannot be won.

Pomp and Circumstance

This is a simulation/game of adolescent decision making regarding sexual activity and contraceptive use. Kashibuchi & Sakamoto (2001) did a comparative study of this simulation with a control group watching similar content on T.V. and video. There was no conclusive data to distinguish the educational effectiveness of the simulation over the videos under normal treatment, however when the roles of the players were reversed (boys playing as girls, and girls as boys) the impact was considerably stronger. When you play a role different that that of your normal life, you bring awareness to yourself and to the role that you are playing. This interplay affords a different viewpoint on reality.

3rd World Farmer

3rd World Farmer is a simulation of the mechanisms that cause and sustain poverty in 3rd world countries. The player has the task of managing the farm from year to year making decisions on which crops to plant, and animals to house. The player must keep track of their operational budget, and their family’s health. During each yearly cycle, system events occur that impact the market yield of the farm, and the player must make decisions on what to do for survival. This simulation puts the player into some of the realities many people face living in a 3rd world country. As a primer for education this has a myriad of possibilities. With further debriefing after this game a student might be motivated to learn about;

  • How the global food market works
  • The 80/20 world
  • Issues around education in the 3rd world
  • Natural and political events that have occurred in 3rd world countires
  • and more... The Take Action page is hyper-linked to many NGO's and relief agents


Developed by the World Bank Institute in collaboration with game designer Jane McGonigal, EVOKE was created in 2010 as a comic-book narrative which called on players to become agents of social change. Using the game's "superpowers," such as collaboration, resourcefulness and local insight, they invented solutions to humanity's greatest threats, then shared those ideas in blog and video posts. The most innovative solutions received seed money, scholarships or mentorships to turn fledgling ideas into functioning social enterprises. Evoke sparked a worldwide movement. Its first round saw 19,000 players collaborate to increase food security and access to clean water, and fight poverty in 130 countries. After 10 weeks they had founded 50 real-world organizations, including Libraries Across Africa, now in its pilot phase in Gabon.[5]

Club Penguin’s Coins for Change

In 2010, Club Penguin created the wildly successful Coins for Change program targeting players 10 years and younger bringing the concept of games for social change to the pre-teen demographic. Players choose from various penguin avatars, decorate their igloos and earn coins to distribute, prioritizing needs and assessing social impact by donating to real-world causes. Coins for Change is still an active game and to date, Club Penguin donations to the social change organization Free The Children has helped 200,000 kids go to school and has provided medical care for two million people across the world.[6]

The Future

Block by Block using Minecraft

In September 2012, in collaboration with the UN-Habitat’s Sustainable Urban Development Network, Mojang (the creators of the highly popular network game Minecraft) began the Block By Block project to create real-world environments in Minecraft. The project allows community members who currently live in the neighborhoods a chance to participate in the design changes they would like to see. Using Minecraft, the community has helped reconstruct the areas for development, and community members are invited to enter the Minecraft servers and modify their own neighborhoods. According to Mojang, the three-year partnership will help support UN-Habitat’s Sustainable Urban Development Network to upgrade 300 public spaces by 2016.[7] The first pilot project began in Kibera, one of Nairobi’s informal settlements, and is in the planning phase.

MinecraftEdu using Minecraft

Minecraft has also been used as a social change agent in various educational settings. In 2011, [[1]] was formed with the stated objective of using Minecraft as an educational tool into schools throughout the world. The group works in collaboration with Mojang to make the game accessible for schools. By September 2012, MinecraftEdu claims to have approximately 250,000 students around the world using Minecraft through their organization (Duncan 2011). Through the game, educators have developed a wide variety of activities to help educate students in a wide variety of subject areas including history, language arts and science. The most famous example coming from Joel Levin, a first-grade teacher who experimented with Minecraft as a platform to foster creativity (Duncan, 2011).


The latest alternate reality game (ARG) designed by Jane McGonigal, SuperBetter! launched in 2012 as an ARG targeting players who wish to tackle a variety of personal challenges; from obesity to asthma to addiction. McGonigal drew personal inspiration for SuperBetter! while recovering from a traumatic concussion (Zackariasson & Wilson, 2011). Players travel through several missions while playing; the “bad guys” and “power-ups” change depending on the condition, and users can share ideas via forums. The goal is to build resilience and overcome your issue whatever it may be. The game was created with guidance from doctors, psychologists, scientists, and medical researchers. The hope is that playing the game will harness positive emotions that will lead to better health.[8]

Critical Analysis

The use of simulated situations and games for social education and change is in its infancy. While noble in theory, there are critical issues to be explored

  • There is as of yet no proof that these games create increased social change. This is difficult to measure, but in the absence of data one can always question whether this is a legitimate use of resources for social change.
  • Social simulation and games for social change attempts to reduce complex human interactions to simple formula on which to base conclusions.
  • Can a generation of individuals who have grown up within the modern world of graphic computer games and multimedia appreciate the message sent through these games?
  • It is highly debatable (and thus continues to be hotly debated) if a product that is viewed/described as a videogame can ever really measure up to be more than entertainment. This issue was referred to succinctly by Microsoft’s Neil Thompson, stating that the videogame industry is “in the business of producing fun, not education”. He goes on to say that game developers in this industry risk losing a lot of money if they start producing “edutainment” type product because “I don’t think it’s ever been done in a clever or good way because you lose the focus of it being fun and involving” (Thompson, 2008). Related to this writes Newsweek columnist Christopher Werth, is the reason why the big commercial game developers have long steered clear of politics; it is well understood that it is the critical “fun factor” (and not a requirement of deep, thourough thinking) that sells videogames. Further, “a vocal contingent of the on-line gaming community is sure to let them know whenever they stray”(Werth, 2009) from what they the gamers want. In this context it is perhaps not surprising that videogame improvements over the years have tended to be about little more than better and better graphics. Indeed as Ian Bogost of the Georgia Institute of Technology notes, “even many of the blockbusters with the most advanced 3-D graphics still employ the concepts established by Atari in the 1970s – move stuff around on the screen and run it into other stuff”. Finally, it is worth noting that for a game to be truly educational there is a need for a teacher (or overseer?) to track and evaluate the activity of the student and monitor if learning outcomes are being attained. If a videogame is to include this functionality/expectation many students will undoubtedly cease to view it as a game; arguably a game by definition must be focused on fun. Most students are likely to see that the requirement of a deliverable has taken away the play aspect of the activity. It could perhaps properly be called an “audio-visual interactive assignment”, the key difference signified by the change of reference being that: an assignment as opposed to a game requires learning outcomes. Furthermore, arguably, a truly worthwhile assignment involves delayed gratification, with the most important aspects of learning taking place as the result of lengthy and wide ranging reading and thought, all of which are unusual if not to say non-existent aspects of true “video-games”.
  • "Suddenly a game that takes no more than 15 minutes to play seems too real and not real enough at the same time." (Vargas, 2006)
  • There are valid arguments being made that the systems found in many video games and simulations are manipulative because they artificially modify reflexive behavior through Pavlovian conditioning rather than through a voluntary response (Colchester, 2012).

Additional Resources

  • This website is a collection of games and simulations that are designed for social impact [2]
  • Simulation for Education Homepage [3]
  • Education Simulations [4] which developed the game Real Lives.
  • Jane McGonigal's work: Reality is Broken [5]


Alchemy (2010, January 27). About the EVOKE game. Retrieved from

Aldrich, C. (2004) Six criteria of an education simulation. Retrieved on Feb 21st 2007

Axelrod, R. (2003) Advancing the Art of Simulation in the Social Sciences. Japanese Journal for Management Information System, Special Issue on Agent-Based Modeling, Vol. 12, No. 3, Dec. 2003.

Colchester, N. (2012). Taking the Grind Out of Multiplayer: Rewarding More Than Just Numbers for Playing Multiplayer Games. Deviant Art. Retrieved from

Club Penguin. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Duncan, S. C. (2011). Minecraft, beyond construction and survival. Well Played 1, 1. Retrieved from

Games For Change. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Gilbert, N. (2004) Agent-based social simulation: dealing with complexity. Retrieved Feb 21st.

Haferkamp, H., Smelser, N. J., (1991) Social Change and Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Institute For The Future. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Next List Staff, The (2012, April 10). Retrieved from

McGonigal, J. (2011) Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Press.

M0rphzone. (2012, September 6). Retrieved February 23, 2013 from Wikipedia:

Rosemary Garris, Robert Ahlers and James E Driskall (2002), Motivation, and Learning: A Research and Practice Model, in Simulation & Gaming, 2002, 33, 441, retrived on Feb 21st 2007

Kashibuchi, M. Sakamoto ,A. (2001) The Educational Effectiveness of a Simulation/Game in Sex Education. Retrieved on Feb 21st

Paul,R., Eldabi, T., & Kuljis, J. (2003) Simulation Education is no Substitute for Intelligent Thinking. Retrieved Feb. 21st 2007

Serious Games Initiative. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Thompson, N. (2008) Educational games will lose you money. Games Industry Business Network.

Vargas, J.A. (2006) In 'Darfur Is Dying,' The Game That's Anything But The Washington Post May 1, 2006, CO1. Retrived on Feb 20th 2008

Werth, C. (2009). Shoot first, feel bad later. Newsweek. Jan 10, 2009

Zackariasson, P., Wilxon, T. (2012) The Video Game Industry: Formation, Present State, and Future. New York: Routledge.