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January 2013

For Goodness' Sake

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor, Sarah Beauchamp, Assistant Editor, Katie Kervin, Assistant Editor
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Is your New Year's resolution to be a better person? Find inspiration in five meetings and conferences that are making the world a better place — one neighborhood, one energy system, one veteran, one video game, and one young leader at a time.

Games for Change Festival

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor

The ‘active participation’ that video games demand is exactly why Games for Change is convinced they can foster education, awareness, and social good.

We know what you're thinking: What does a video game have to do with changing the world? How do 10 million teenagers parked in front of their Xbox, killing zombie hordes, make things better for anyone?

In some ways, you've answered your own question — and identified the potential impact of the Games for Change Festival. “The mission is pretty simple,” said Asi Burak, co-president of the New York City-based Games for Changes organization. “How do you take the medium of video games, that we strongly believe is becoming one of the most dominant if not the dominant medium of this century — how do you take it and utilize it for social good?”

Launched in 2004, the festival brings together “a mix of different people that are coming from very, very different places,” Burak said. Professionals from government agencies, nonprofits, and corporations — “usually from social-responsibility programs” — join video-game makers for a three-day program that celebrates and explores the power of video games to raise awareness of important social issues, provide sophisticated education, and even change behavior. “Unlike the media that came before or that are competing with video games,” Burak said, video games have “attributes that really, really map very well to social change, to being active in the world, to learning, and it's very different than traditional media that we know.”

At the 2012 Games for Change Festival, which was held at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on June 18-20, more than 800 attendees had a variety of programs to choose from, including a daylong track for the Federal Games Working Group, which, according to the festival's website, is “designed to network game developers and researchers interested in working with U.S. Federal Agencies such as National Air and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).” There were also hands-on workshops to show educators how to use game-design programs as part of school activities, an Awards Arcade where attendees could play the games nominated for Games for Change Awards, and keynote presentations by game designer Jane McGonigal, Atari founder Nolan Bush-nell, linguistics and games researcher James Paul Gee, and video-games industry executive Lucy Bradshaw.

“Traditionally it's been more of a conference, and we're changing that all the time to make it more of a festival,” Burak said. “We're trying to bring more activities that are either open to the public or that are more about active participation. If it's a game conference, let's playgames.” That includes games such as Inside the Haiti Earthquake, which offers “a really, really serious take on what it means to be in that environment and actually uses real-world videos,” Burak said, “and you make choices and [the plot] branches [out] based on your choices”; and Unmanned, which is “about a guy that wakes every morning and goes to fly drones and bomb people in the Middle East. Through the game you learn that the only point he sees real blood is when he shaves in the morning.…That's a very political statement, and a very artistic game.”

That's par for the course with Games for Change, which aims to “reach beyond the converted,” Burak said. “If you do it well, and if you're not preachy and the game is still fun and entertaining, it would be a great way [for someone] to become aware or interested in an issue that he wouldn't otherwise be interested in.” Recently Games for Change partnered with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to present a series of interactive digital games at the museum's Margaret Mead Film Festival — including The Cat and the Coup, which tells the story of the U.S.- and British-backed overthrow of democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 from the point of view of Mosaddegh's cat; Sweatshop, which Burak calls “a sharp and satiric look at the mechanics of sweatshops”; and Guess My Race, an iPad game that shows players dozens of faces and asks them how they think each person answered the question “What race are you?” “It's very interesting to see how people define themselves and how tough it is to guess [their race],” Burak said, “and those moments of surprise and frustration are very important.”

That also goes for Games for Change itself, which has been almost too successful in attracting people from outside the industry to the festival. Suddenly, game makers have begun to feel marginalized — something that crystallized in 2011 when Al Gore appeared as a keynote speaker. “The game makers in the audience raised questions — almost like, ‘Why is he here?'” Baruk said. “Obviously they understand what it means to the power of games, but it was also for them a big question of where games were going and what does it mean for them and the medium they love so much and how it's going to change.”

Burak and his team are figuring out how to bring the game professionals back into the fold. “Part of the answer to that,” he said, “is to create a shared common experience, so [it's] less about dividing the tracks and more about unifying the program, so everyone is together in the same room. There can't be anything better than bonding people through play. It's our message. If this is what we're advocating for, that's what our festival is for.”

Military Social Work Conference

By Sarah Beauchamp, Assistant Editor

As thousands of veterans return from overseas, the University of Texas School of Social Work prepares to aid their transition back into civilian life.

Just 69 miles north of Austin sits Fort Hood, one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world. “Many, if not most, of the people deployed to Afghanistan are coming from there,” said Allen Ruben, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work.

In the next year, as the United States pulls more troops out of Afghanistan, Texas will see an influx of veterans — returning from lengthy tours during the longest combat engagement in U.S. history — in need of counseling and guidance while they adjust to civilian life. They'll arrive on the heels of military personnel who cycled out of Iraq from 2009 to 2011. In a New York Times column last spring, Timothy Egan cited a Pew study finding that more than 800,000 veterans are “re-entering society with some form of psychological trauma.”

That is the impetus behind the 2013 Military Social Work Conference, which the School of Social Work is hosting at Texas’ Thompson Conference Center on April 11-13. Presented under the theme “Civilian Social Work With Veterans Returning From Iraq and Afghanistan: Implications for Practice and Education,” the inaugural event will happen just four months after the release of the Handbook of Military Social Work — co-edited by Ruben, the conference's organizer; Eugenia Weiss, a social worker and psychologist who teaches at the University of Southern California;

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