Microsoft wants its free development toolkit to be used by people to create socially conscious games.
I spoke with XNA General Manager Chris Satchell at Microsoft's Expo Night at the 2008 Games for Change festival. The event, held earlier this week at Parsons School of Design in New York, showcased the work of students who used XNA to create games about global warming, malaria prevention and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, among other social causes.
"When look at Gen X and Y, that's a big age range playing games at the moment, but they're also very concerned about social issues," Satchell said, echoing his keynote about how XNA can help change the world of games. "I think if you speak about issues people are passionate about, and if you do it on a medium that they like, like gaming, then you've really got the ability to influence them going forward."
Can social change games have as much impact as something like Al Gore's Oscar-winning, global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth"?
"Absolutely," Satchell said. "As we get more proficient as creators telling these socially aware stories and game concepts, I really think there's no reason why people can't speak through a narrative just like another medium could."
However, with developers grumbling about the current state of video game storytelling in general, I wondered if it was even possible to create a socially conscious game with a compelling narrative.
"I think we have some peaks in the industry that are extremely good but overall, we're still a very young industry in learning," he admitted.
But he also argued that social change games don't necessarily need a strong narrative to be effective, and that games could be more meaningful because of the interactivity involved.
"So more than just somebody telling you the impact, you can have these games and see the impact on the environment with the decisions that you're making," he said. "I think that games can even be a more powerful medium for education, for helping people really understand how the choices we're making today in society is going to effect the world we live in tomorrow."
Satchell noted that while social change games are meant to teach, they're also ultimately meant to be fun. "Some people I think mistakenly believe if it's educational and it's fun, it's 'Edutainment,' and it must be skewed younger," he said. "[These games] have to have fun and the education aspect, and the games I've seen here, they're great for older game players. And they're hitting all the spots, like puzzle games, action games; there's nothing childish about the messages that people want to talk about."
And does Satchell think that the 12 million Xbox Live users, even the rowdy, trash-talking "Halo 3" players, are ready for social change games? "I don't think [those kind of players] represent the mainstay," he said. "But there's always people in any community in any walk of life that don't want to listen or just want to be noisy."
"But there's lots of people that play Xbox Live," he continued. "I think if you made these types of games available to them, I think people will sit up and take notice and enjoy playing them. And it won't work for everybody; not every film hits everybody and is universally liked. I think there's lot of people in our audience that will really enjoy this socially relevant gaming as well as the pure blockbuster gaming."
What do you think, XBL gamers? Do you want more games that have serious, real-world messages?