Not your typical video games: Montreal lab puts focus on social impact

Games have evolved beyond a “purely entertainment medium”

MONTREAL – There’s no shortage of video games that give you a sense of what it’s like to fire a weapon, but few explore how and where they get made — and their unforeseen consequences on a global scale.

That’s the focus of a game in the works tentatively called Gun Factory, one of four projects at a Concordia University lab that helps produce games with an eye toward social change.

Mehrdad Dehdashti, part of a team designing the game, said he wanted to turn the debate about violence in video games on its head. The game puts the player in the shoes of a gun factory owner.

“In first-person shooters they give you all these weapons, but no one asks where the weapons come from,” said Dehdashti, a recent McGill University graduate who has worked at Academia Summer School hosted by Ubisoft, one of Montreal’s top game developers.

“The actual idea is about how profiteering works, and it shows that as you develop more guns it doesn’t really solve the world’s problems.”

Dehdashti is part of a summer program called Critical Hit, which brings together media artists, designers and programmers with mentors from Concordia and Montreal’s flourishing gaming industry.

One of the program’s founders, a sociology professor at Concordia, said there’s a growing interest in making games have that have “evolved beyond the notion of a purely entertainment medium.”

“They are now a medium for cultural expression and that includes political, social and all kinds of cultural critique and comment,” said Bart Simon, director of Concordia’s Centre for Technoculture, Art and Games.

Other games being developed include Skipping Stones, a slow-moving meditation that looks at heartbreak and loss. Another, Rat Story, tries to bring attention to the problems of waste recycling in the developing world.

The key, first and foremost, is to make sure games with a social focus are fun, according to the head of a Montreal-based gaming company partnering on the project, along with Dawson College.

“We highly prioritize the fun component and the storytelling component, then subtly look for ways to introduce the social angle,” said Angelique Mannella, CEO at Decode Global, which specializes in games for social impact.

“As opposed to educational games that might have extremely specific learning objectives, we really focus on storytelling opportunities within games.”

Decode Global’s first game, Get Water, follows a character named Maya as she collects water for her family. The game is meant to highlight how the scarcity of water in developing countries significantly hinders girls’ education.

The hope, Mannella says, is that such games will expose youth to important global issues .

“Our belief is that to get them interested in what’s going on in the world, we have to do it through a medium that is most relatable to them,” she said.

As Mannella points out, the market for video games continues to grow.

Worldwide, it’s expected to climb from $63 billion in 2012 to $78 billion in 2017, according to industry research from DFC Intelligence.

There’s also a growing interest in what’s become known in the industry as “games for change.”

The annual Games for Change festival in New York City, which marked its tenth year this June, regularly attracts top industry reps, politicians, civil society groups, and game developers.

At the Concordia lab, which has secured funding from the Quebec government, Simon hopes to develop games without any immediate pressure to turn a profit.

Factory Gun, for instance, is just a prototype at this point — even the name will likely change —but Dehdashti and his team hope to eventually bring it to market.

“I have seen few games do such a thing,” Dehdashti said.

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