Games for Empowerment and Inclusion

On 23-24 January 2012 the European Commission hosted an Experts Workshop on Digital Games for Empowerment and Inclusion in Seville, Spain, in which I took part.

At the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (JRC-IPTS) about 25 experts in the field of gaming gathered for a two-day workshop to share their experiences concerning the use of digital games in contexts that empower its players.

The goal of the workshop was to learn from previous projects and initiatives regarding the use of digital games and their ‘serious’ applications. The participants represented different voices in society (e.g. academia, gaming industry, grass roots initiatives, public institutions) which allowed for a diverse scope of experiences. We were brought up to speed by An Jacobs and Jan van Looy from IBBT (Belgium) who presented the State of The Art in research on this topic so far. After this everyone was given the opportunity to comment and provide further information. This was done by short case-based presentations which allowed a first collection of best practices. Subsequently, it also served as an entry point for the second day; a brainstorming session to inform EU policy with regard to how games can support social inclusion and empowerment.

All cases were interesting and informative, but for me those that emphasized the importance of a collaborative creative effort between an expert and the group of interest were of particular interest. Scott Colfer from Media for Development in the UK, for example, discussed a project where he co-designed digital spaces with and for young dads (i.e. Via participatory media workshops these young dads were given a voice by learning to make –and subsequently share– short films about things that matter to them while at the same time promoting a positive image of young, active fathers. This practice empowered participants mainly by giving them the tools to create, communicate and inspire.

Another case that specifically focused on the value of co-creation was brought forward by Rilla Khaled from the IT University of Copenhagen. She talked about the Girl Game Workshop, which she and her colleagues organized in Denmark. Without prior knowledge or experience in game design, ten girls were asked to design and create a game within three days time. With this in mind a participatory design approach was chosen to structure the workshop. Participatory design is build around the premise of equality among the different stakeholders. This equality assumption, however, sometimes prevents empowerment of participants. As Khaled concludes in an article based on this case:

Empowerment is about the act of giving or delegating power or authority, whereas equality is about parity and sameness, thus not granting anyone more power than anyone else. So, while equality of perspectives may seem like a means of empowerment, equality-centric methods may not be the best avenue for  supporting empowerment, especially if the context of use is one in which egalitarianism is not the norm.

Concluding our two days Ewan McIntosh from NoTosh (based in Scotland) elegantly summarized the main insights of the workshop. Perhaps most important was the notion that playing digital games is not a sole endeavor but embedded in other areas of life. The future should then arguably be best approached by making sure that digital games –or any initiatives for that matter– become part of the network of daily life. This entails making sure all stakeholders see the benefits and opportunities that games (or game-like environments) might have to offer.

Further research, especially longitudinal research, is needed to provide evidence of and insight in the situations where digital games can be used for social inclusion and empowerment and where they cannot. And while the voices heard during this workshop were diverse and covered a broad cross section of society, one voice was not heard; that of the potential beneficiaries of these games and game-like environments. In my opinion, it would be very insightful to hear from the identified at risk groups themselves and ask them what stance they have concerning the use of digital games to include and empower them. Hopefully, the opportunity to talk with rather than about these groups will be taken as well, as this would constitute a first step in the right direction concerning social inclusion and empowerment.