When Gamers and Activists Collide, It's Not About Winning—It’s About Social Change

From computer screens to street play, these three game developers are redefining the medium by revealing a powerful new social potential in games.

Gloria O'Neill: Telling Native legends through the digital sphere

Photo courtesy of Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

Photo courtesy of Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

Alaska Native Gloria O’Neill partnered with an educational game developer to create Never Alone, a video game where the gamer plays as Nuna, an Iñupiaq girl, solving puzzles and learning about Alaska Native culture and legends.

Upper One Games, a product of this collaboration, is the United States’ first Native-owned video game developer. O’Neill oversaw production to ensure Native values were properly represented in the game, but notes it was a team effort, from chief financial officer Amy Fredeen to creative director Sean Vesce and the many Iñupiat storytellers who breathed life into the narrative.

The game places Nuna and her fox companion, both playable characters, on a coming-of-age journey against the harsh arctic terrain, occasionally helped along by wayfaring Natives and wispy white spirits. Players mark achievements by obtaining “Cultural Insights,” including real-life interviews with Alaska Natives and animations of Iñupiat myths and legends.

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The video game Never Alone uses characters and environments inspired by real people and traditional Alaska Native art.

Many of those legends are, after all, the same stories O’Neill heard growing up. She hopes the game has helped break ground on a genre of educational, culture-specific world games. “It seems people are really hungry for this,” O’Neill says. “They’re hungry to engage using technology and to learn about cultures around the world.”


Colleen Macklin: Educating on the playful side of activism

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Photo courtesy of Colleen Macklin.

At 9 years old, Colleen Macklin was designing her own video games about marine biology and dinosaurs, complete with Jacques Cousteau-like characters. Now, as a college professor and professional game developer, she is working to pass that childhood hobby on to the next generation of game designers.

Macklin co-directs PETLab, a laboratory at the New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York City that allows students and professors to collaborate on educational games to encourage social engagement. These include the interactive mobile game Re:Activism, which maps out a history of social movements as users roam the streets of major cities.

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Local No. 12's The Metagame is a card game that makes you rethink popular culture.

Macklin also takes a social justice angle in designing real-life games. PETLab’s Budgetball teaches students about the national debt. Games for a New Climate is a program that playfully teaches disaster preparedness in the face of climate change. Two of the lab’s projects even teach children to program their own video games.

Macklin’s many other projects with the lab—as well as the culture-focused games of Local No. 12, a small collective of college professors and Macklin’s creative outlet—bridge a gap between advocacy and play. “We’re not trying to talk about facts,” she says, “but to model how activism works.”


Paolo Pedercini: Defeating the status quo one game at a time

Photo courtesy of Paolo Pedercini.

Photo courtesy of Paolo Pedercini.

Paolo Pedercini was an activist and a punk band member before he tapped into the world of game design. In the early 2000s, he discovered that games could be used to express his rebellious thoughts on the world.

Pedercini is the brains behind Molleindustria, a game collective whose online games dig into the ugly side of major social and political conversations. He says his games are meant to wake people up to the ironies of mainstream culture and the absurdity of capitalist structures.

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Molleindustria's To Build a Better Mousetrap simulates worker exploitation.

“You are not only using your little game to say something, but using this little game to highlight what the other games are not saying,” he says. “It’s never just about saying certain things or envisioning certain kinds of worlds, but it is about deconstructing the language of power.”

Some of his more than two dozen games—like the anti-corporate McDonald’s Videogame or the fossil fuel industry simulator Oiligarchy—highlight the lunacy of modern industry. Others reveal a new social potential in video games. Phone Story, a mobile game depicting the unjust labor practices required for the production of smartphones, was banned from the iTunes App Store hours after its official announcement—demonstrating the power of games to turn a culture on its head.