Games for Change Learn: Using Games for Learning and Positive Social Impact

by Jenna Abrams

A Case Study from the Connected Wellbeing Impact Studio

“There’s the creation of games and then there’s helping kids understand how to be a force for good in online spaces. Those are two ways of lifting kids up in the digital wellbeing space.”

– Arana Shapiro, Chief Operating and Programs Officer at G4C Learn

In September of 2023 in New York City, a Bronx high school student stood in front of the United Nations at the UN International Day of Peace youth event. She was talking about human rights to a room full of policymakers, educators, and officials. But rather than presenting a traditional policy platform, she was talking about a game that she had made. The game, entitled “Human Rights in America: A Trial by Tale,” invites the player to take on the role of a journalist who is writing an article about a human rights issue from US history. Rather than just talk about human rights issues, the game invites the player to encounter them in an interactive and experiential way.

The student had submitted the game to the annual Student Challenge run by the education-focused division of Games for Change, a nonprofit that focuses on leveraging games to achieve positive social impact. The Student Challenge is one of several initiatives and events run by Games for Change Learn (G4C Learn) that elevate youth identities and perspectives while helping them develop valuable skills through learning about game design. A Trial by Tale was a finalist for the Give Peace a Chance theme category in 2023.

G4C Learn draws from Games For Change’s long history of empowering game makers to contribute to social change and create educational experiences for young people that cultivate their expertise in STEAM subject areas while developing relational and community-building skills. G4C Learn also offers professional development opportunities for educators that emphasize experimentation and play, and prioritize leaving educators with a strong foundation for incorporating design approaches and games into the learning experiences they curate for their students.

About the Connected Wellbeing Initiative

The Connected Wellbeing Initiative brings together researchers, designers, educators, and funders to accelerate youth and community-powered innovations for fostering wellbeing in a digitally connected world. The Initiative’s Impact Studio supports early- to mid-stage innovations that model the core principles and approaches of connected wellbeing:

Principles
  • Young people are leaders and sources of strategies, as well as beneficiaries.
  • Caring relationships and communities are tapped as essential supports for wellbeing.
  • Solutions grow from youth identities, interests, lived experience, culture, and communities.
Approaches
  • Connecting to people who get you
  • Harnessing tech for equity and inclusion
  • Diversifying and amplifying youth voice

Games for Change is one of 11 innovations in the Impact Studio that benefits from personalized advising, capacity building opportunities, and cross-sector connections to accelerate impact and build shared purpose. This case study highlights some of the innovative and meaningful ways that Games for Change supports youth wellbeing in the digital age.

G4C Learn has a nearly 10-year history of creating game-based student learning experiences in the Games For Change Student Challenge, but has recently begun expanding its programming and resources. Grounded in principles of design, play, community, voice, choice, and resilience, G4C Learn has been working directly with educators and students in both formal and informal learning environments (like libraries and museums) to leverage the power of games and play.

In this case study, we look more closely at G4C Learn’s approach and major programs, and examine how it takes a playful approach to supporting youth wellbeing.

History and Context

Students sharing game prototypes at a Student Challenge Game Jam in New York City, March 15, 2024. Photo credit: Mikko Castaño

Games for Change has been in operation since 2004, with a mission of bringing together game designers, policymakers, students, researchers, and practitioners to use games beyond the function of entertainment to make a difference. When it started in the early 2000s, G4C’s sole program was the annual Games for Change Festival. A little over a decade into running this festival, Games for Change was approached by the Department of Education to run a summit on games and learning. They reached out to researchers at the Institute of Play to provide the expertise for the summit. This opportunity was so successful that they integrated it as a recurring offering in the yearly festival.

This step into the education sector with the Department of Education summit was followed by a request from the NYC Department of Education to create a competition centered around game design for social impact. Once again, Games for Change reached out to educators and experts at the Institute of Play, and established what is now the annual G4C Learn Student Challenge.

When the Institute of Play closed in 2019, G4C decided to build in-house capacity for expertise, and began seeking grants that were more learning-focused, like ones supporting a teacher training program and a professional development catalog. As this growth in learning programs took off, G4C saw the need for a devoted umbrella division to house these projects, and Games For Change Learn was born.

A student sharing the importance of gaming in their life at a Student Challenge Game Jam. Photo credit: Mikko Castaño

Connected Wellbeing in Action

G4C Game Designer, Ember Rose, providing a student feedback and mentorship during a Student Challenge Game Jam on March 15, 2024. Photo credit: Mikko Castaño

In the sections that follow, we share more about the two-pronged approach G4C Learn takes to benefit youth, both directly and through educator professional development, and discuss how their approaches to learning are strong examples of looking to young people as sources of strategies and solutions, harnessing tech for equity and inclusion, and diversifying and amplifying youth voice.

Connecting youth with educators and industry professionals: Games for Change Student Challenge and Next-Gen Summit

The games created for the Games for Change Student Challenge span a wide range of subjects, genres, and platforms.

In “Trash Defense Simulator,” a tower defense style game created with Scratch by a high school student, the player works to eliminate trash before it makes it to the ocean. (Tower defense is a genre of strategy game where players defend territories by strategically placing defensive structures to slow or stop enemy attacks.)

“Ecotropolis: Building A Sustainable Future,” designed by a group of high school students with Scratch, has you play the mayor of an eco-hopeful city as you work to convert your city to clean energy and reduce carbon emissions.

The Games for Change Student Challenge is G4C Learn’s flagship program. Since 2015, the challenge has sought to help students build “21st century skills” while empowering them to be creators and to make an impact in their communities. The Challenge is part of G4C Learn’s mission to equip students with experiences and learning opportunities in areas they’re passionate about, and connect them with leaders and designers in the gaming industry. Prizes include coveted games, technology, and a significant scholarship opportunity ($10,000 for the 2023-2024 Challenge, sponsored by gaming company Take Two Interactive), but the benefits for students go far beyond the potential winnings.

Most students come to the challenge through their teachers, who lead students through a game-design curriculum created by G4C Learn that teaches students about steps in the design process, parts of a game, and helps them develop skills in platform navigation, storyboarding, and more. The curriculum culminates in students designing their own games, working alone or in teams, which are entered in the Student Challenge. The curriculum and the final products are geared towards social impact – games need to speak to the Sustainable Development Goals set forth by the United Nations, like “gender equality,” “clean water and sanitation,” and “sustainable cities and communities.” The student who was invited to speak in front of the UN, discussed in the opening of this case study, submitted under the theme ‘give peace a chance.’

Image: Student Alexandra D. presenting at the UN’s Youth International Day of Peace on 9/14/23, speaking about the game she designed with classmates Haruno S. and Nicole Z for the 2023 Games for Change Student Challenge in the theme category “Give Peace A Chance.”

For some students, the Challenge can create a pipeline to the gaming industry. One student built on her challenge work and ended up studying at a game design program at SUNY, and is now working as a designer in the industry. While professional outcomes like this are significant, they are not the primary goal of G4C Learn. Instead, the program focuses on youth development centered on creativity, play, and design and opportunities geared towards making a positive impact in the world. Even the little things matter. For example, when working on revision after revision of a game, “Kids get really good at giving and receiving feedback from one another, which is an empowering experience,” says Leah Hirsch, Senior Director of G4C Learn.

Resources created as part of the Student Challenge include both direct-to-student guides and curriculum tools like “Intro to Game Design” and “Parts of a Game” (below). In these materials we can see how games are a means to an end of deeper learning. “We’re doing a systems-oriented, deeper approach to learning,” explains Leah. “[Students] are not just learning about games, they’re learning about systems – and that’s applicable and relevant in such a broader way. They talk about parts of a game, what is a system, how do you make a system work?”

“Kids get really good at giving and receiving feedback from one another, which is an empowering experience”
– Leah Hirsch, Senior Director of G4C Learn.

Beyond STEAM and systems-based learning, social-emotional learning is a big part of what G4C Learn hopes to develop in students. “It’s really important for kids to understand how to [embody] pro social behavior when they move into online spaces,” says Arana Shapiro, Chief Operating and Programs Officer at G4C Learn. “There’s the creation of games and then there’s helping kids understand how to be a force for good in these online spaces. Those are two ways of lifting kids up in the digital wellbeing space.”

The Student Challenge has a broad reach – the 2022-23 Impact Report shows the latest Challenge bringing in 9,000 participating students along with over 300 educators, submitting a wide variety of original games from schools across 40 states.

Other invite-only events have built on the legacy of the Challenge, like the Next-Gen Summit held at the Microsoft Experience Center in New York in 2023, which provided opportunities for youth to make connections with a variety of people who can support and fuel their learning journeys. The Next-Gen Summit brought together game designers and owners of game companies from the same communities as invited youth, to envision together a future of games and how they can contribute to both the educational and social impact spaces. Bringing in industry professionals from the same backgrounds as the involved youth is an important way to help youth see themselves in the industries they want to be in, and learn that there is a career path to get there.

Image: ‘Parts of a Game’ resource created for the G4C Student Challenge.

The event was indicative of G4C’s commitment to walking the walk around the emphasis on play in learning. In between scheduled programming, the kids are playing games like Connect 4 with industry participants. There aren’t strict lines between learning and socializing – it’s all happening together intentionally. There’s room for relationship building, for connections to be made and potential mentorships to be seeded. Kids can build community with one another as they connect with other youth interested in design, games, and STEAM subjects. And in much the same way, youth are invited to build connections with adult mentors, who can support and guide their exploration. G4C Learn hopes to take the structure of the Next-Gen Summit and use it as a prototype to scale, taking the program to other cities with robust tech and gaming sector industries.

Overall, G4C Learn wants its programs to get kids to use their passion for games and play to help them have better futures. Leah Hirsch shares, “[We want to] show them that you could have a career in the gaming industry, or you could learn design by learning game design, and then use that to go solve major problems in the world, or you could learn to design characters and be an artist. We’re going to engage you with the thing you love the most, to help you pave the way for seeing what’s possible in the future.”

Research background: Sponsoring youth interests

G4C “sponsors,” or offers adult support for, youth interests – a core design principle of connected learning. A survey by Electronic Software Association (ESA) found that 76% of youth (under 18 years) play video games with more than 80% that play multiplayer games to broaden their social network. G4C taps young people’s interest in games to foster creative production, civic engagement, and healthy development. Youth are offered emotional support, as well as access to knowledge, resources, and opportunities in order to make their game designs come to life. Research has documented the positive outcomes when youth are able to share knowledge and engage in creative production within affinity networks tied together by shared interests and common purpose.

Image: More of many games created for the Student Challenge.

“Learning happens by doing”: G4C Learn’s professional development programs guide educators through the same kind of learning as their students

G4C Learn’s goals for teacher professional development start with a deceptively simple-sounding question. “For teachers,” Leah says, “it’s like, how the heck do we teach?” But G4C Learn is built on the conviction that powerful, authentic project-based learning is possible when you bring game design into the classroom or incorporate games into learning in a meaningful way. 

This meaningful way of learning with games is key to G4C Learn’s approach. Leah explains, “We debunk the idea that, for example, Math Blaster! is a learning game. You shoot the aliens and then you get to do a multiplication problem. It’s a quiz designed as a game. We get a lot deeper with our teachers in talking about learning games and how, what, is an effective learning game? How do we source learning games? And even, how do we design them ourselves?”

Educator involvement in the G4C Student Challenge

As part of the Challenge, G4C Learn provides educators with curriculum tools, information about accessing open-source platforms students can use to create their games, educational workshops, game jams, mentoring opportunities with industry professionals, and more. One of the tools they provide is the “Games for Change Student Challenge Game Jam Guide,” which helps prepare educators to lead students through a game jam – a multi-hour event in which students from all different abilities and skill levels work to create social-impact conscious games. There is also a Student Challenge Professional Development program for educators, from which teachers can pick and choose the workshops that best suit their needs.

“We get a lot deeper with our teachers in talking about learning games and how, what, is an effective learning game? How do we source learning games? And even, how do we design them ourselves?”
– Leah Hirsch, Senior Director of G4C Learn.

Image: Examples of available courses from the G4C Learn Student Challenge PD Program

Educators involved with the Student Challenge further feed the cycle of positive student impact. One educator based in Queens had just started a Minecraft club at his school when he found the Student Challenge. He recruited his club members and participated in the challenge himself as an educator, going on to win the leadership award that year because of how many students he was able to encourage into submitting games. He’s now in G4C Learn’s educator professional development program, further building on his experiences to bring more game-based, social-impact oriented STEAM learning to his students.

VILS partnership and the Playforce Toolkit

G4C Learn has a rich partnership with Verizon’s Innovative Learning Schools program (VILS) to create professional learning resources designed for educators and school leaders to use asynchronously. One of the projects in development as part of the VILS partnership is the Playforce Toolkit, a collection of lessons and resources created specifically for teachers who run gaming clubs. Part of the hope with the Playforce Toolkit is to reach youth who aren’t encountering G4C Learn curriculum in other places – meeting students in another place where they already spend time to engage them in pro social and STEAM learning. This is another place where the organization hopes to build out more direct-to-student resources – like bringing these learning tools to existing video game clubs run by young people outside of formal school or afterschool settings. 

Game Plan

The main educator professional development (PD) project at G4C Learn is Game Plan, a 20-hour online program that uses tools adapted from resources created for the Student Challenge, like the Intro to Game Design curriculum. The program aims to provide educators with the skills and motivation to bring play and design concepts into learning spaces – again not just schools, but community-based, museum, and other out of school programs. Game Plan asks teachers to get into the position of students for eight weeks, learning from researchers and industry experts.

The program leverages play and reflection to support learning. Play shows up in many ways, intentionally immersing teachers in the same experience they’re training to immerse their students in. “One of our tenets,” Leah Hirsch says, “is learning happens by doing. So we immerse teachers in the same lessons and processes that we have in our curriculum for kids. We have the teachers move through the game design process themselves.” As part of the PD program, teachers build a learning game from scratch. They do this because “teachers need to go through that productive struggle and know what it’s like to go through that process – not because teachers need to know how to design learning games.”

Image: One of many resources in the Intro to Game Design curriculum used in Game Plan.

The six core pillars of G4C Learn – play, design, resilience, choice, voice, and community – are also the principles of design taught in their curriculum for designing a game. In the PD experience, the G4C Learn team doesn’t want to simply tell educators how important it is for kids to play while learning – they want educators to feel these principles at work as they play and learn themselves.

“STEM teachers can struggle with creating,” says Mary Elizabeth Pearson, Director of Curriculum and Professional Development at G4C Learn. “[We’ve observed] they can be too literal, which is really just a product of the education system. We’re trying to open up what creativity looks like, for example thinking about co-creation.”

Research background: Hands-on professional development

Research is increasingly recognizing the importance of experiential PD that engages teachers in innovation and technology engagement, particularly for emerging fields such as coding, digital media production, and game design. Centering PD on design processes of experimentation and iteration has proven to be both engaging to educators, and effective in driving school improvement. G4C embodies these research-backed insights in the design of their PD programs.

Teachers in the PD program discussed wrestling with issues getting out of the ‘content’ space and into the ‘designing’ space. The conversations contributed to what organizers describe as a “productive struggle – the same way their students might struggle.” These kinds of challenges and conversations can be beneficial for educators – feedback from surveys conducted by G4C Learn from the 2023 PD program show that educators found great value in many of the approaches and concepts they engaged with, and were committed to integrating game-based learning into their classrooms. In particular, educators were excited about teaching coding in Minecraft, using Scratch and Minecraft to create learning games, and Minecraft Education for teaching and game creation. They also expressed the desire to create spaces for students to engage with one another by testing each other’s games and providing feedback, and for students to explore different modalities for projects, which is something that G4C Learn emphasizes. In addition to these reports, educators in the PD program highlighted that the experience supported them in better empathizing with their students.

Positive impact on teachers from G4C Learn’s work can come in many forms, but the team at G4C Learn feels a particular joy in seeing educators get excited about this kind of learning. The teacher from Queens who won the leadership award at the Student Challenge and went on to join the PD program also brought his students to the Next-Gen Summit in 2023. They stayed the entire day, from 10 in the morning until seven in the evening, until the very last student had competed in the esports tournament. The student ended up a finalist, and the whole group celebrated, cheering and taking pictures together.

“That,” the Queens educator told organizers, “is what teaching should feel like.”

Conclusion

Students learning to make games in Unity at the Next-Gen Summit in July 2023. Photo Credit: David Scott Holloway

Games for Change Learn is continuing to evolve, thinking about ways to reach more youth, especially those who might not encounter the program through existing outreach channels. One challenge they are working on is how to reach kids in other ways than through teachers who opt in to the Student Challenge. This does limit the participation, because the kinds of teachers who opt-in are likely to have more bandwidth, and come from schools that provide more resources, have supportive leadership, and in general make it possible for educators to have the mental capacity to take on another commitment like the Student Challenge. It’s important to Games for Change, as in their PD model, to walk the walk when it comes to equity and inclusion, so expanding access to their programming and learning opportunities is an area they’re actively pursuing.

G4C Learn is committed to using design approaches and play to create opportunities for youth for project-based learning grounded in, as Leah Hirsch says, “culturally celebratory pedagogy.” G4C Learn’s work emphasizes the value of teaching kids to address authentic problems in their communities while celebrating who they are by grounding the work in issues that are important to them. At the same time, in its PD work, G4C Learn is helping more and more teachers develop dynamic, play-based, culturally-responsive approaches, ultimately reaching more youth and building on G4C Learn’s re-imagining of what learning can look like.

This case study was produced in partnership with Games for Change and the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, with the support of Brian Cross, research consultant; Mimi Ito, Connected Learning Lab Director at UC Irvine; and Krithika Jagannath, postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development. We also thank the communications and web team at the Connected Learning Alliance for their work on layout and design.