How do games make sense of a mixed up world? Politics is often characterized as a game, but what about games as politics? How about a sport about the federal debt, a video game that explains why we rarely trust across partisan lines, or games designed to be played at protests?

Not only do these games exist, but they’re also a lot more fun than the daily anxieties of the political moment. BudgetballThe Evolution of Trust and Casual Games for Protesters, respectively — are examples of games that help us make sense of politics and political action — they’re “serious games,” or “games for change,” games designed to entertain AND educate, raise awareness, spark social change, and more.

I’ve been making these kinds of games for over a decade, working with collaborators from small community-based organizations to large NGOs such as the Red Cross. Over the years I’ve learned lessons that have informed the way I teach, live, and remain optimistic, despite our current political moment.

Serious Games: A Brief History

While the term “serious games” seems like an oxymoron, gameplay often involves a degree of seriousness. Cultural historian and game studies grandfather Johan Huizinga puts it well: “Play is a thing by itself. The play-concept as such is of a higher order than is seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness.” To Huizinga, play is the generative engine at the heart of culture.

And like culture, games have been around thousands of years, taking the form of stone-carved depressions in stone-age mancala boards, 3,500-year old Mesoamerican ball courts, or six-sided Mesopotamian dice from around 2800 BC. Games are a stylistic reflection of the concerns of the time; mancala echoes the activity of sewing seeds at the dawn of agriculture, while six thousand years later, Cards Against Humanity provides a kind of social steam valve, giving free license to be politically incorrect in a politically correct age. As our politics change, so do our games. They reflect and produce culture in a reinforcing loop, engaging us in activities that provide release, reflection, and play with the world around us. In this sense, games have always been serious.

But the term “serious games” gains traction in 1970 in the book of the same name by Clark C. Abt, and through the use of games in simulating everything from urban counterinsurgency to countercultural guru Stewart Brand’s New Games movement, which used military training games and paraphernalia in resistance to the Vietnam War. If you’ve ever played with a parachute in gym class, you’ve played a New Game. These contemporaneous “serious games” were cultivated in the modernist post-World War II laboratories of cybernetics and game theory, which originated as ways of modeling everything from the automated aiming of anti-aircraft guns to the dilemmas of the nuclear arms race. The first video games emerged out of cybernetics research too, as it turned out that calculating projectile trajectories is useful in war and peace-time. Early computer games like Tennis for Two (1958) and SpaceWar! (1960) were developed at research labs and universities via military funding, products of, as McKenzie Wark calls it, a military-entertainment complex. Today, video games have evolved (while still calculating projectile trajectories), to spawn a culture industry that rivals Hollywood in terms of influence and profitability.

Which brings us in the timeline to “games for change”, a term coined by documentary filmmaker Suzanne Seggerman, who founded the eponymous non-profit organization in 2004 after a revelatory weekend playing the ur-videogame for change, Hidden Agenda. In the years since its founding, Games for Change has been field-builder, advocate, annual festival (at the New School!) and non-profit yenta between the game development community and organizations like the ACLU. Games for change are a subset of serious games — games designed to fulfill a purpose beyond pure entertainment — but with a notably less-militaristic, more progressive spirit.

I made my first game for change 15 years ago; the same year Games for Change was founded. Early in my teaching career I was asked by the university president’s office to make a game about the Electoral College based on an electoral dataset compiled by a university research lab. I quickly formed a team of students to get started, but in our first meeting, I realized something. I had no idea what I was doing. So I called a former student who had recently started a game company to seek advice. Their simple response has set the direction for my work ever since: “start with the system.”

Systems: They’re FUN

Video games offer players rich experiences through sounds, images, stories, characters, animations, and algorithms, in a dizzying array of different styles. But underneath it all, a game is simply a dynamic system — in fact, video games are to systems as film is to stories. They invite us to put the pieces into motion to see what happens, and as we do, games respond with feedback — whether it’s an explosion or a subtle shift in storyline. Through this feedback, games reveal to us their inner workings, often through failure, which games alchemically transform into “fun.” Games can even make the Electoral College entertaining!

I’ve learned that as a designer, “finding the fun” in real-world systems like the Electoral College is a way of engaging with the system more deeply, ultimately finding the levers in the system that create the most fundamental changes, so that players can play with them. In other words, designers and players seek out “leverage points,” as systems dynamics expert Donella Meadows describes them  — a process of finding the places one can intervene in a system, and (hopefully) change it for the better.

So, after a few weeks my students and I “found the fun” in the Electoral College. We created a fast paced two-player game based on real issues and public opinion data from electoral polls. We play-tested the game a lot, from paper prototype to a digital version, and finally, had a fun, playable prototype to present to the powers-that-be at the university.

And…they hated it. The general feedback was that it was too fun. Which is what sometimes happens, as I have learned, when your funder expects something more, well, serious. Some games, like some comedians, clowns and Pixar cartoons (see The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam) might seem silly on their surface, but underneath it all, they can speak great wisdoms. When it came time to break the news to my students that our project was over, they took it better than I thought they would. They’d had fun figuring out how to solve various design challenges, and more strikingly, they’d had fun learning how the Electoral College works. One of them said: “I know the rules of the Electoral College as well as I know the rules of baseball.” Failure be damned, I’d struck educator gold — students had not only gained valuable design experience (which is why they came to Parsons) but they also learned how systems influence the way the world works. Sure, they could have learned about the Electoral College by writing a research paper. But when they had to make a game about it, they had to reverse-engineer and re-create the system — and learn its boundaries and exploits through playing with the result. This experience — seeing students learn at a deeper level how things work by recreating their systems in games — inspired PETLab, a research lab at Parsons School of Design dedicated to exploring games in the social interest.

Beyond Systems

Out of the ashes of that failed Electoral College experiment, PETLab has worked with a variety of funders and partners. And for each project we still “start with the system.” However, in this time I’ve also learned that there’s more to games — and life — than systems.

Out of systems, games create emotional, human experiences. They’re like music in that sense, from algorithmic structures, a wide array of feelings and affects. As our play experiences unfold, we make sense of game systems on an intellectual and gut level. Or as McKenzie Wark puts it in Gamer Theory, “Games are our contemporaries, the form in which the present can be felt and, in being felt, thought through.” Case in point: Budgetball.

Budgetball is a physical sport designed to raise awareness about the federal debt among college students. For several years (during the previous administration), Budgetball was played on the National Mall between intramural college teams and a “home team” made up of congressional budget officers and white house staffers. When we set out to design the game with our partners, the NYC game company Area/Code and the National Academy of Public Administration, we quickly learned that there were many different belief systems about the federal debt (which is a nice way of saying that the federal debt is either ignored or weaponized based on the party in power). We met with panels of economists and policy-makers and each seemed to have a different model in their heads — like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. It’s Medicare! No, it’s fiscal policy! It’s taxes! We spent a lot of time listening to arguments, and we didn’t get very far in clarifying our designs.

So, instead of making a game that accurately portrayed every systemic detail of federal spending, entitlement programs and taxation, we focused on the big “levers” in systems of debt: going into, and getting out of it. We designed a sport — one where teams purchased “power-ups ” like an additional defensive player, which added to the team’s debt. To win, teams needed to score the most points and be within a specified debt-window, so to pay off their debt they took “sacrifices” such as holding an egg without dropping it. We’d designed a systematic abstraction that created an emotional and physical relationship to debt: it feels great going into debt and not so great getting out of it. The reason debt (both personal and federal) is such a popular phenomenon was conveyed through feelings, rather than an array of facts — it was “felt” and then “thought through.” PETLab co-director John Sharp and I call this process of paring a game’s systems to its most essential experiential components “faithful abstraction.” A game designed to embody all parts of the system it represents is like a Borgesian map, it loses its accessibility, it stops being fun. Instead, we drove awareness by going for the gut — and in comparing pre-and post-surveys, while the students might not have learned the impacts of Medicare on US debt, they became more interested in the topic — enough to look it up, and learn more.

So games can model systems, and they can model the feelings enabled by those systems, but perhaps the keyword here is models.

Imperfect Models: Mind the Gap

Making games about the world is a way of modeling the world — the way it works, the way it feels. But like most models, games aren’t perfect mirrors. Or perhaps a better way to say this is that games are too perfect. They give great feedback, their rules are clear and fair, they give us agency, and they make failure fun. I think of games as tiny utopias — idealized reflections of the world that encourage our playful, convivial, equitable, and smart selves. But between FarmVille and actual farming, there’s quite some distance.

Game designer Ian Bogost calls the gap between games and life the “simulation gap” — where “[a] simulation is the gap between the rule-based representation of a source system and a user’s subjectivity.” In other words, the player’s understanding of a game is situated somewhere between their lived experience and the actual game’s rules. In games for change, the most important function of the simulation gap is to provide space for reflection as players attempt to negotiate the world of the game and their own experiences of reality. Game designer Mary Flanagan uses the term “critical play” to describe a player’s subjective and at times subversive sense-making of games that don’t quite fit their worlds.

A day with the Red Cross in Namibia drove this lesson home. We had just finished playing a game called Ready! designed to encourage communities to be better prepared for annual floods. To play, the community came up with actions, like “move livestock to higher ground,” and completed them in a race that involved varying levels of difficulty based on the task. After playing, we sat in a circle under the shade of a big tree to discuss the experience. One of the Red Cross staff members asked: “of all the things you did in the game, what did you actually do last year when the floods were coming?” After exchanging knowing, smiling glances, one of the women spoke up: “actually, we didn’t do any of these things.”

This was the moment that the gap between the game and real life pointed to a realization — the game and the reality didn’t match up. But a gap can be bridged. We began to discuss the various and complex reasons the actions in the game didn’t happen in real life. The game might had surfaced actions the community could do, but the discussion went beyond it, to planning actual actions. The conversation took off. The Red Cross staff member, skeptical of the game at first, told us later that this was one of the most detailed and productive conversations they had ever had with a community.

Change Through Games

Starting with the system, feeling then thinking things through, and exploring the gaps between games and life. These three lessons in my 15-year career have been instructive to my entire view of games for change. I’m learning new ones all the time. When I see Uber drivers game an unfair and exploitative algorithmic system, I see these lessons at play in the real world. One of games’ strongest potentials lie not in the fact that they can simulate life, but that they’re different from life. However, perhaps now more than ever, when the automation of late capitalism and the intensity of zero-sum politics seek to gamify everything, becoming game-literate is a way of navigating the increasingly game-like world we live in.

Game designers and theorists are doing just that: studying games and their connection to “toxic meritocracies“, or a subconscious social acceptance of police shootings, to, on the brighter side, tools for queer liberation and a ludic mindset that could emancipate us in an algorithmic age. Games can lead us to further entrench ourselves into our own beliefs, or to see the world and the systems that underlie it through new eyes. Sometimes games can help us understand how things work, and sometimes, games might help us change our minds.

Which leads us back to the opening question: how do games help us understand a mixed up world?

Making and playing games about the world, along with education, community, and activism are tools to make legible the systems that are gamed to favor certain players. A deeper understanding of games can lead us towards making sense of systems and their real, felt outcomes, they help us bridge the gap between inaction and action. In other words, games help us understand this mixed up world through our active participation.

Colleen Macklin is a game designer, professor at Parsons School of Design, and co-director of PETLab, a lab that develops game-based learning and social engagement. She’s also a member of Local No. 12, creators of The Metagame and Losswords and recent co-author of Iterate: Ten Lessons in Design and Failure.