Students Design “Serious” Video Games to Deal with Global Issues

Video games for a better tomorrow


Video games can get a bad rap from parents and teachers who see them as a distraction from serious study. But students at three New York public libraries, however, are part of an after-school program designing “serious video games”

The program, called “Playing 4 Keeps,” is one of the many after-school programs at the 67th Street and Countee Cullen libraries in Manhattan and Clason’s Point in the Bronx.

For twenty weeks during the school year, students and librarians discuss various global issues and then play a “serious video game” on the subject.  Each library group also designs an original game dealing with a topic of their choice.

Last year, the “Playing 4 Keeps” program’s pilot run, design topics included global warming, drug trafficking on Long Island, and media conglomeration.

On June 19th, the three participating libraries will demonstrate their projects at an event called Emoti-Con, the second annual NYC Digital Youth Media and Technology Festival, where kids from across the city showcase their digital projects.

The winning game design will be made into an actual video game by students at Parsons’ School for Design in Greenwich Village.

Assistant Director for Public Programs and Lifelong Learning Jack Martin said the program would continue “if we get funding."

"It’s contingent upon if we can get funding to pay for the project itself," Martin told NBCNewYork. "We’re facing some pretty serious cuts from the city.”

In the next city budget, the Public Libraries are expected to be cut by $37 million, said Martin.  This would result in the loss of approximately ten buildings and 736 jobs, he added.

The students at the 67th Street Library are designing a game about New York City poverty. On Wednesday, they designed the main characters for the game, a high school age boy and girl living in the city and the suburbs respectively. 

The students decided that although the characters would have to manage money and negotiate jobs, schoolwork and social life as the game’s core mechanic, random events such as a parent’s illness or job loss, identity theft, or mugging would also affect the players.

“Before, I thought video games were just fun, but don’t have anything to do with real life,” said 8th grader Daijha.  “It kind of taught a lesson that you can’t always avoid something.”

Then the students played a game called Third World Farmer, a farming simulation where players have to try to sustain a family through planting crops and trying to survive various randomized disasters and shortcomings.

“Most of these games we’ve played, they all revolve around struggle and strategy,” Daijha observed while playing Third World Farmer.

For the final presentation at Emoti-Con, the students will create a PowerPoint with design artwork by one of the students, as well as facts and details about poverty in New York City, and some voice work.  The winning design will be made into a real game.
Although Daijha described herself as a “video game addict,” not all of the students were attracted to the program for its gaming component.

“It has to do with real-life problems,” 8th grader Maleek said of the program.  “I tried it and I liked it so I kept coming.”

Asked if any were considering pursuing a career in video game design, 10th grader Manuel responded with a grin, “Somewhat.  You could say that.”

The Playing 4 Keeps program was developed in conjunction with Global Kids, a U.S. nonprofit organization that runs after-school programs to educate students about global issues.

The program comes on the heels of the New York Public Library's recent acquisition of video games and gaming consoles. "We were trying to be one of the first in the country to do that," Martin said. 

"We outfitted twenty libraries with gaming consoles so kids, teens, families, and seniors could now come in to the library to play games." Additionally, some staff take video games to senior centers so that the homebound can also play.

After this "big splash," Martin said, the Playing 4 Keeps program was "the next step" because "kids are already so interested in playing video games...[and] at the same time there's a lot of research that connected gaming concepts to learning."

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