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A Journey From GenCon to Social Impact

“Gaming brings people together” – Lisa Su, CEO, Advanced Micro Devices

This year, I had the unique opportunity to attend GenCon2023, North America’s largest tabletop game convention. With an estimated attendance surpassing 70,000, this year’s event gathered game designers, developers, distributors, and enthusiasts in Indianapolis. Over several days, attendees shared, tried out, and reveled in both new and classic games, generating joy and fostering a sense of camaraderie.

I participated in this convention on behalf of TCC Group. Of course, if you are wondering why a data-driven social change evaluator like myself would attend a gaming convention, I can assure you that it was about more than a group of hobbyists and game creators—especially when we look at gaming through the lens of social impact.

The following are a few of my observations from the convention, which I consider key takeaways for the social sector. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reactions here.

Key Insight: Inclusivity in Gaming Is Growing But Has a Ways to Go

My initial observation reflects the strong commitment to inclusivity at GenCon2023. Attendees, including GenCon staff, volunteers, game companies, and fellow visitors, embraced everyone they encountered. This sentiment was vividly exemplified by a furry family of five, donned as foxes, casually enjoying breakfast alongside me. Their ease in expressing themselves showcased the convention’s accepting environment.

I also encountered a local nonprofit group planning to occupy the convention center hallways at night, enabling after-hours gameplay. This not only extended the gaming experience but also provided a haven for accommodating those without hotel rooms. Participants were able  to connect, establish relationships, and create a smaller “community” within the larger convention.

On the other hand, a conversation with Carla Kopp from Weird Giraffe Games highlighted the dominance of white males within the gaming industry. This includes everything from the composition of game creators to the prevalence of white male figures on game box covers. While GenCon showcased a blend of male and female participation, and the industry as a whole benefits from strong support among women and communities of color, the overall industry still appears to cater predominantly to white men.

Key Insight: The Gaming Industry Generally “Gives Back” with a Focus on Individuals Rather Than Systems

While exploring the convention halls, I encountered Cincinnati Arsenal Gaming/Sanctuary at Homestead. They epitomize a driven community of gamers who blend gaming with meaningful impact, specifically addressing food accessibility and fostering connections through tabletop experiences. Their tagline, “What’s on your table?”, resonates deeply and captures their admirable mission.

They represent one of many gamer-driven organizations striving to drive positive impact in people’s lives. Child’s Play, initiated by Penny Arcade, is a nonprofit dedicated to providing diverse games to children in hospitals, offering them entertainment and distraction during their stay. Desert Bus for Hope is a charity marathon backing Child’s Play. Gamers participate in a seemingly trivial game of driving a bus through the desert, continuing as long as donations pour in.

I also met Jamie Mathy, owner of Red Racoon Games. Jamie’s business offers discounted games to local schools and groups aiming to educate or address social and psychological matters through gaming. At GenCon’s Trade Day, he concentrated on enlightening game store owners about the potential gains from involving these groups. Jamie’s commitment is centered on the transformative influence of gaming. For example, he cited Magic: the Gathering as a tool for enhancing children’s math skills.

And speaking of Magic: the Gathering, I met a volunteer for MagiKids. They are a volunteer driven organization that provides access to the game, shipping games to teachers and mentors across the United States. They, like Jamie, view the game as a fun avenue through which kids can learn critical thinking, math, and reading. MagiKids is supported by Weirdcards.

Key Insight: Broader Thinking About Social Impact Isn’t Entirely New to Gaming

I attended a fascinating presentation by Susan Asbury during the Board Game Academics journal session. Susan spoke about a series of board games from the late 1890s and early 1900s that either directly reflected the Spanish-American War or showcased various American leaders involved in the war. She connected these board games with an increase in American citizen support for American foreign policy. While she was not able to find a direct connection to American governmental support for the games, she did make the case that the games had a positive impact on Americans’ support for the Spanish-American War and subsequent conflicts.

While advancing the interests of colonialism would not be something the gaming industry would want to support these days, it’s clear that there are precedents for exploring the role of gaming in advance broad-scale social change. There is more to gaming that pleasure and sometimes learning. Gaming has shown itself to be organic in nature, capable of emphasizing a zeitgeist of the time.

Key Insight:  Gaming Has the Potential to Make Positive Social Impact

My GenCon visit reinforced TCC Group’s suspicion that many are keen on social impact, yet lack clarity on the next steps. Diverse individuals and companies contribute to various social impact facets—embracing inclusivity in gaming, fostering emotional growth, and aiming for broader community betterment. However, these efforts remain isolated and lack collaboration.

Within this space a realm of opportunity awaits game designers, distributors, stores, and enthusiasts to convene and together identify ways to drive change. In upcoming blogs, we’ll delve into feasible pathways and indicators of gaming-induced change.

Key Insight: And We’ll Need to Learn How to Measure Gaming’s Social Impact

Many gaming companies and groups provide insights into their impact through metrics such as distributed game counts, participant numbers, and references to external research. There have even been a few cultural analyses or censuses within the gaming community. However, evaluations often remain limited to positive indicators like engagement counts and enthusiastic anecdotal quotes from participants.

Admittedly, game designers and distributors prioritize game sales, making these metrics crucial. Similarly, winning accolades like the Origins or Spiel de Jahres awards, dedicated to exceptional new games, emphasize gaming’s entertainment value.

To embrace social impact effectively, further steps are both feasible and necessary. Moving beyond mere distribution tallies and enjoyment assessments to delve into players’ insights about game impact will be essential. While an investment would be needed, potential player engagement is already within reach through existing gamer collectives. Notably, events like GenCon facilitate playtesting, and comparable conventions provide similar chances. Groups like the Tabletop Alliance, although slightly different in focus, could also be tapped to uncover games’ potential for positive social impact.

At TCC Group, this is something we think about and specialize in by addressing queries like, “Can gaming really make a difference not solely for individuals but for entire communities? Can the gaming community be broadened to include more diverse people and perspectives?” The people I spoke with at GenCon would say “Yes.” Now it’s time to put that question to the broader gaming community.

My Request

If you play, use, develop, or distribute games or represent a nonprofit or foundation intrigued by gaming’s change-making potential, I invite you to connect. Let’s converse and explore. Together, we might forge impactful collaborations.

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