Public Media Invests in Games for Change

By Matthew Meschery
Posted on July 1, 2011

The ITVS-funded Garbage Dreams Game was recognized at this year's eight annual Games for Change Festival in New York City. Matthew Meschery heads up ITVS' digital initiatives and participated in one of the festival's panel, entitled "Public Media and Games."


So, what does public media have to do with games? Well, with the exception of PBS Kids, there are few examples to date of games being produced within public media. However, that may be about to change. During our panel, representatives from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities announced changes to their classification guidelines to accept proposals for games. I was happy to report that at ITVS we are currently funding several gaming projects that are companion elements to ITVS-funded documentary films. Although these represent small steps, perhaps this is the beginning of a move within public media to embrace games for general audiences, beyond the excellent content that PBS develops for children.


This interest in games should come as no surprise given that, right now, they are the fastest growing form of media, with a majority of adults playing games, and one in five playing on a daily basis. U.S. households have approximately 64 million game consoles. If public media wants to remain relevant in the 21st century and create strategies for meaningful, next-generation content, games at least need to be in the conversation. For children, PBS Kids has delivered research-driven game content online for years, and has demonstrated both their popularity as well as the educational benefit in and out of the classroom. In terms of developing games for adults and a general audience, there is no research to demonstrate the impact. However, Al Gore, this year’s festival keynote speaker, said it best with this remark: “We already know the immense power of popular media to illuminate issues that can seem intractable and overly-complex, but [through games] can be illuminated and presented to general audiences in a way that invites people to become involved in trying to solve the problems that our society has to solve." 

ITVS is fortunate have supported games since 2006 when we funded independent game producers to develop several projects, including World Without Oil, a project produced by Jane McGonical and Ken Eklund that is often sited as a seminal alternative-reality game on an important social issue — our dependence on fossil fuels. World Without Oil demonstrated to us how a game could impel people from all over the world to not just passively watch a piece of media, but to participate in its creation and interact with each other to solve problems in the form of an oil-crisis simulation. Since I knew that many in the audience had heard of World Without Oil, I asked them during my panel how many knew it was funded by a public-media entity (ITVS and CPB), and only a fraction raised their hand. It is my hope that this will change in the future. That not only will public-media organizations begin to support the creation of games but will also be able to do so in a way that highlights their support. One way of doing that for ITVS is to fund indie filmmakers when they have ideas for excellent game companion pieces to their projects. 

In the 21st century, audiences are used to exploring and interacting with media across platforms. Now is the time for public media to build strategies to account for this change and that strategy won't be complete without games. 

You can view the archived videos from the Games for Change Festival here.


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