Nico King is the Executive Creative Director at Chaos Theory Games, based in New South Wales, Australia. This article is based upon a recent interview with MissionBox CEO Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk
Chaos Theory's vision is to solve big problems by creating inspirational games. They push the boundaries of human-experience focused technologies and harness their power to improve the world, one project at a time.
When and why did you found Chaos Theory Games?
My two business partners and I founded the company when we were 12-years old. We created the name of the company and knew what we wanted to do: games-for-change, games for social impact, games that make the world a better place. We saw that games had this profound ability to influence us, change our behavior. There were these little, simulated worlds into which we could completely immerse ourselves. We wanted to create massive, multi-player games that changed people’s behavior, educated them or helped them to better understand the world beyond their own interests and experiences.
Thank you for your time today, Nico. This interview will hopefully provide nonprofits around the world with a better idea of how games-for-change can be operationalized and become a viable nonprofit approach to creating social change, amplifying engagement and even, perhaps, increasing financial sustainability.
Let’s say, I’m a nonprofit executive. I contact you and say, “Our nonprofit has been charged with training our police department on issues related to equality, equity and social justice." How would you approach that?
We work with a very wide variety of different subject matter experts. Our specialization is in game development for behavioral change. The way that I usually break down a problem is in an initial brainstorming session. We talk about the benefits of games, how games work, what they’re good for and how they can be applied. It’s also an excellent time to extract the expertise from the people who are participating.
I’ll also identify the intended social goals, relevant data points and how change is going to be tracked; in other words, what does success look like.
The change one is seeking can sometimes be simple, as in “we’re trying to teach specific knowledge to kids and we just want kids to get 100% on this important test.”
In most other circumstances, the desired goal is much more complex. For instance, “over the course of 5 years, we want to reduce the CO2 emissions by 50%.” That’s a clear data point, but it’s not easy to track.
This challenge is similar for social causes. What data points make up the social cause? What real-world data points are we trying to change or influence?
During the design process, if the goal is too large and too complex, we break it down into outcomes. Outcomes are all the small steps that lead up to a larger, more impactful change e.g., getting people to sign a pledge saying they will change their behavior. To gain a better understanding of the issue and ensure we are designing for maximum impact, we may need to do some additional research or interviews at this stage of planning.
Once we have identified the outcomes that will lead to the desired impact, we start looking at what actions we need to take to meet those outcomes. We call those actions outputs. Outputs are all the things that we are putting into the world, such as game systems, websites, and marketing materials, and are specifically targeted at achieving the outcomes. .
Once we have clearly identified every output and outcome that we’re looking to achieve, we then explore how to transform these into an interactive experience. Maybe a game is just part of a wider plan that includes, for instance, a social media campaign. Maybe there’s also a website needed with learning content, etc.
So, there’s all these different tools and resources that we apply to the different identified outcomes. At bottom, how we proceed should be based on the subject matter experts because they’re the ones that know what the problem is, what they’re trying to solve and how to break that down into smaller components.
This is the framework we tackle social goals in games, it’s also the method we use to track the impact of the project, as well as measure its success.
This field is over 15 years old and it’s certainly not new for me. But I think everyone that works in games-for-change is still discovering and exploring and testing. There’s no clear road map for creating games-for-change, but Chaos Theory Games is working to create a template that works.
Do you think online game creation is always the correct solution to changing behavior or attitudes?
No, I don’t think that games are the right application for every single problem. Quite often, a well-produced video or a well-constructed website would be just as effective as a game. Plus, a game can be quite expensive and can take more time to produce.
That said, there is no doubt that games are great at influencing because they fully engage the player. When you play a game and you refer to your experience of interacting with that medium, you speak in the first-person: “I saved a million trees from being chopped down.” Whereas if you watched a video or a movie or go to a website, then, “The protagonist saved a million trees from being chopped down.” Big difference.
Bringing the person in to a game, having them interact, giving them agency and the ability to influence the outcome of the experience can be the right solution for some of these bigger-picture problems where people feel disengaged. So often, social problems don't change because people lack a sense of personal responsibility regarding the issue. Climate change awareness is an example: people don't change their behavior because they think that their personal actions don’t make a big difference. So if we can track the impact of their behavior and then show them in the app the difference they can make, we can build new behavior patterns and create long-term change.
In wrapping up our interview, what are the big benefits of using games for social impact and change?
1. The scale at which we can make a video game available and, with digital games, upload them to the App Store and roll it out to millions of people.
2. The sense of one-on-one interaction it can build. You can provide a deep, rich interaction with your brand, with your message and with the social campaign. You can amplify this benefit through personalization based upon name, country or other details.
3. Players are incentivized to come back, so they’re constantly interacting with the video game. People build a stronger emotional reaction, they learn better and have increased knowledge retention when they’re absorbing through a repeated, first-person gaming experience.
4. The other major benefits are around data tracking. There are different sorts of data that you can gather through in-person testing versus large-scale data capture testing. With games, you can measure accurately specific data points. For instance, which countries are engaging with the game, how long are they engaging with the content, etc.
You can also track how long are people on a screen, how long are they considering different options and other engagement metrics.
This is powerful because the user data is instantly available. You can see in their experience what’s being effective and what needs to improve.
You can also use these data to create high-impact reports that will help the nonprofit client to access additional funding.
Can you spend a moment talking about the fund raising potential of gaming?
Raising money from games is something that some of our clients or potential clients ask us about. “We’re a nonprofit. We want to generate revenue from games. We want a new revenue stream.”
It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult to do. Nonprofits need a significant budget to create a game that promotes social change and makes money. These are quite different goals.
The main exception to that would be if you are a large organization, you have a big audience, and this is a way to fund raise. The reason people are paying in the game isn’t necessarily because they want more things from the game. It’s to support the organization, to support the cause. So, if you have this strong social message, the game is there to provide that experience and learning. And the monetization of the game is an additional extra, to give money to the organization.
I’d like to think of a way that nonprofits can afford this, they can do this, and they can make social impact. But, likely for them, getting access to $100,000 to $500,000 dollars is not an option. But if, let’s say, they collaborated across geographic areas or missions: all anti-violence groups, or all anti-gun, or all social justice groups, for instance, that might work. All collaborators could contribute a small amount of the total cost but benefit from the games impact.
Yes, that could work. In the past, we’ve self-funded some games around climate change and brought in some charities and nonprofits to help support that message. They were there to promote it and provide some researching and data gathering for the game.
One model I would like to see is corporate clients partnering with nonprofits and charities. The corporate clients provide the funding. Charities provide the social message, the research; they have the creative control. The corporate client benefits from the positive social message; they’re solving a real-world problem.
Kathryn: It was fascinating to talk to you. I think a much broader use of video games for change is in our nonprofit futures.
Nico: I agree that this is the near future. Everybody is playing more games, year after year, in their free time. It just seems like a logical progression to harness that medium to create lasting social change. Chaos Theory Games is passionate and excited about the possibilities.