Shooting for The Moon

spaceIlby Asi Burak

Shooting aliens, racing cars, saving princesses from evil – if that is your perception of computer and video games, be ready for a big surprise.

At Games for Change, a nonprofit located in New York City, we believe that a dominant medium of the 21st century, used by 165 million people in the US alone, can go above and beyond mere entertainment.

Like other media before it – documentaries, graphic novels or non-fiction books – we at Games for Change set out to prove that games could engage kids and adults in real-world issues, and that games can teach, inform, change perspectives, and promote positive social change.

Since 2004, talented developers from all over the world have answered the call and created hundreds of games for social impact and learning. Millions of dollars have been invested in games that aim beyond entertainment – including by the US Government (e.g. the White House and NASA), large public funders (e.g. MacArthur and Gates), and private corporations (e.g. Starbucks and McDonald’s).

One of the best-known examples is “Darfur is Dying,” which was launched by MTV in 2005. The game successfully engaged more than 2 million players and triggered 50,000 letters to Congress.

There is a Jewish angle in all of this. As an Israeli who has led Games for Change for the past three and a half years, I had the privilege to be introduced by a friend to the Schusterman Philanthropic Network.

The best partnerships, as with the most exciting ideas, are those that you can’t predict or plan for. This story is one of those; how a conversation over brunch in New York City’s Upper West Side led to a global project that involves gamers, world-fixers, and Israeli rocket scientists.

Schusterman is one of the most exciting organizations I’ve encountered in recent years. Founded by Charles and Lynn Schusterman, the foundation supports innovation that ties Jewish and Israeli leaders to their tradition and roots, while at the same time supporting those leaders in striving for “tikkun olam,” repairing the world.

For the Schusterman team tikkun olam is not a slogan or a phrase from the Mishnah, rather it is a life-long mission. So it it didn’t take much convincing to join forces and we soon launched a new project around digital games with Jewish values at their heart.

The first stage of the process was to bring the concept of “games for good” to a selected group of nonprofit organizations.

In mid-January, Schusterman and Games for Change organized a two-day summit in the SoHo area of New York City. Twenty invitees were flown in from around the US, Israel and Australia, not sure what to expect.

Through a series of presentations, hands-on game design workshops and curated games, the participants were introduced to the untold story of digital games, namely that this powerful medium has only just begun to scratch the surface of its potential.

Games, digital or physical, have been with us for thousands of years. They are a critical tool in learning about the world and in making social connections as we grow up.

On the second day of the workshop, after previously collaborating on inventing brand new games, the participants turned their focus to thinking about games to support their own causes, from creating a new public image, to triggering a global movement of volunteers among young Jewish Americans. At the end of the day, one of the proposed ideas was chosen to move on to the next stage: creating a prototype with a team of game designers and creators.

The chosen concept was in a league of its own. Created by the team at SpaceIL, it was literally rocket science. SpaceIL has been making headlines in the last few years for its dominant position in the Google Lunar X Prize challenge, which requires landing an unmanned spaceship on the moon. The SpaceIL founders, who met on Facebook, raised over $20M million and ignited excitement across Israel and the Jewish world (fans include President Peres and a new generation now following their every milestone).

SpaceIL’s mission is to send their creation, a spaceship not bigger than a washing machine, to land on the moon by 2015. If they achieve this, they will not only win a multimillion dollar prize, but they will succeed in establishing Israel as the fourth nation in humanity’s race to the moon after the US, Russia and China.

To help them reach their goal, the contest we announced last month calls game makers, innovators and talent from around the globe to design a concept for a new game, one that would introduce a young generation to space exploration where designers are competing for a prize of $25,000 and the opportunity to build an early version of this game together with the incredible team at SpaceIL. Perhaps the most unique component of their concept is that data drawn from the virtual game is going to be analyzed and utilized by the team to inform their real-life mission.

In America, the “Apollo Effect” inspired a whole generation to dream big, think that the sky (or rather space) was the limit, and that innovation, science and knowledge could change the world and bring mankind to its highest achievements. Can we create the next wave of this effect? SpaceIL believes that it can, and a digital game will play an important role in that undertaking.

Finalists of the design challenge will meet on the stage of the Games for Change Festival in NYC on April 23rd to present their ideas in front of a blue ribbon jury, the media, and an audience of 850 people. We can only imagine the range of their ideas, but one thing is for sure: they will all shoot for the moon.

Asi Burak is an award-winning game creator and president of Games for Change (G4C).