Playing for Change – AHRC Network event in Manchester

Conor and I attended the “Playing for Change” event in Manchester this week, which was not a buskers’ convention but the kick-off workshop for the AHRC-funded Games and Social Change Network, hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Research Institute for Health and Social Change. This is a sister network to our own Performance and Games Network that is funded by the same scheme. The use of games for social change has long been a topic of interest within LiSC, for Conor and myself especially, so we were extremely pleased to be able to participate in the workshop.

The day had a broad range of activities, and was attended by people from an equally broad range of disciplines – from game development practitioners, heath workers, philosophers and artists, through to gallery staff and a veritable rainbow of researchers.

The opening keynote, from Joost Raessens of Utrecht University, was very effective at spearing the network in the heart and raising important questions that will be important throughout the activities – What is social change? Does it have to be positive? From whose perspective? What is the difference between using games for persuasion and coercion?

The last question was immediately tackled in the session hosted by Mathias Fuchs, of the Gamification Lab at Leuphana Centre for Digital Cultures. Although the discussion got somewhat heavy on the philosophy of play and games, the central point was on the relationship between games and work, and on gamification as a form of “involuntary servitude”. Interestingly, Mathias drew parallels between economic disasters and the following framing of hard work as “fun”, using Mary Poppins as an example from the economic crash of the early 20th century:

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and SNAP! the job’s a game!

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This opened into an interesting discussion of different cultural associations between work and play, from Mars bars to the German “Arbeit ist Arbeit und Schnapps ist Schnapps” (Work is work and drinking/fun is drinking/fun) and my favourite, the Italian which was translated as “If you are going to make a game, don’t make it too long”. There are more than a few people who could learn from that. For some reason Mathias didn’t write my suggestion down.

Lunch saw an entertaining performance of “Super Political Street Fighter” from Manchester art/games collective The Larks.


In the afternoon Conor and I went to different sessions. Conor went to the session onĀ  physical play hosted by the ever-brilliant Copenhagen Game Collective, where it seems like they had a lot of fun with perception, folk games and Oculus Rift.


I went to the session hosted (remotely) by Mary Flanagan on values in games. Mary’s book “Critical Play” is a fantastic piece of work looking at how games are tools for communicating values and is required reading for students on our Advanced Games Studies course, not to mention part-inspiration for work such as Fearsquare, Blowtooth and GetLostBot. It is very good to hear that she will be releasing a new book on “Values at Play” later this year.

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Mary ran some quick workshop tasks based on building values into games, using the Grow-a-Game kit and the folk game Ninja. Although I was an old hand at this stuff, it was still interesting and valuable. In particular the realisation that the board game “Battleship” is effectively a game about privacy. The player who loses their privacy first, loses the game.

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The day was closed out with a fantastic keynote from Matt Adams of Blast Theory. Although we are very familiar with their work, it is always exciting to hear more about their projects, especially the ones here where there was a strong social or subversive message. In particular “A Machine to See With“, a genius game where players are asked to plan and execute a bank robbery, and the bank isn’t in on the game.

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Overall, an excellent and thought-provoking day. We found it useful and fun, and are very much looking forward to see what happens next with the network!

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