Our Biggest Takeaways from the 2023 Games for Change Festival

At G4C, we connected with designers and changemakers, united by their love of games and belief in their transformative power. Here are some of our takeaways.

By iThrive Games
July 27, 2023

The 2023 Games for Change Festival marked the 20th anniversary of a cross-sector gathering of game developers, designers, journalists, writers, scientists, researchers, educators, changemakers, and more—all connected by their love of play and belief in its power to drive social change. Like its predecessors, this year's Festival continued its legacy of generating knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing, with talks that nudged us all to think expansively about our work and mindfully about our influence leveraging a medium played by millions of people.

Members of the iThrive Games team had the honor of attending both days of the 2023 Games for Change Festival in New York City, where we swapped stories, shared experiences, and made new connections. We had the honor of sitting in on sessions led by game design teams, funders, and nonprofit professionals that left us inspired, affirmed, and eager to join forces with others also designing transformative wellness and learning experiences powered by play. We collected many insights and possibilities relevant to our mission to design meaningfully with and for teens.


Impactful games and play experiences begin with intention. In a talk titled "How Our Values Impact Our Games' Cultural Influence," Kate Edwards, CEO of Geogrify and CXO/co-founder of SetJetters, explored games' cultural contribution, nudging listeners to remember that all content carries culture, all culture is a reflection of values, and the values we uphold and embrace consistently are what catalyze change. Her talk made clear that all of us in the game development space—from triple AAA studios to indie hubs—have a duty to think critically, iteratively, and unpretentiously about what is real and represented in the games we create, and how our values show up in them. If we pride ourselves on being impactful game designers who care about social change and inclusivity, it is on us to do the work to figure out how our games will be perceived by those they'll reach.

Jeffrey Burrell, Global Head of Social Impact at Riot Games, spoke on how the game design company has enlisted the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to inform and support their overall impact strategy. He also highlighted what happens when intentions are accompanied by a values-based approach and a commitment to understanding problems as framed by those most affected by them. Jeffrey implored us all to embrace an 'outside-in' approach that elevates what players care about rather than an 'inside-out' one that centers what designers think they care about. In pulling on the SDGs, as well as using in-game surveys to understand better the hopes and values of players residing in the 20+ regions Riot Games has a presence in, the company has been able to maximize their direct impact on those players' lives under the pillars of education, citizenship, opportunity, and sustainability.

It felt amazing to hear others affirm and share through their experiences how participatory approaches have animated and preserved the intentions of other game design teams and supported their impact. At iThrive Games, our co-design model with teens enlists their genius and perspectives in the exploratory research that begins before game development, throughout the design process, and during playtesting to ensure what we create with and for them and our clients and partners is truly impactful and wellness-supporting. Beyond just a value that lives statically on our website, our co-design model creates an affinity with young people, allowing us to reach and engage them better, effectively supporting their social and emotional development through play. We consistently use our co-design model to be in integrity with our mission as a teen-serving and impact-driven nonprofit.



A throughline across several talks, project briefs, and topic tables our team attended were transformative and restorative justice principles and practices increasingly being recruited and embodied by game industry professionals, researchers, and program coordinators earnestly committed to harm reduction and co-creating a better world, online and in real life.

Jae Lin's talk, "So You've Been Canceled. Now What?" began with the powerful words of Mariame Kaba, inviting us to explore how an apology can effectively communicate and capture both accountability for and acknowledgment of harm. Centering transformative justice, as Jae shared, supports us all in making space for multiple truths, separating guilt from shame, interrupting patterns of harm, and minimizing defensiveness. Their unpacking of an apology truly aligned with harm reduction supports us all in creating a culture of healing and restoration in the gaming and game-making communities we're a part of and beyond.

Restorative justice principles surfaced too in the "You've (Not) Been Warned: Content Warnings, Psychological Safety, the Audience, and You" project brief led by Take This's Community Director, Dr. Kelli Dunlap, as she covered the necessity of content warnings and the duty all interactive media designers have to provide them. Restorative justice heralds respect as an integral component because it enables a safe experience for all involved. Dr. Dunlap emphasized this point, stressing that psychological safety requires consideration for the player. "Trauma is not comfort," she shared. "And no one can grow while in survival mode."

Another resonant session iThrive members had the honor to join was led by Mishka Palacios De Caro, President of Fundav and coordinator of Demeter, a game-making education program administered in prisons in Argentina. In their heartfelt sharing of the program's goals as well as the stories and games that came of it, we were reminded of why restorative and transformative justice principles are needed in all places where we learn, play, and gather—to support a collective shift from a punitive mindset to an empathetic one that supports a safer, healthier world for everyone.

Generative magic comes from gathering with like-minded people, united by a shared commitment to social change and impact. All who participated in the two-day Games for Change Festival experienced this firsthand as they connected with others across sectors to start engineering new collaborative, playful solutions. Like them, the iThrive Games team looks forward to following up, learning more, working with, and gathering again with those we connected with at #G4C2023. Happy playing!