A visitor plays a computer game holding virtual reality glasses at the independent and alternative games event A Maze.
The social change-driven organization Games for Change is expanding from video games into virtual reality with the VR for Change Summit at its annual Games for Change Festival this year, featuring VR projects that impact the way we learn and shape the way we view the world.
The VR for Change Summit is focusing entirely on virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality projects. The Games for Change Festival is happening July 31 to Aug. 2 at the New School in New York City.
Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change, said that while the organization has included some VR games in the past, the recent development of VR and its potential for positive social change led Games for Change to take a deeper look at VR this year.
"We feel that Games for Change is very well-positioned to help develop this community in the same way that we have in the games community," Pollack said. "There are a number of VR events being produced around the world right now — a lot of summits and expos and demos — but none with a specific focus about how VR can be applied to social change across different sectors."
Erik Martin, former policy adviser at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under the Obama Administration, is curating the VR for Change Summit. While at the White House, Martin examined how to use emerging technologies like VR for various social impact and public interest projects.
"Whenever you see a new technology coming down the pipe, it’s exciting to see all of the hype around new types of games and entertainment and IMAX-type experiences," Martin said. "But the really compelling reason that anyone should care is that maybe it will actually help real people in some way."
New technologies like VR can have real impacts on things like education, health, understanding where other people are coming from, empathy, experiencing other people’s worldviews, and storytelling, Martin said.
"So we wanted to lean in to that and make sure we were doing a little bit of proactive engagement with the VR community to encourage that part of the market," he said. "We have the opportunity with the summit to highlight the way that this technology can be useful and positive for the world."
"We have the opportunity with the summit to highlight the way that this technology can be useful and positive for the world."
The speakers and their projects fall right in line with what Games for Change is trying to achieve.
Amy and Ryan Green are speaking at the summit. They created That Dragon Cancer, a game that tells the story of their son Joel who passed away at the age of 4 after a long fight with terminal brain cancer. They created a VR experience to expand on That Dragon Cancer to help people empathize with and understand Joel’s story.
Another speaker, Aldis Sipolins, is the head of virtual reality and game design at IBM. Sipolins is looking at how the brain reacts to virtual reality — based on EEG scans, totally different parts of the brain light up when someone is in VR as opposed to looking at a flat screen, Martin said.
Dawn Laguens, the EVP of Planned Parenthood, is speaking about a project in which her organization worked with VR pioneer Nonny de la Peña to create a VR experience about what it’s like to try and access an abortion clinic through a protest, to experience and understand what that challenge is like from that perspective.
One more speaker, Gabo Arora, is the creative director and senior adviser at the United Nations as well as the founder of UNVR.
"[The UN] produced a couple of short VR films including Clouds Over Sidra about the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan and telling the story of a girl in Za’atari — and you know, most people have never seen an actual refugee camp," Martin said. "It’s sort of an ephemeral idea to most people what that actually is or what living in one might be like… Just putting someone there removes a lot of mythos about what that looks like."
Along with those speakers and projects, the VR for Change Summit will announce the winner of the U.S. Department of Education’s EdSim Challenge, in which the department put up a prize for people to see if VR and AR tools could be used to improve the way that career and technical education is done.
The Games for Change Festival as a whole will include a handful of speakers and focus on three different tracks — civics and social issues; neurogaming and health; and games for learning. One of the featured games during the weekend is Ubisoft’s Dig Rush, Pollack said, which is a game that helps to treat amblyopia, also known as lazy eye, and has filed for FDA approval.