Tech trends

How video games are being used for social good

Though often maligned, video games have become the new cultural zeitgeist. Once marginalised to only those with technical know-how, and seen to only be indulged in by young men, video games have now become a fun pastime for all.

By Reason Digital · October 3, 2013

It’s been estimated that the average 21 year-old will have spent 10,000 hours playing games, the average gamer is thirty years old, and the gender split is pretty equal with 46% female and 54% male buying games. Commuters playing Angry Birds on their phones on the train has become a common sight, while the blockbuster game Grand Theft Auto V reached $1 billion dollars in sales within just three days.

Games are not just purely for entertainment though. There’s a strong tradition in games teaching players, from the simple days of Tetris increasing brain-power through tumbling blocks, to the terrible ‘edutainment’ games like Donkey Kong Jr. Math, to the thousands of historical details in grand strategy games like Crusader Kings II. Video games have a power of interaction and intrinsic learning built into them like no other medium, and many game developers and charities are using that fact for good. Here are just a few examples of how video games are being created and used for social good.


Cancer is an extremely difficult topic to approach. In the UK, one in three people will develop cancer at some point in their lives, and it’s estimated that one in 30 people living in the UK either have cancer or are in remission. No matter who is affected by it, it’s a tragic illness; one that can devastate lives and destroy people’s motivation.

For some, battling against something that they can’t see can be one of the most draining elements. So Hopelab have created video games, to give a visual representation of the cancer they are battling. Aimed at young adults, Re-mission sees players fighting through the bodies of fictional cancer patients and destroying the cells that cause cancer. According to Hopelab’s own research, many of the players learnt more about cancer and responded better to chemotherapy than patients who didn’t play the game. After the success of the first game, they followed up with a sequel, Re-mission 2, which is a collection of six different mini-games. Each of which play in completely different ways and parallel real-world strategies used to successfully destroy cancer.


iPhones are the most common handsets on the market at the moment and, with their ability to play games, are consequently one of the most popular handheld gaming devices. That’s why when charity RED, Coca-Cola, and video game developer BitMonster, wanted to create a game to raise awareness and funds for the fight against AIDS they chose iOS as their platform, and thus created THRED.

The game is an “endless runner” game in which the player has to avoid obstacles to progress. Information about AIDS and how charities are combating it are unobtrusively delivered during the loading screens and players are able to purchase items in the game, the proceeds of which are donated to finding a cure for AIDS.

LP Recharge

In the UK, Linkin Park are most commonly known for a string of top forty hits in the early 2000s, with songs such as In the End, Numb and One Step Closer. The American rock band have a sizeable following in the UK though, who enjoy their particular blend of alternate rock and rap. What is less commonly known is the band’s advocacy for the clean energy movement. In 2005, they set up the charity Music for Relief, which levers the power of music against global warming and natural disasters.

To support their efforts in raising awareness about Earth’s dwindling natural resources the band, in combination with Kuuluu Interactive Entertainment, have created a game in which humans and robots battle for the Earth’s remaining ores and minerals. Players are tasked with fending off the androids while creating new and sustainable energy sources.

Get Water! For India

Get Water! For India from Decode Global on Vimeo.

Water is one of the most crucial things in our lives. Simply put – without it, we die. It should be a convenience for us all, yet many have to walk miles just for a drink. Get Water! for India puts the player in the role of an Indian girl who wants to study, but keeps on getting interrupted by the need to go and collect water.

Through its gameplay Get Water! teaches the player about the frustrations and adversities that those without convenient sources of water face. And while it is presented as a fun obstacle for the player, it’s made clear that it isn’t fun for anyone who is in that situation for real.

Block by Block

Minecraft is a wildly successful game that not only took the gaming world by storm when it was first released way back in 2009, but has since become a pop-cultural icon and a valuable learning tool. The game, which at its most basic could be compared to a digital LEGO set, has been introduced to many schools as a way to engage students in computer literacy, construction and logical thinking tasks.

The developers Mojang have also teamed up with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) to make further use of the game, by creating the Block by Block scheme. The pilot programme has distributed PCs loaded with copies of Minecraft to the village of Kibera in Kenya, with the specific aim of helping the young people in the village help in the planning of urban spaces.

Video games are engaging people more than anything nowadays. And, while it’s not feasible for many charities to make one themselves, there are many charities who are teaming up with developers to deliver their message. The independent video game development scene is booming due to alternating funding models, more accessible tools and strengthening support from console manufacturers. Many developers hoping to make a game struggle though and have to raise funds through the crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter. Indie developers such as these would benefit greatly from the increased publicity of working with a charity, and could tailor their game to help deliver a message for social good.

There are also many charities who don’t want to get involved with video games who are taking notes on what make games such an interesting and entertaining medium, and are integrating that into their way of thinking.