The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

May 10, 2011

Real-world social games are fun…but do they work?

Posted by Mayur Patel

Mayur Patel

For centuries, humans have used games to learn survival and social skills through play. According to the Institute of Play, chess was used to teach strategy, and in his 1938 book “Playing Man,” Dutch Historian Johan Huizinga posited that play was necessary in the generation of culture. It’s no surprise then that theorists and do-gooders alike are turning to game theory to design strategies to influence the culture of communities – how individuals connect with one another and how they develop new skills and attitudes.

In a previous post we talked about two real-world games funded by Knight Foundation and developed in partnership with Area/Code that have the potential to create changes in attitudes and behaviors in communities. While much has been written about how digital games, in particular video games, have the potential to improve learning and influence behavior, less attention has been paid to the effects of real-world games – i.e., games that are played out in the physical world. Through our work with Area/Code we’re exploring this very topic.

Over the next six months we’ll be conducting evaluations of Macon Money and Battlestorm and sharing results along the way. We hope that this will allow other communities, funders, researchers and gamers to explore the potential of these games with us and help move the field forward. We are working with Cause Communications and Madeleine Taylor from Arbor Consulting Partners to evaluate the process of each game (how it actually gets planned and implemented) and the outcome of each game (its overall effectiveness).


  • What is the effect of the games on community members who participate? Does participation in the game affect participants’ knowledge, attitudes and behavior as intended?
  • What is the role of community partners in the games? What is their role in institutionalizing learning and sustaining elements of the project after it is completed?
  • What factors affected game implementation and outcomes? Can the games be replicated in other settings?

We’re interviewing participants and conducting surveys and focus groups to hear directly from community members about the impact of the games. In a series of posts, videos and graphics, we’ll share a glimpse into Macon, GA, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast as we think about what the implications of the evaluations could mean in a larger context.

We’re also keeping a close eye on how communities adapt to unforeseen barriers as they play the games. For example, in Macon, game partners are already shifting their strategy to respond to large coupon offers like Groupon that are flooding businesses at the same time that they are being asked to promote Macon Money. And in Mississippi, game designers are using feedback from kids who are testing the game to change the rules to make the gameplay more fun and effective.

We’re interested in hearing your questions about the games and suggestions for what potential impact they can have as currently designed, or, what their application might be in other contexts. If you have any thoughts, please get in touch with us.

Stay tuned for the findings as the evaluation progresses!

Macon Money: a game that uses an alternative form of local currency – Macon Money – to connect residents to each other and to attract and expose residents to local business in the College Hill Corridor and downtown area. The game is being implemented and developed in partnership with the College Hill Alliance.

Battlestorm: a game designed to promote the importance of hurricane preparedness through activities focused on youth.  The game is being developed and implemented in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club, United Way of South Mississippi, and Harrison County Emergency Operations Center.


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