Lindsay Grace

Game Lab Director Helps Translate ‘Persuasive Play’ into Social Action

Too many people allow their special talents to be underutilized or even unused — lying dormant and only ever emerging in mundane ways. Lindsay Grace, a social impact gaming pioneer, is not one of those people.

Grace’s gift for creating art through video games and passion for social change led him to develop the American University (AU) Game Lab and Studio in Washington, D.C. Through it, he’s helping build a movement of gamers and innovators who leverage social impact gaming, or “persuasive play,” to encourage progress marked by open-mindedness and new perspectives.

The result is a new generation of gamers working to employ the power of play to enrich people’s lives.

“As the multi-billion dollar games industry continues to grow, socially responsible games are creating awareness for environmental, educational, and corporate social responsibility initiatives,” said Lindsay Grace, Director of AU’s Persuasive Play Initiative. “Digital games are becoming a new way to conduct activism and spur social change.”

The Game Lab was a natural step in Grace’s journey, which has included impressive personal achievements amid continual efforts to affect lasting societal change. His career as an innovator began as a preteen, dabbling as a self-taught video game designer. He’d become interested in gaming during his hospital visits due to systemic-onset juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA).

Grace’s hunger for innovation evolved into a dance club website he and a friend ran as college-age kids. His path also has included jobs unrelated to tech/gaming — such as working with mutual funds and industrial supply logistics — but eventually his diverse background brought him back to what he’s loved since childhood: creating games and fostering new ideas.

More Than Entertainment

Yes, Grace has more than 20 games on his resume — along with degrees in computer information systems and electronic visualization. Yes, his games have yielded numerous awards and landed him hundreds of opportunities to write, speak, advise and opine about gaming. However, it’s the scope of what’s possible— the potential of games to change attitudes, behaviors and trends — that keeps him striving.

As an associate professor at AU — previously he taught at the Illinois Institute of Art and Miami University — and founding director of the AU Game Lab and Studio, Grace has a rare chance to simultaneously nurture young talent and fulfill his own robust research goals. The result has been breakthrough work with seemingly unlimited potential in the world of social impact gaming.

Persuasive manifests itself in revolutionary work such as Grace’s “Black Like Me,” a simple puzzle game that subtly addresses racial prejudice. Players are asked to match colors — there’s a limited palette — which becomes more and more difficult the longer they play.

“Big Huggin’ ” is another example of Grace’s flair for thought-provoking gameplay. It has the journey style of traditional games such as “Super Mario Bros.” but with a heart-warming twist: Your character has to hug a teddy bear, not destroy it, to overcome obstacles.

The Diverse Potential of Games

By implementing games in situations where they traditionally haven’t been utilized, Grace and the AU Game Lab have been able to work toward observable social impact — and the world is taking note. The lab received a Knight Foundation grant to study the relationship between games and journalism, and how the industry can adapt in swiftly changing world.

The Game Lab also has worked with the Educational Testing Service and the World Bank. Further, as part of an initiative with the National Institute of Mental Health, the studio recently developed a game-based way to support the clinical treatment of anxiety.

From race and religion to nonviolence and mental health, game-based solutions can be applied to virtually every issue. It’s a powerful tool, the benefits of which have only just begun to be realized. Organizations and events such as Global Game Jam — Grace is on the board of directors — are beginning to catch on; this annual weekend event in Washington, D.C., draws more than 36,000 participants from all over the world.

The world of gaming doesn’t need to be dominated by one or two key demographics. I think in the long term it can’t be, if it’s going to be mainstream.” said Grace

Forging Future Game Changers

At the Game Lab — an unprecedented blend of efforts through the School of Communication and the College of Arts and Sciences — students receive specialized, hands-on training that wasn’t available when Grace’s unique career unfolded. Now that he has seen what social gaming can accomplish, he’s eager to help the next generation of developers take persuasive play to another level.

At the very least, he hopes to see every one of his students discover something important about themselves and the world around them.

“I want to see people who don’t necessarily consider themselves as game players, joining in the conversation. Because, there’s a reason they don’t consider themselves gamemakers and maybe they aren’t gamers, maybe because they just don’t know about all the other opportunities in games and maybe they just haven’t experienced it,” says Grace. “And so I’m really about just telling everybody that ‘You know, come on in. The pool is warm.’ We’re very welcoming and we’re very much about new ideas.”

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