Why Gaming for Good is a cause to get behind | interview

I’ve caught up with Mathias Gredal Nørvig, CEO of Sybo, and Jude Ower, CEO of Playmob, to hear them talk about their book Gaming for Good in the past year. Their book is finally out today.

We talked about it during the Game Developers Conference in 2023, the Games for Change 2023 event at the UN in New York, at the Web Summit in Portugal in November 2023. That’s because I can’t think of a better cause for gamers than the one that they are tirelessly talking about how games can be a powerful force for good. I hope everybody reads their book about saving the world through gaming.

Nørvig and Ower want to marshal the resource of three billion gamers on the planet to spread awareness and mobilize to fight against climate change.

Gaming for Good has case studies on how games can make causes stronger.

Gaming for Good features engaging interviews and actionable insights from industry leaders, including Phil Spencer (executive vice president of Gaming at Microsoft), John Hanke (CEO, Niantic), Robert Antokol (CEO of Playtika), Rob Small (president of Miniclip), Tamzin Taylor (head of Play partnerships at Google), and more. There are case studies about how to take the popularity of games to raise awareness about charitable causes, moving us away from the negative perception games often receive.

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Gaming for Good demystifies gaming, gaming culture, and gamers, turning what we think we know about gaming on its head and showing how games are the most powerful megatrend of our time and how this power can be used to solve the biggest challenges of our time.

Sybo in particular has more than 150 million monthly active users and four billion downloads for its 12-year-old Subway Surfers game. And that audience has been receptive to the company’s continuous focus on supporting environmental projects.

And while it does take some resources to publish the book on paper and online, the authors are offsetting the book’s own carbon footprint by donating 50% of profits to green projects via PlanetPlay.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Jude Ower (right) and Mathias Gredal Nørvig speaking at Games for Change 2023 at the UN.
Jude Ower (right) and Mathias Gredal Nørvig speaking at Games for Change 2023 at the UN.

GamesBeat: It felt like this was a long time coming. Are you happy with the launch finally coming around?

Jude Ower: The last 5% definitely took the most time.

GamesBeat: Can you summarize what the book’s about and what you intend?

Ower: Gaming for Good is split into three sections. One is around demystifying gaming, gamers, and gaming culture. Trying to start from a level playing field around what gaming is today. That part’s really for those are not in the game industry, but also for those who are, who just might not be aware of some of this stuff. It lays the foundation for the next part of the book, which is about, can games be good for us? It shows some examples, broadly, of how games can be used for good. And then the third section is about putting things into action. How can we do this as an industry? What can you do if you’re not in the industry? Giving templates and examples.

Overarching, it’s around raising awareness of how games can be good, and showing ways we can implement gaming for good, whether you’re in the industry or not.

GamesBeat: This has been a long time coming. Where would you like to start?

Mathias Gredal Nørvig: We’ve been wanting to broaden the discussion. Games are seen as a vehicle for change. In that sense, the first section is very much about broadening the discussion and bringing people on board with what gaming actually means. There’s still a perception out there that gaming is a nerdy teenager playing with other teenagers. The more we look into the numbers, the more we can justify that a lot of people, if not most people, are playing games, whether it’s sudoku or puzzle games while they wait for the bus. We can see it as a platform that reaches the broadest possible user base to reach with our message and bring that awareness.

GamesBeat: You’re also convincing players that it doesn’t necessarily take too much to do good themselves. They can accomplish things while playing games.

Subway Surfers maker Sybo is working with environmental causes like Milky
Subway Surfers maker Sybo is working with environmental causes like Milkywire.

Nørvig: There’s a sort of three-pronged approach. One, to the general public, that it’s okay to be a gamer. You can learn from games. For the players, they can ask for more activations in the games that they love and use the ones that are there to create awareness. And then of course–it’s also an intentional push for the platforms to support this and give it a stronger go. The game makers that are trying to do something more than just entertainment are seeing that they get more visibility and more discoverability on the platforms.

GamesBeat: How far back in your history have you been tracking this movement? How long ago would you say this first took hold for you?

Ower: We introduce a couple of timelines in the book. For me it was about 20 years ago. But it wasn’t quite mass scale then. The first real pivotal moment was when Zynga did a campaign for the Haiti earthquake, selling sweet seeds within FarmVille. That was where Mark Pincus wrote a blog about the uplift of doing good, and also his sister, Laura Pincus, is an academic in the space of business for good. The two combined–really that was the start of the movement. It was the start of social gaming, free-to-play, in-app purchases giving a percentage to charity. That was around 2011.

reality is broken
Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Also, the work of Jane McGonigal and Reality is Broken. Her vision was–at the time, around 2011, we were spending 3 billion hours a week playing games, but she worked out that if we got to 21 billion hours, we could start to solve some of the world’s greatest problems through gaming, like climate change. She had this vision, but there was no how-to. This is really the how-to and what’s been done between then and now. Showing examples of activations that have happened over the years. I would say about 12 years ago is when it started to be out there. But it was very–things were happening, but not very joined up. Now there’s much more momentum. Things like the Play for the Planet Alliance pulled it together and amplified what games can do.

Nørvig: There are individuals who’ve been pushing storytelling, personal stories, like Alan Gershenfeld, who have always been telling stories with the intention of creating awareness of causes. But I think the momentum that’s happened over the last five or six years–you can see a shared narrative around the fact that this platform can do more jointly.

Ower: The other thing that’s helped is you have these intentional activations and content that’s been created over the past five or six years. But it’s also the leadership in the industry, and why certain individuals have set up game studios. Rob Small at Miniclip, for example, wanted to make gaming accessible for everybody. Ilkka from Supercell saw games as a place with no borders for everyone to come together. And then John Hanke from Niantic, who saw games as a way to get people outdoors. He’s very big on getting outdoors for 20 minutes a day, because it helps your mental health and well-being. That’s his motivation behind creating Niantic and Pokemon Go. There are underlying reasons why some of these games exist that might not be completely obvious on the surface, which was really interesting to dig into in the interviews.

GamesBeat: Did you find that this generation is more interested in supporting causes through games? Are younger people demanding this kind of goodness in games?

Nørvig: We definitely see, both for our colleagues and our peers in the industry and for the players, there’s a huge drive for purpose. What am I playing? What does it actually mean? Who am I in this? What story am I driving? It’s not only the destruction games, the killing games. It’s also about building community, connecting to people, and being social. Living the fantasy of being someone you’re not, or living in a world that’s better than the world that you know.

There’s also a big drive for a sense of belonging. We see this both in terms of diversity and inclusivity, but also in the purest sense of belonging to a community or living the IP. We see a stronger drive for that. Tying that to the generational hunger for purpose is quite interesting, seeing how that also drives stories to be more about a sense of belonging, about driving positive change.

Ower: Something that we’ve tracked over the past decade or more is consumer trends and buying behavior when it comes to ethical and sustainable products. More people are demanding products and services that do good and give back. This number is growing and growing. It’s everyone, but it’s that younger generation, Gen Alpha, Gen Z, millennials. We’re seeing this also with the Green Game Jam we did last year, where 80% of gamers said they wanted to do more for climate action in games. I think 10 years ago there were people who were interested in this, but now it’s something they want to do every day, things that they really care about.

GamesBeat: Are there any other things that you’d like to highlight about bringing the book together?

Nørvig: It’s been a long time coming. Jude has had this on her plate for a long time. We share both the ambition and the intention of the book, to start more conversations and bring more game companies on board, but also the real awareness creation among the millions and billions of players out there. They see this in their games, see the platforms and the companies supporting it. The intention is definitely to harness all the momentum and give a playbook or guide as to how you can do more. For those who haven’t started considering this, they can read it and think that it’s not too far away to do a campaign or brainstorm what a small action might be in their company. If they haven’t done anything yet, they can learn from what others have done already. That’s the hope of this book, that it’s a conversation starter for activations in more game companies and reaching more players.

Ower: It’s also for the industry to feel proud of what’s been happening already, and to bring a lot of these stories together in one place, so we can see the impact that’s happening. As Mathias was saying, to encourage more studios to do more activations, but also to de-risk it for them. Others are doing this. This is how it works. These are the results. It’s not a scary, risky thing to do. It’s really good for business. It’s to demystify a lot of these things for the industry.

The feedback we’ve gotten so far from people in the industry, they’re so excited about this. They know it’s so needed and it’s the right time. Much like the Alliance brought the industry together for climate, I think this will help bring a lot of stories together in one place to show what the industry is really all about today. Also, I talk to a lot of people who are not in the game industry, but they’re interested in gaming and how game companies do activations. There’s still that assumption that a gamer is a teenaged boy in his bedroom playing war games. But it’s not. Obviously there are a lot of teenagers playing games, but the demographics are so broad now. It still seems like an unusual concept, to do gaming for good. But for us it’s totally natural. This has been around for years now. But to others it blows their minds. We want to get this out to the whole world. 

Mathias Norvig and Jude Ower at Games for Change 2023.
Mathias Norvig and Jude Ower at Games for Change 2023.

This is something Matis kept bringing up and reminding me of as well. We’re not writing this book through rose-tinted glasses. We also understand that there are issues and things to be aware of in the industry. It’s not saying that this is a perfect world. There are also things to be mindful of and things we need to fix. We show examples of that in the book, and how things have been tackled, like age ratings. Things we have to be mindful of as parents getting kids to play games. There is an age rating standard. The industry is very good at not just reacting, but being proactive in terms of making our games as safe as possible. That’s important. We’re not just saying everything is great. There are things to be mindful of.

Norvig: It’s a book with a lot of interviewees, a lot of graphs, and a lot of cases, which is good for the reader. It’s also been a great learning for us, about how long it takes to find the right credits and make sure everyone is aligned on what’s in the book. It’s also a slice in time. The intention is to have an online portal, a website where you can find more examples. Even during the writing of the book, we’ve heard from more and more companies who want to be included, talking about their activations. The online portal can be a host or a hub for starting conversations in real time. That’s the intention of also making it available online. We want to make sure that everyone trying a good thing can share with others. “This is what worked. This is what we would like to do more of next time.” That amplifies the goodness of games.

Ower: The thing with the website as well, having that data on activations and what’s working and isn’t working–there are a couple of ideas that Mathias and I have spoken about in terms of what comes out of this. Going deeper into a how-to guide, but also looking deeper at all the different activations and how they’ve worked for studios, on the impact side and on the business side. The whole process of how it works internally. We touched on that a lot in chapter three, but that’s an area where we could really deep dive into with more case studies and more time.

GamesBeat: How many people did you talk to for the book? Do you have a tally?

Ower: I have a spreadsheet of all the names and I could send you a number later. But probably about 20. And we have quotes from people we didn’t fully interview. But about 20 people that we interviewed – CEOs, founders, people that work at studios.

GamesBeat: Did this take on more weight when you saw the United Nations coming into the issue?

Nørvig: We touch on that in the book. There was a serendipitous moment in 2018, where the Play Nice dinners started gaining more momentum and finding more organizations that wanted to support the cause. That was where Sam Barratt from UNEP dropped by and had his eye-opening moment, realizing how many billions of players we were reaching with our combined titles. We started working with each other, figuring out a way to do an alliance. The UN stamp meant that companies that had previously only been in software alliances together would put their competition glasses away and focus on collaborating. Microsoft and Sony and EA, the bigger companies, the conglomerates, they also stepped in and made a massive difference. They can share their studies and data around how they work with the devices.

For the European companies, it’s nice to have the UN stamp. It’s still one of the only organizations that people rally behind regardless of political opportunity. When we say that it happened at the UN General Assembly, it gives a lot of credibility and integrity to those who involve themselves.

Ower: There definitely was a big step change at that point. The UN came in and became that convener that the industry needed to bring all of this together. I remember some of the early conversations with Sam. We were talking about how there are so many things happening in the game industry, so much potential. How do we bring it together? We didn’t know at that point. We wanted to create a report, so we did the report on Playing for the Planet. We used a lot of the research. I was thinking about a book in 2016 and 2017, assembling research and examples and case studies, but I wasn’t quite sure about direction. The first report used some of that research. We started looking at what the industry really cared about at the time, and one of the top things was climate change. It gave some real momentum to bring everyone together.

gaming for good 1
Mathias Norvig and Jude Ower speak on gaming for good at the UN.

Like Mathias was saying, when you add the UN into the mix–they’re credible. They point people in the right direction. They provided the guiding light that was needed to show the way forward. Sam stepping up was brilliant. Just thinking about the timeline, in the same year, in 2019, we were also approached by UNDP, another part of the UN, about using games as a way to reach people and talk to them about how they felt about climate change. There’s a woman named Cassie Flynn who heads up the climate policy side within the UN. She was on the underground one day and saw everyone on their phones, and when she looked at what they were doing, they were all playing Candy Crush. She thought, “That’s the way to reach people.” She wasn’t a gamer, but she saw that games were an amazing channel.

Out of that, we’ve been working with UNDP for years using games as a way to reach people in all corners of the planet, getting them to speak up on climate change. It’s been interesting looking at how the UN thought about games could be used. Sam had a different perspective. It was about energy usage and reaching gamers to take action, like raising money for green projects. On the UNDP side it was more of a communication tool. How do we reach people in places we can’t reach otherwise? And also that 13- to 18-year-old age group that can’t vote. How do we make their voices heard on a political stage?

That all happened at the same time. There was a lot of noise at the UN about gaming. That helped add credibility and point people in the right direction. On the policy side, we can get people to speak up, but how do we get that information to the right policy makers to change climate policy in key countries? You need the UN to be able to do something like that. They can make magic happen. We have the scale. They have the know-how.

GamesBeat: How do you reconcile, or help people reconcile, the concern they have for the planet with the notion that games use up so much energy, contributing to the climate challenge? Data centers are built to accommodate games. Do you find that people have trouble reconciling that?

Nørvig: That’s the other side of purpose. People asking for purpose definitely also have more awareness of the consequences of our entertainment usage, our general consumption. That’s a strong part of why the book is so relevant. The more game companies and platforms and everyone can talk about the fact that we’d prefer to have greener alternatives, that we would encourage lower consumption devices and better use of services and more transparency around this, it’s a great conversation to be having across the industry. For a single game company it’s hard to say, “How do I get greener?” But if the whole industry is interested in becoming carbon neutral, that’s a strong driver for change from a business point of view. I think gamers in the future will appreciate that. That’s a strong driver for them to choose one product over another, if they know that it’s offset or decarbonized or compensated in other ways.

GamesBeat: How do you get people to be more active, to convince them to do something?

Gaming for Good Final
Gaming for Good is about getting people to give while gaming.

Nørvig: We’re trying to open eyes to renewable energy, to talk more about a green environment and what you can do about that. We have some examples in the book. It’s about electric vehicles. It’s about alternatives in other ways. I think we can inspire. We can come with examples of normalizing game environments, normalizing activities or activations through campaigns in games. The unlock for people is that they start having this conversation in their daily lives. It becomes natural, that this is something you should talk about with your partner or friends or colleagues or schoolmates. The more we can normalize it in the game world, the more we also know that billions of people will see it.

Ower: There are different levels. Obviously you have the studio level, studios looking at how they can reduce or offset their carbon footprint. That’s the company level. On the player side, what could be interesting is looking at what happens in the background. Is it a percentage of ads, for example, that can go into green projects? That’s obviously driven by players, but it can happen in the background. Or you can have things that are much more prominent. I love Mathias’s idea about normalizing. Things you can put in a game around messaging or storylines that bed into people’s minds, that they could potentially replicate in the real world.

How can we make green cool? The example of Subway Surfer working with J. Balvin was really cool. You have this mega-popstar in a viral game. You have these really cool Instagram posts around J. Balvin in New York with graffiti behind him playing Subway Surfer, and a percentage of his in-app purchases go to green projects. If you can make it cool, that’s going to appeal to a mixture of people who will then get behind it. It’s making sure that we’re doing things in different ways, so people don’t get fatigued by it, but it becomes just part of our storylines, part of our daily lives. Things that people want to do, because if you don’t do it, it’s not cool.

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