Can something as simple as a video game change the world? Researchers, nonprofits and global institutions from the United Nations to the World Bank seem to think so, but it turns out the answer isn't so simple. While video games are powerful tools for social good, sustained intervention to build broad-based support for policy change continues to be essential.

In 2007, Breakthrough began developing ICED - I Can End Deportation, a 3D, role-playing video game that framed the U.S. immigration debate through a lens of fairness, due process and human rights. We hoped to change the broader political narrative away from the demonization of “illegal aliens” to a conversation about fair immigration policy.

ICED puts a human face to an increasingly depersonalized issue, and – using first-person game dynamics – puts players in the shoes of immigrants as they try to navigate community and civic engagement and avoid detention and deportation. Breakthrough used gaming as a medium because engaging and retaining the attention of younger, wider audiences requires tools that reach people where they are already connecting and communicating. A growing body of research shows that video games are precisely such a tool.

The allure of gaming for organizations looking to expand their audience reach and create lasting impact is clear: a recent report by the Pew Research Center reveals that 97% of teens play computer, web, portable, or console games. Another report from Pew reveals that most Millennials (those born after 1980) believe that technology brings together, rather than isolates, individuals. Video games also offer a microcosm for players to work through complex social issues while providing a safe, virtual space for inhabiting other identities and worldviews. The gaming environment can be a playful space for re-envisioning a new universe and instigating social change, and because games can be so thoroughly immersive, they have the potential to quietly transform attitudes beyond the virtual context and into the physical world.

More than 150,000 people have played ICED since it launched in 2008, and a comprehensive evaluation of the game revealed that playing ICED significantly contributed to an increase in player knowledge about U.S. immigration and deportation policies. Over half of the survey respondents indicated that playing had changed the way they felt about the treatment of immigrants, and the open-response questions indicated that the game had changed player attitudes positively toward immigrants’ rights. The attitude shifts were dramatic, but individual impact is only half the story when trying to reframe a national debate.

Building the political will to transform policy requires that we vigorously and consistently assert narratives that reflect the systemic nature of social injustice. In the case of ICED, Breakthrough messaged around the broken nature of U.S. immigration policies, framing it as a lose/lose proposition for millions of immigrants each year seeking a straightforward path to citizenship.

By framing the issue in terms that uplift individual stories through a broader political frame, we were able to present policy-change as a meaningful solution to a deeply entrenched problem. But the fact that fair immigration policies continue to be elusive in the U.S. is a clear indication that while video games can play a critical role in education and attitude change – a multi-pronged and ongoing effort is needed to achieve substantive policy change.