LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Climate justice, human rights and sustainable development aren’t usually the subjects with which you want to play around, but that’s just what’s happening in Ireland.

The Irish Catholic international development agency Trócaire’s Game Changers program encourages young people to design games to help explore global justice issues.

There are three categories of games – board games, card games, and video games – and the competition is aimed as middle and high school-aged children, although younger children are encouraged to participate in a non-judged category.

“The Trócaire Game Changers Competition is for young people who want to change the world and believe games are a way to do this. Young people create games that explore one of the three themes: Climate Justice, Human Rights or the [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals,” said David O’Hare, a communications officer at Trócaire.

O’Hare said board games are the “by far” most popular category, especially given the technical expertise necessary to create a video game.

The agency runs “clusters” to bring students and teachers together to design games, although young people can still submit games if they haven’t attended one of these events.

Most competitors come from schools – most schools in Ireland are affiliated with the Catholic Church – and youth groups.

Trócaire was established by the Irish bishops in 1973, with the dual mandate of supporting the most vulnerable people in the developing world and raising awareness of development at home in Ireland. During Lent, the “Trócaire box” – where children save their loose change to help support the aid agency – has become a part of the Irish culture.

The Game Changers competition premiered in 2019, with over 80 entries exploring themes such as human rights, the plight of refugees, and the challenges of delivering aid to countries affected by poverty.

Judged by a panel of Trócaire staff, gaming experts, and educators, the games are assessed on a number of criteria: Understanding, empathy, innovation, and gameplay.

“Games design tends to incorporate two main elements, the technical side of developing the game, and the artistic side, the look and feel of the game,” O’Hare told Crux.

He said this is a difficult balance for the young designers to get right.

“What we find with many entries is that they will focus on one side or the other. Often, we will have visually stunning games that don’t play well, and some games that are very immersive and fun to play but need a lot of work from a visual point of view,” he explained.

“When students get both of these elements right, the final game can be amazing. Creating a game is difficult, especially when your subject matter has to focus on a global justice issue,” O’Hare continued.

He said one hurdle to jump is originality, noting that many of the entries are variations on existing games, such as Chutes and Ladders.

“However, the most interesting games are when the game concept, or mechanism, is one we haven’t seen before,” O’Hare said.

The best game in each category will win a trophy and a trip to the Cool Planet Experience, and interactive facility in County Wicklow, Ireland, that offers an immersive experience on climate change.

The overall winner will also win a trip to the 8th International Educational Games Competition held in Brighton, England, on Sep. 24-25.

Although creating games might not seem like the most obvious method to help educate children about global justice, Trócaire staff – using their experience working in formal and non-formal educational spaces – realized games could be a powerful educational tool.

“However, creating a game is an even more immersive experience than just playing a game, and young people quite literally have to become experts in the issue they have chosen, in order to ensure that their game works,” O’Hare said.

He also dismissed concerns that the topics explored by the games might not be age appropriate, especially for younger children.

“Exploration of serious topics is something that education must play a part in. Over the years Trócaire has been involved in research around this very concern, and we believe that the earlier young people are exposed to these issues in an appropriate manner, the better,” he said.

Trócaire has developed several different resources aimed at different age groups, starting with elementary and primary school.

“Continuous education on global justice themes from early childhood, right through to when the young people move into adulthood, is essential to support the development of a social conscience, and enabling young people to become active global citizens,” O’Hare explained.

“What we hope with Game Changers is that the games act as an awareness raising tool for other young people, focusing on positive outcomes and solutions to issues, essentially winning or completing the games,” he continued. “We have had many entries focusing on climate change, and without exception, the games lead the player to a positive outcome, showing how climate change can be appropriately addressed. This can have a powerful impact on young people.”

O’Hare refused to be pinned down on what his personal favorite game was from the 2019 competition, just noting that the overall winner from last year – a game called Hunt for Human Rights, designed by six students from Loreto Secondary School Balbriggan in Dublin – went on to come in second at the Europe-wide educational games competition, which was held in Denmark last year.

“Just the fact that the young people and their educators have taken the time to create a game and enter our competition brings us great joy and satisfaction,” he said.

“These games are a demonstration of solidarity with people around the world who are less fortunate than ourselves, and the fact that these young people are willing to participate in what is essentially an awareness raising action gives us great hope for the future.”

The deadline for the 2020 competition is April 3.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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