Having once served Israeli Defense Forces - 8200 for over four years, Asi has been introduced to the power of communication in settling conflicts. But what is a man like him doing in the genre that’s stereotyped as only for generations younger than him?
Not Just a Gamer
Video games have earned the ire of parents for their violent themes and graphic images. Yet, they have survived despite the mass disapproval of adults. There’s something about video games that can easily hook anyone. It doesn’t even matter that people devote a good part of their day to doing inane tasks in the name of entertainment. What others failed to see, Asi leveraged.
His rationale behind using video games as a medium to create social awareness is:
“Games are not just entertainment or a pastime. They are a medium. Maybe a different form of a medium. But, they follow in the footsteps of any other medium. Over the years and over their evolution, we start to understand that games can be used to change things for the better, raise awareness, and shine a light on one issue or many issues. If you think about shining a light on sex trafficking, there are documentaries around it, books around it, probably songs written about it. In our eyes, games follow in those footsteps. But, games are also different. Because, for the first time, they introduce an interactive way to engage the player. Games let people take part and be active, make choices, see consequences, and, if the game is crafted really well, players get to experience things that are very different from what they’re used to in their ordinary life.” (Source: VSConfronts.org)
So yes, we may call him a visionary for introducing an unorthodox way of learning about the social maladies plaguing our world today. It’s a lofty idea and Asi knows what he’s up against. They don’t even have substantial funding to compete with commercial games. What keeps him going, however, is the hope that somewhere someone who plays their game would do his/her share in contributing to solving the problem. The idealism of this guy is infectious and we can’t help but hope with him that video games, aside from just taking up so much of our time for entertainment, could also be a powerful tool in reaching people regardless of race and denomination. Once the need for unity is clearly communicated, it is easier to work together in achieving common good.
Early Life and Education
Asi was born in Israel in 1973 and grew up playing the earliest version of video games. He took his secondary studies at Harishonim High School in Herzliya. After high school, he joined the Israeli Defense Forces where he became a Captain. He enrolled in Visual Communication at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in 1994 and completed his degree in 1998.
Asi was an exceptional student. In fact, he received Cum Laude, Excellence Awards when he was in his first and third year in Bezalel. He won the America-Israel Cultural Foundation Scholarship in 1998 but did not leave for the United States until 2004. He was senior art director at Saatchi & Saatchi from 1999 to 2001. After that he worked for AxisMobile and became vice president of Marketing and Product department from 2006 to 2009. During his tenure in AxisMobile, he was given by Israel Advertising Association four awards equivalent to the CLIO, "the world’s most recognized international awards competition for advertising, design, interactive and communications" (Source: CLIO Awards). As vice president of Marketing and Product department, he worked with AxisMobile to introduce LBS mobile games and community applications to the US, Asia, and Europe market.
Working for AxisMobile developed Asi’s eye for gaming and using applications. Seeing Entertainment Technology course offered at Carnegie Mellon University, he left for the United States when he was 33 years old. He completed his master’s degree in 2006 and then founded his own company called ImpactGames in the same year he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University.
Creating PeaceMaker and Play the News
While in Carnegie Mellon University, Asi pitched his idea of a game about the conflict between the Palestinian and Israeli government. His professor allowed him to go further albeit having doubts if they would ever get anywhere. By the time he graduated, PeaceMaker is about to be launched which led to his partnership with Eric Brown in creating the company, ImpactGames.
In spite of its controversial theme, PeaceMaker earned positive reviews and even changed perspectives of people who used to have extreme leanings on either governments:
“Israel had also made mistakes and that the Palestinian people had some legitimate claims,” (Source: Greater Good) says one of the students who used to be pro-Israel.
That encouraged Asi to explore the propensity of video games. At least he was not alone in his pursuit. In 2008, a retired judge of the US Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, introduced a project called iCivics at the Games for Change Festival in 2008. According to the feedback they got, teachers love using it as an additional aid in teaching. Their students found it easier to understand how the United States government works.
Another video game called Play the News (PtN) followed suit. Like PeaceMaker, PtN is a serious game. In PtN, Asi stressed what they want to achieve:
"... Rather than us being the "game gods", deciding what are the winning conditions and assumptions, we wanted to create something that equates more with interactive journalism than with traditional video games. The consequences you are looking for have different forms: the consequences in real-life, your ability to predict reality, your reputation in the community, your voice and participation in meaningful discussion etc." (Source: Open the Future)
Asi Talks about Project with Nick Kristof at TEDxGotham
It took only seven minutes for the green-eyed speaker to convince his audience that video games are not to be dismissed as entirely bad. Asi presented his eager listeners the facts—number of people playing games, the number of hours spent in playing video games, and the money video games are making. The figures are all in millions of course. Asi reiterated the influence video games are making to our lives as digitally empowered individuals.
Using that premise, he told the audience about Games for Change and what they are trying to do. He focused on the work they did with Half the Sky Movement. He was approached by the co-author of the Pulitzer-winner “Half the Sky,” Nick Kristof. The book about women’s struggle against oppression and gender discrimination became a bestseller and spawned the organization called “Half the Sky Movement.” Nick attended one of the Game for Change’s forums and he was thrilled at the possibility of broadening their influence using video games.
The two started collaborating and after three years of painstakingly working on a serious game that would embody the cause of Half the Sky Movement, “Half the Sky: The Game” was launched. At the TEDxGotham talk, Asi talked about the number of people who checked out their game, installed it, and actually played it. The response was encouraging as they seem to be making steady progress in terms of people getting hooked. But more than just the number of people getting interested in playing the product, this whole new approach to tapping the gaming population with the underlying motive of increasing awareness gave video games a new meaning.
It wasn’t an easy endeavor and Asi admitted in an interview that they went through a lot of rigid talks and processes:
“That was a very long process and probably one of the more challenging parts of the experience. We made a decision to work with seven nonprofits because we wanted to cover all of the issues that appear in the book. So it was constantly working back and forth with them.
We treated them as content experts but there was a tension between how much the expert wants to teach and how much the designer wants to include in the game. Games are really good at giving you options and decision points. Text is not something that is super friendly to players. It was a constant balancing act to tell the NGOs, we need to focus at a very high level on these issues. Some of them worried that it was too simple. Yes, it was simple, but it was also much more than people know because players come with almost no prior knowledge.
The way we made everything possible is that we decided to make the game about one woman that you can follow from oppression to opportunity. She has a journey that not only improves her condition but as she accumulates power, she improves the condition of others. That was the key. Once we chose Radhika as the heroine/protagonist, moving from a very modest beginning to speak at the United Nations at the end, to be a political leader, we had an arc, an overarching story that we could then tie to the content.”
(Source: Art Works)
It was quite controversial. One of the highlights of the game was the heroine being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It was not well-received by the organization. They were requested by the organization to remove any references as video games are still largely frowned upon by the majority. Rather than get demotivated, it kept Asi going. What he wants to achieve in the future is make video games a medium to communicate even lofty issues, just like books and television.
In spite of the Nobel reference being removed, he was glad that it did not largely affect the overall gaming experience. To date, they are happy to report that since its launch on 4 March 2013, “there have been 623,500+ players, 1,781,000+ unique visits, an average of 9,000 players added daily, more than 144,000 book donations as a result of the game, and more than $88,875 donated for fistula surgeries, and a total of $261,225 in direct and sponsored donations” (Source: Art Works).
The figures are very encouraging. They have pioneered a game that allows the players to make virtual donations that actually gets forwarded to the Half the Sky Movement. They were funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and it says a lot about the shift of the public’s opinion concerning video games.
Asi is married to Britta Burak nee Faust and they have a cute daughter named Amalia.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Games for Change
- Fezer Institute
- Entertainment Technology Center
- Half the Sky
- Serious Games movement
- School of Visual Arts’ MFA in Design for Social Innovation
Awards and Achievements
- 1989-1994: Served as Captain in Israeli Defense Forces
- 1994: Won the America-Israel Cultural Foundation Scholarship
- 1994: Awarded Cum Laude, Excellence Awards in Bezalel Academy
- 1997: Awarded Cum Laude, Excellence Awards in Bezalel Academy
- 1998: Completed BA in Design from the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem
- 1999-2001: Served as Senior Art Director for Saatchi & Saatchi
- 2001-2003: Served as Vice President in AsixMobile's Marketing and Product Department
- 2002: Awarded by Israel Advertising Association four awards of Israel’s equivalent to the Clio
- 2006: Completed Master's in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon University
- 2006: Co-founded Impact Games
- 2006: Acknowledged for “Reinventing Public Diplomacy through Games”
- 2007: Won the Best Transformation Game
- 2007: Nominated for the Charles Bronfman Prize
- 2007: One of the finalists in the Entrepreneuring Peace Contest
- 2007: One of the finalists in the Serious Games Showcase and Challenge
- 2009-2010: Independent Executive Producer for Newsweek Digital, McCann Erickson / MRM Worldwide, USAID, CURE International, Games for Change, E-Line Media
- 2009: Won the News Game Award
- 2009: One of the finalists in the International Design Award
- 2010: Became co-President of Games for Change (G4C)
- 2011: Became Tech Awards Laureate
- 2011: Named one of the “Digital 25: Leaders in Emerging Entertainment” by the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and Variety Magazine
Skoll World Forum (Can Gaming Change the World for Good)
Games for Change (Asi Burak bio)
Facebook (Games for Change)
Facebook (Asi Burak)
LinkedIn (Asi Burak)
Design for Social Innovation (Asi Burak bio)
Design for Social Innovation (Asi Burak interview)
PBS.org (Can a Facebook Game Change the World? Ask Asi Burak)
Greater Good (Digital Diplomacy)
PR Newswire (Asi Burak and Michelle Byrd Named as Co-Presidents of Games for Change)
SCHED (GSummit 2013)
Art Works (Asi Burak)
Businessweek.com (Asi Burak)
IGDA.org (Game Design Aspect of the Month: The Clint Eastwood of Video Games)
Open the Future (Playing the News - A Chat with Asi Burak)
Spotlight On [Q&A: Asi Burak and Michelle Byrd On Changing the World (and Education) Via Social Impact Gaming]
Reticulating Splines (Interview with Asi Burak - Co-Founder of Impact Games)
VSConfronts.org (A Conversation with Asi Burak, Co-President of Games for Change)
Sacred Cow Enterprises (Asi Burak: With Great Power comes Great Responsibility)
TEDx Gotham (Past Events)
BBC World Service (Asi Burak)
Meet Up (Audible Tech Talks with Asi Burak, Co-President, Games for Change)
New Jersey Tech Weekly (At Audible Tech Talk, Asi Burak Discusses Games That Change Society)
Game Spot Asia (GDC Microtalks: Jaffe, Lemarchand, Brathwaite on gaming's future)
The Guardian (The search for the intelligent mainstream gamer)
Armchair Advocates (Developing Video Games that Save the World)
World of Business Ideas (Game for Change)
CLIO Awards (About Section)