Games For Change

A contribution to the Ashoka Peace Blog at

The only video game I’ve ever been good at was Nintendo Super Mario Brothers. When it comes to jumping up and down on mushrooms and rescuing beautiful princesses, I’m there. But give me a gun or a weapon and tell me to win a war, now you’ve lost me. Ironically, even Mario Brothers is based on killing.

The USC Society and Business Lab, where I work as an intern, recently hosted Alan Gershenfeld, founder of E-Line Media, a social games publishing company, and member of the Board of Directors for Games of Change. Before listening to Alan, I had no idea video games could change the world.

This morning, I planted a farm, built a shed and a barn, bought livestock, paid for a school and a road, and worked to sustain my family of four.

I also sent a Haitian family to work, to school, to volunteer, and took care of them when they got sick.

I negotiated with the Israeli Prime Minister to remove the wall dividing Jerusalem from Palestine, who politely told me I would need to fight terror before the wall could be removed.

Lastly, I started a homeless shelter in Los Angeles, thanks to a local grant.

Games for Change is a non-profit that promotes, quite simply, video games to change the world. These games span the areas of human rights, economics, public health, poverty, global conflict, the environment, and politics.

They make a foreign world relevant to children (and adults!) restricted by the challenges of their own lives and the system they are born into. And they are fun.

They are also quite difficult.

On 3rd World Farmer, crop season after crop season was hit with challenges. All of my barns and sheds burned down in a fire. My cattle were wiped out by a terrible virus. My peanut crop was destroyed, and the economy fell through the cracks, leaving me with barely enough money to afford a meager corn crop.

On Ayiti: The Cost of Life, my Haitian children got sick, couldn’t pay for school, and were forced to work in a factory to afford food. I could never afford to educate the parents well enough to get jobs that could sustain the family. Happiness, health, and education levels were always low.

I gave up on Peacemaker, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and negotiation game, after only 10 minutes. Enough said.

On Karma Tycoon, I could never get enough funding to sustain my non-profit homeless shelter, expand it, and serve the number of clients I needed to serve, to get enough karma.

These games presented me with issues I might never think about, had I not stumbled upon this game. After all, Super Mario never had to manage a farm or feed a family.

Imagine if parents encouraged their children to play video games. Imagine if they were incorporated into school curriculums. Perhaps games can lead to a vast understanding of the world around us, and the challenges we face in mending the Earth’s deepest wounds.

To read more about Games for Change, and all of the game-changing fun they offer, go to

To learn more about the games I played:

Karma Tycoon:

3rd World Farmer:


Ayiti: The Cost of Life:


The Entryway

The rabbit hole isn’t as far away as you think…

The topic is communism and China.

“Do you guys feel like you are free to do and say what you want in the U.S.?”

Not a hand. Not a word. I’m not speaking their language.

Okay, let’s switch gears I think, as I look at the kid who has the letters “F”, “U”, “C”, “K” tattooed on his fingers, sitting next to the 7-month pregnant sophomore girl who couldn’t be further away from thoughts of the restricted freedoms of the Chinese.

Let’s try due process…

“How many of you have ever known someone who has had to go to court?”

Almost the whole class raises their hand. Now they are getting it. I tell them how I was nearly arrested in Beijing for trying to give away an extra ticket to an Olympic soccer game, and how not one police officer would listen to what I had to say. This they got.

Every semester I teach International Relations to high school students in the Los Angeles inner city. Some classes are less difficult than others, but they are never easy. This semester I am teaching at Fremont high school, where less than 14% of students tested proficient or better in the English language, and less than 60% of students graduated last year.

The worst part, the fear of which I have finally conquered, is getting up in front of a class of mostly Latino and African American students living below or just above the poverty line, and watching them size me up. They know I’m not fluent in “them.”

Usually they don’t care that I’m there. They don’t care about what I have to say. I have had classes where students wreak of marijuana at 8:15 in the morning. I have had other students picking out baby names in the final months of their pregnancy. Apathy and resignation doesn’t come just from the students, however. I once had a teacher tell me that these students were destined for nothing more than failure and poverty, and that he had accepted this “fact” long ago.

The bottom line: I always feel like a stranger.

And I always feel guilty.

Flooded with these feelings, it was a terrible idea to watch “The Blindside” right after my first day back to teaching. Even though my mom pointed out that it is supposed to be a happy movie, I spent the better half of the movie in tears. There are so many kids who don’t get the opportunities that Michael Oher got. Why am I so lucky? Why did I get the life that I got? Why did I get born into a family who loves me and cares about my well-being?

Thank you Sandra, now I know.

“The Blindside” is a story of extraordinary kindness, not pity. I should not be guilty when I teach at Fremont. I know that I have been given the privileges and blessings in this lifetime because I am meant to use them to help others. Period.

There is nothing that differentiates me from any of the kids in my classroom, except that the universe decided to give me face cards, for some arbitrary reason. Why run away from the frustration of these weekly classes? This is an opportunity to learn, to experience, to participate, rather than observe.

Speaking of participating, I recently came upon this L.A. journalism project that I found enormously heroic and revolutionary. In this changing world, journalists are challenged to find new ways of telling stories. Devin Browne and Kara Mears have found a way to bridge two lifestyles that we typically keep as far apart as physically possible.

Los Angeles is “my city.” A city of great live music, flea market treasures, valets, LuluLemon hillltop hikes, palm trees and seashells and green tea lattes and ethnic food. But my L.A. is not the only L.A.

The Entryway is a revolutionary project, one that I encourage you all to explore. These two young reporters have moved into a roach-infested entryway of the house of  a Mexican immigrant family living in MacArthur Park, a toilet-paper-sharing, police-raid, gang-member, television-addicted L.A., one that challenges every norm and perspective they have come to know was well-to-do white women, who have never had to question the challenges of toilet paper,  or anything else for that matter. I’ll take a page from their book.

Life is about perspective.

Even from an entryway.

Time to find my own entryway.

(Photo Credit 1: Rachel Tobias)

(Photo Credit 2: Kara Mears)

Published in: on March 25, 2010 at 9:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Talk about a strange situation…

This was just too good to resist: Octomom’s house was being foreclosed, so PETA offered her cash for her mortgage if she put this sign in her front yard —

Published in: on March 25, 2010 at 5:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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We Play with our Food

Sorry Mom. I know what you always told me, but today we got busy playing with our food.

Turns out food can be quite a bit of fun.

Lessons of the Day:

1. Art is Lawless: Creativity, creation, style, flair…it has no boundaries. There are no rules. Each inspiration, each vision has artistry. Even when it comes to food.

2. Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder: He appreciates flawlessness and the beauty of perfection. He loves symmetry and the immaculate. I appreciate speckles and spots, and he beauty of imperfection. I love the stray pocks that represent the uniqueness of something individual. We came to some disagreements when it came to the editing and presentation of our arts-and-crafts project, but it showed us each how to appreciate the others’ definition of beauty.

Thanks for your help and inspiration darling.

(Photo Credits: Benny Haddad and Rachel Tobias)

Jury Duty

I may have been more productive at jury duty than I have every other day this week, combined. So perhaps all the complaining paid off.

Here are all the things I did today, while sitting in a room full of LA’s Most Frustrated:

  • Got lost trying to find the courthouse and was 45 minutes late, just in time to miss orientation
  • Cleaned and organized my computer desktop (of maybe 300 items!)
  • Organized my photo folders
  • Blogged (a lot)
  • Downloaded my first eBook
  • Read my first eBook (or some of it) — Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo
  • Caught up on some emails
  • Tried to learn how to write CSS, but failed
  • Checked the flavors at 21 Choices (Circus Animal Cookie and Raspberry Pomegranate, with too many rainbow sprinkles was the culmination of this Google search)
  • Only checked Facebook 3 times on my Blackberry (since the courtroom blocked it)
  • Created my class schedule for Fall 2010 (Foreign Policy Analysis, Honors Thesis Seminar, Social Entrepreneurship, and Thematic Option Science)
  • Walked down to Olvera Street, got a tamale, a churro, some sunflowers made from cornhusks, and Loteria, the Mexican version of Bingo to help teach my baby Spanish before Chile)
  • Played Bananagrams with myself
  • Played Bananagrams with the fidgety juror next to me
  • Lost my car in the parking lot and spent 45 minutes searching for it
  • Missed traffic and rewarded myself with the 21 Choices combination named above

Thank you Jury Duty

Published in: on March 19, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Banana Man Does Jury Duty

Tried to play Banangrams by myself while waiting at jury duty —

I got a little creative and made a story to go along with my Bananagrams Words:

Today I carry out my reponsibility as a citizen to serve jury duty. I am happy to donate my time, although after waiting for 8 hours, things are starting to get bad. People are getting fussy. This is like being in a cage. Neurons are starting to explode all around me, as I watch fellow jurors fall into horrid moods. Fools, I think. We are all fools!

What we really need in this jury room is some booze.

I wish I had napped during my lunch break.

Now we all sit here praying we don’t hear our names being called, sinking deeper and deeper into a state of lethargy.

If only I’d found an excuse.

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 10:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Little Black Dress

I’ve heard of shoes changing the world.

I’ve heard of bags changing the world.

But I’ve never before heard of the little black dress changing the world.

Sheena Matheiken has the heart of an elephant, the business saavy of Shaun White, and the fashion sense of Audrey Hepburn, with a twist.

She started The Uniform Project, and today is Day 322. She and a friend designed a staple black dress, nothing fancy, but completely versatile for any weather, location, and accessory. She frequents eBay, Etsy, and flea markets galore like a madwoman, searching for gizmos and gadgets of plenty.

Here’s how the project works: She wears the little black dress every single day for a year, gathering donations and searching for icing to decorate the darling black treat. Inspired by the creative flare added to school uniforms by the children she grew up with in India, she wears the dress as a campaign to raise money for school uniforms and school supplies for impoverished children in India, through an organization called The Akanksha Foundation. After 322 days, Sheena has raised over $56,000 for children’s education in India.

If you didn’t watch the Oscars a couple of weeks ago, you no doubt at least saw a glimpse of some of the red carpet glitz and glam, plastered for weeks afterwards on magazine covers, newspapers, etc. I love fashion and I love clothes, but sustainable fashion, like Sheena is revealing, can be even more glamorous than the ten thousand dollar Oscar de la Renta. Opportunities like the Oscars represent the chance for celebrities with the influence and voice many of us dream about (including me) to talk about things that matter and wear things that matter. Yet, year after year we still see the delaRentaDiorMarchesaVersaceCartierArmaniTiffanys competitive celebrity wastefulness that characterizes the materialistic obsession of our society.

So thank you Sheena for wearing something with a voice.

Here are some of my favorite outfits, so you can see how incredibly creative she gets, including on Halloween!

Thank you to my friend Lily, co-founder of the revolutionary style blog: StyleLikeU, for turning me on to Sheena’s gloriousness. If only we could all be so wonderfully creative.

Watch Sheena’s StyleLikeU Shoot:

To see all of the Uniform Project outfits or to donate to Sheena’s cause, visit:

Holi and the Woodpecker

The other day, I was pulling into my driveway and finishing a very interesting audio TED Talk. Instead of jumping out of the car and heading into the house, as usual, I sat in my car, listening to the end of the talk. Suddenly, I happened to look up, and straight in front of my car, perhaps 4 or 5 feet from my bumper, was a little tree and a little friend.

I had never seen a woodpecker before, even though I had heard them rattling the telephone poles for years and years as a child. They are beautiful little birds, with bright red heads (just like the cartoon!), sweetly chipping away at tree trunks with their long, pointed beaks.

Had I not taken the time to sit quietly and listen the Gospel of TED, I would never have seen my little woodpecker friend, but would have scared him off as soon as I opened the car door.

So Thank You and Amen to TED.

When I told my mom about the woodpecker, she said that it must be spring, since woodpeckers are a sure sign of the the wonderful season of Spring.

And, since it is 80 degrees in March this week, I think she might have been right.

So, in honor of Mr. Woodpecker and the heat wave, I would like to tell you a story, and share how others around the world celebrate the onset of Spring.

(Photo Credit: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, in a land we know today as India, lived a young god-boy named Krishna. Krishna was, like all boys his age, a playful prankster, curious and full of questions about the world and its mysteries. Krishna was also wildly in love with a young girl named Radha, whose complexion was as fair as the snow, and whose love was as deep as the sea.

One day, Krishna asked his mother why Radha was so fair and he so dark. His mother, Yashoda, grinned slyly at her young son. She suggested that he might smear some color on Radha’s face, and make it any color he so desired.

And so he did.

(Photo Credit: Babu / Reuters)

(Photo Credit: K.K. Arora / Reuters)

During the Indian festival of Holi, which celebrates the beginning of Spring through the celebration of colors, lovers and friends smear each other with colorful paint to symbolize the love affair of their sacred gods and the color and beauty we call Spring.

(Photo Credit: Anupam Nath / AP)

(Photo Credit: Noah Seelam / AFP – Getty Images)

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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If Women Ruled the World

As seen on the Ashoka Peace Blog at

If you educate a boy, you educate an individual.

If you educate a girl, you educate a community.

-African Proverb

No offense to boys, but if social entrepreneurs really get it right, as I have the sneaking suspicion they will continue to do, women will one day rule the world.

Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and the newly published Stones into Schools, spoke at Loyola Marymount University this week about the importance of education for girls, and its direct correlation to fighting the evils that the global community faces, namely terrorism.

A terrorist’s worst enemy is, in fact, an educated woman. Women, who must give permission to their sons to go on jihad, will often refuse if they have received simply even a 5th-grade level education. Educated women represent an exponential possibility for a decrease in poverty, unemployment, and therefore a higher standard of living. Mother really does know best, and those boys who have been blessed with a family who values education and who believe in a promising future will be much less likely to commit themselves to martyrdom, hence decreasing the pool of young minds recruited by those who seek to do evil.

After building numerous schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, Three Cups of Tea became required reading for U.S. senior military commanders. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Michael G. Mullen, went so far as to visit one of Mortenson’s schools in the Panjshir Valley. In a speech he gave about role of the U.S. military in the Middle East, he says, “We cannot capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them, one heart and one mind at a time – over time.” For a high-ranking military official, his words surprisingly emulate peaceful motives. A huge part of U.S. military campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan must be education, especially of women. We must learn not only to communicate what we as Americans have to offer, but encourage and include the perspectives of those whose lives we are affecting.

Last week we read Gayle Lemmon’s article about the U.S. military partnership with female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan: a great first step. I challenge the military to bring women onto the policy side of this campaign. Women represent a huge potential in the Middle East, and although the military has collaborated in talks very minimally with some tribal elders, largely small numbers of men, can you imagine what might happen if they brought a group of Afghani women into a conference room with Michael Mullen and his crew?

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 5:08 pm  Leave a Comment