The Power of Creative Storytelling for Global Impact

Photo: Jhad Villena

At the center of every belief system, you’ll find the imprints of storytelling. From religion and governments to grassroots movements and grasstops policymaking – story is the backbone for creating, growing, and revolting.

Games for Change and Princeton University learned a few lessons about the power of creative storytelling for real world impact, when we set out to create an impact campaign focused on nuclear disarmament. Rather than presenting the threat of nuclear weapons through the lens of strategy or geopolitics, we decided to produce a virtual reality documentary that reframes the threat of nuclear weapons in human terms — examining the way the existence of these weapons affects our concepts of home, family, safety, and trust. On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) transports audiences to Hawai’i in the moments after a false nuclear missile alert went out in 2018, and residents had to make impossible decisions in the face of nuclear threat. The virtual reality experience encourages us to explore the question: How can we change the story, not only for now, but for future generations?

As part of the impact campaign surrounding On the Morning You Wake, Games for Change is partnering with leading organizations and activists in the nuclear disarmament movement. We asked three of the Impact Fellows supporting the campaign to share their thoughts on the power of storytelling for impact.

Illuminating complex systems of oppression and violence

Ray Acheson, Director of Disarmament at the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

The magnitude of the horror of nuclear weapons can feel overwhelming. It can be hard to understand what we as ordinary people can do about them. But creative storytelling can help illuminate how nuclear weapons are part of complex systems of oppression and violence. And through this, we can start to see how we can abolish them.

As Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio’s poem in On the Morning You Wake explains, nuclear weapons are deeply embedded in militarism, imperialism, racism, and capitalism. This can make them feel untouchable. But they are objects. The theories of “deterrence” and “strategic stability” make them seem like magic, but they are not. They are made with elements of the Earth; they are made with human hands. And what is most human about these weapons is the way they destroy. They can destroy everything else that humans have built on this planet. They can destroy all human life on this planet.

Nuclear weapons are part of a very human story. Humans made nuclear weapons. That means humans can take them apart. Certain people profit from nuclear weapons, but most suffer. This means we can impact economic incentives; we can expose injustices. Instead of just accepting nuclear policies and billion dollar budgets that put us at all risk, we can learn the truth about nuclear violence, and from there, work for nuclear abolition.

Centering first person experiences and perspectives

Cynthia Lazaroff, Founder of Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy and NuclearWakeUpCall.Earth

Sharing our personal stories of the Hawai’i false alarm in On the Morning You Wake gives us a chance to invite people to step into our shoes and experience the real-time moment-to-moment unfolding of what it’s like to spend 38 minutes thinking you’re about to be hit by a nuclear missile.

The moment the false alarm became most real for me was when I called my daughter in Los Angeles to say “I love you” and good-bye for what I thought might be the last time.

Most everyone can connect with this deeply personal human moment and imagine what it might feel like to say good-bye to a loved one for the last time.

This is a powerful way of making the nuclear threat personal, tangible and real, of moving out of abstract thinking into feeling in our hearts the gravity of what’s at stake, that our lives are at stake and a nuclear war would mean the end of life as we know it, of all those we love and hold dear.

Awakening to what’s at stake is only the first step. Awakening to action to change our nuclear story is the essential next step, which is why On the Morning You Wake culminates with an inspiring message that we all have agency and we can all make a difference. There are tangible ways that we can all support the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Photo: Archer's Mark/Atlas V

Inviting critical thinking, exploration and reaction

Lovely Umayam, Founder of the Bombshelltoe Policy and Arts Collective

Politicians do not communicate nuclear policy to the general public, and on the rare occasion that they do, the language of politics, particularly that of war, does not lead to genuine civic engagement that inspires transparency and accountability. Often, nuclear weapons are framed as indispensable elements of national security, which is inherently difficult to challenge. The narrative of defense automatically takes precedence; any line of questioning will seem like an unpatriotic critique of national survival.

That’s why it is so important to find spaces to have open conversations about nuclear weapons, and a real examination of who and what these weapons are truly protecting. Art and creative storytelling — whether the moving image, literature, or visual medium — presents a way to engage the public intellectually and emotionally. Art-making is not just a transmission of facts, but an open invitation to react, to agree or disagree with certain values, cultures, and realities. Art asserts peace and security by linking abstract, high-level issues to the heart. It busts down gatekeeping. It’s a liberatory force.

Creativity within stories abounds, yet with the rise of new experiential technology, like virtual reality, we can now transition from an era of storytelling to an era of storyliving.

On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) is helping to define a model for immersive experiences that explore complex issues like nuclear weapons. This intersection between lived and re-living human experience has never been more important in shaping the awareness of the public and the actions of leadership and has the unique potential to incite action around complicated topics, such as climate change, poverty, and nuclear violence.