Saturday, August 26, 2006

Games That Have A Point

It’s interesting that in this current day and age it’s becoming more and more difficult to actually jar people into relating to difficult subjects. Slaughter in other countries is regarded as just that: not our problem. It’s hard to get any response more than “it’s horrible” regarding the genocide in Sudan. Even main-stream movies like Hotel Rwanda fail to capture an audience that is willing to take action to incite political change.

Is there any way around this roadblock? I think that before we can answer that question we have to consider exactly how one would accomplish such a thing. There are a couple of things that need to be in place before realization takes place. The first is an openness – this is arguably the most difficult part of the equation; people (and the American public as a shining example) in general are not open to allowing their minds to be changed from their preconceived perceptions. There is only one way to open someone’s mind, and it is to present an image or concept that is so difficult to handle that it requires complete understanding before the subject truly comprehends its weight. But there’s a roadblock even before you get there as well: the person in question needs to want to watch. They need to actually want to see, and there are few ways to succeed here. And that’s just the first obstacle.

Making an image compelling

When you read the newspaper, if you read the newspaper, the reason is simple: to expand your understanding of current events in your community and the world. This acts as the justification and the compeller, causing you to both pick up the newspaper and continue to read it after you’ve gotten past the first page. The real problem with newspapers is that not very many people are concerned about understanding what’s going on outside of their small group of important friends and their nuclear family. So how do you make it happen? Games. Games preempt this problem by providing “fun” as the catalyst that brings people to the subject and keep people playing. High estimates place newspaper readership in the United States at around 40% (2006) of the population, and children traditionally do not read the newspaper. It should also be noted that this percentage is down from nearly 58% in 1996. Now, in May of 2006 it was estimated that 40% of Adults play games. Kids also play games. It’s even arguable that games have a significantly more powerful effect on children than the news does, as games are designed specifically so that children can relate to them.

Better than that, with a younger audience it’s more likely that the people you’re catering to are impulsive enough to go out into the world and try to spread the word and change the situation. Instead of sitting around sulking about it, which is what most people do.

So how do you utilize games to make a point? The same way that you use a movie. Or a book, or a song, or any other type of media. You have to present a problem, and cause a person to sympathize with the characters involved. If you’re trying to inform people about the situation in Darfur, for example, present players with a very human problem in the form of a mechanic. A perfect example of this is “Darfur is Dying” (found at, in the first stage of which you play a small girl who is trying to find water, but who finds it very difficult to escape from militia men who catch her (causing a loss). The mechanic is tuned so that it’s fun to play. But the subject matter is serious, so it causes the player to consider the situation that their game character is in.

Another example of a game that is designed from the mechanic up to make a point is “September 12th” (found at In “September 12th”, which argues that it is not in fact a game as there is “no win condition,” you are presented with a crosshair and a cityscape. In the City, there are two types of people walking around normally: terrorists and civilians. Your mission is to bomb the terrorists. The catch is that when you bomb, it’s difficult not to hit the civilians, and when a civilian dies other civilians mourn and then, yep, turn into terrorists. The point of the game is that it’s difficult to kill only terrorists, and killing civilians increases your terrorist population. It makes the point, and it makes it through the way that the player interacts with the system.

I think this is the direction we need to go in. Games are currently the only way to put a player in a position to experience some of the biggest problems in our world without actually being a part of them. Why do soldiers come back from combat hating war?

Not that games can provide as compelling an experience as a term in the military, but the concept is solid. Games can provide an immersive experience that can in many ways act as a catalyst for change. And sadly, this has not been explored until very recently.

If only serious games could sell. If they did, they might have the ability to change an entire generation. Even subtle references to problems and solutions in mainstream games can have very powerful effects on players.