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Games with conscience
by Byron AtkinsonJones on 06/28/13 08:34:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Despite my many years in the games industry I had never been to GDC, they tended to keep us coders locked in dark rooms and fed Pizza so that we got the games out on time. Only the producers and team leads got to go to GDC. This year was different however, I had made enough money on a contract job to be able to send myself to San Francisco and enjoy the delights of GDC. What I found horrified me.

Don’t get me wrong, GDC itself was great, in fact if I have enough money I’m going back there. What horrified me was the sheer quantity of homeless people wandering around the streets of San Francisco. I’ve seen homeless people before, just not on that quantity and also I had never seen that many who appeared to be suffering from some kind of mental illness. I’ll be quite honest - it depressed me.

What I hadn’t realised at the time was that what I was seeing would have a deeper impact upon me that was outwardly apparent. I suddenly found I was expressing my horror through the one medium that I was experienced in – game making.

Just before GDC two others and I organised “Plane Jam” where we encouraged people to make a game on the trip over to GDC. The idea was that we would gather at GDC, judge the best games and then award prizes. It went well and I saw some impressive games. I wasn’t too convinced about my entry but it was worth completing and getting out to the wider world so once I returned from San Francisco that’s exactly what I set out to do. My subconscious decided to step in and do something completely unexpected.

The game started out as a simple arena shooter, a type of game I usually fall back on when making quick small games. Over a week however, and without any great planning on my behalf, the game slowly materialised into something else altogether. Before I knew it my main character in the game was a homeless guy called Dave and the central mechanic was begging for money.

This is going to sound strange and totally implausible but I really don’t know how that happened. One moment I’m working on an Arena shooter and the next I’m working on a begging simulator. This was unlike any game I had ever developed. My first reaction was to question if a game like this should exist. Homelessness is a serious subject and since games are ‘fun’ I ran the risk of trivialising or making fun of it.

It then occurred to me, why couldn’t games be made to make a social statement? Throughout history art has often reflected current social feeling and thinking through the medium of poetry and song writing. Go and listen to the protest songs by Bob Dylan. So why couldn’t the same be done with games, or more specifically this game?

I decided there and then that since my subconscious went to all this effort the least I could do was to follow it through. I worked on the game night and day and eventually ‘So hungry’ was born. It’s elevator pitch reads:

Dave is homeless. In order to eat, to survive he has to beg for money. Not everyone gives.

It’s a game all about begging for money in order to buy food to eat. If you don’t eat you don’t survive. Just like in the real world not everybody gives you money if you beg from him or her. It’s a harsh and somewhat depressing game - if it's a game at all.

It’s not a perfect game but it’s me expressing my desire to shout as loud as I can that the situation I saw in San Francisco isn’t right. Only time will tell if I have done the subject matter any justice and I haven’t just trivialised or made fun of homelessness. What will be really interesting is seeing the reaciton to other people over the game. 

What’s really interesting however is the reaction the game has got when I put it up on Steam Greenlight – but that’s a story for another blog post.

You can see "So hungry" here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7cfLS7UIwc and follow Byron on twitter: @xiotex 


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Comments


John Kelly
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The flexibility behind serious games continues to impress me. There are really so many areas for them to be effective in, i.e. education, medical, etc.

I really enjoy hearing about ideas like this coming to the surface - it's a great angle for gaming to take in order to deviate from the beaten path digital games these days seem to be locked into.

Joel Bitar
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Kudos for stepping out of the gamey-games echo chamber and instead working on something you feel is more important.
However I think you will not do the subject justice unless you start looking more at whats going on in society that creates these situations, and try to weave that into the game in some manner.

Everybody can imagine that being homeless sucks, so there's not so much need to explain that through game-mechanics or whatnot. But a lot of people are unable to imagine the kind of politics etc that in the end leads to people with mental-health issues ending up on the street.

Nicholas Lovell
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That's interesting, but I'm a believer in the Lean Startup approach to game making, and I think by stretching too far, Byron is less likely to make So Hungry at all.

I'd be more interested in a core game about being homeless that is fun/makes people think. You can then layer the politics, social structures and issues onto an already live game (or move on to something different).

There is a danger that by adding layer on layer of complexity what actually happens is that the game doesn't get released at all.

Joel Bitar
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@Nicholas:
I get what you mean, and it's a valid point from the perspective of the value of actually finishing a game project.
However, I didn't mean to say that there should be a complicated gameplay layer added on top of the gameplay I saw in the youtube-clip.

I interpreted what I saw there as saying "Being homeless is hard, you should probably not treat homeless people bad".
Which I feel can be a non-constructive approach to "raising awareness", as generally it seems most people are aware of this already.
What we more often are not aware of are the various circumstances that can lead to people becoming homeless, and that is something you can potentially either build a game around, or add to a game like "So hungry" in the form of simple dialogue moments, a short text snippet every night (level change) giving some backstory etc.

I just think that when you're actually putting effort into a project of some kind of potential social importance (no matter how small) it would be a waste to not try to say something more about it than "Bad thing is bad".
Judging by the discussions on greenlight (to be fair I only skimmed them) it seemed to be more likely to move towards a "Don't starve" kind of gameplay direction, where I think a game like this risks becoming more exploitative than anything else (now that could of course be kinda offset by a humble-type sale where the profits would go to appropriate charities or such, and just some statements and facts in loading screens etc)

Dan Bridge
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Great comment by @nicholas, get the game out and get people playing/talking about it as soon as you can I.e. MVP

James Wang
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I watched the video - surprisingly powerful stuff. I actually live in SF; it's easy to start ignoring the homeless problem when you're surrounded by it, and I admit I'm not personally doing enough. I hope you can keep making games like this to raise awareness, and shift perspectives, and maybe be part of a larger change.

Have you checked out Games for Change? This might be right up your alley.

http://www.gamesforchange.org/

Byron AtkinsonJones
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They tweeted about So hungry earlier today - going to take a closer look. Thanks.


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