Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Some Thoughts on Making a Very Serious Game
Printer-Friendly VersionPrinter-Friendly Version
View All     RSS
April 24, 2014
arrowPress Releases
April 24, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event





If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM TechWeb sites:


 
Some Thoughts on Making a Very Serious Game
by Carly Kocurek on 08/19/13 10:00:00 am   Featured Blogs

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

 

About a year ago, the news cycle had come around to the abortion access debate again, and something about the rhetoric of “choosing” presented as if the particular choice of whether or not to continue a pregnancy was equal for all women struck me as particularly strange. Those seeking abortion have their choices shaped by factors ranging from where they live to how much money they have to the hours at the local clinic – if there even is such a place. The number of factors at play reminded me of the character building process in many roleplaying games. And, so, the seed of an idea took hold: What if there was a roleplaying game about abortion access?

Abortion is far from a playful subject. But, many games tackle serious issues – war simulation games, of course, are among the oldest games. Games for education – both in primary school subjects like history, English, and spelling, and for job training in a variety of industries – started in the Oregon Trail era but are still thriving. Perhaps more relevant, though, are a number of recent games which have worked to address significant social problems while managing to be both engaging and emotionally wrenching.  Shay Pierce recently posted here on Gamasutra about the importance of Papers, Please. Spent, produced by McKinney and funded by Urban Ministries of Durham, invites players to navigate the financial difficulties faced by those living at or below the poverty line as they struggle to maintain employment and cover housing, food, and other necessities. Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia is an autobiographical game about hormone replacement therapy. Depression Quest is an “interactive (non)fiction game” about struggling with depression. And, perhaps most notably, Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life, which won three Independent Games Festival awards, is ostensibly a “retail simulation,” but forces players to contend with the difficulties of attaining work/life balance for those working overtime to make ends meet.

All of these games have achieved some success and have been covered in various review outlets. However, for at least some players, these games seem to question what games can and should be. When Depression Quest was submitted to Steam Greenlight, for example, a number of gamers were outraged. How outraged? Zoe Quinn, one of the game’s creators, received rape and death threats via e-mail. And, some of the comments on Greenlight weren’t much kinder. The idea that a game should have an educational purpose that put at odds with players’ abstract notions of fun was taken as an offense. I can think of no other medium on which such boundary policing would make sense. Most of us have read novels, watched films, heard songs that brought us to tears. I know I have. I have also learned a great deal from media across all these forms, including games.

Games are particularly provocative because they promise experiential knowledge – whether or not they provide that is debatable, but the promise is tantalizing. That educational potential is tantalizing both when a child manages to steer his car to safety based on his experience playing Mario Kart or when someone who has played a game about depression, or poverty, or hormone replacement therapy comes away with a deeper sense of sympathy, or even empathy. It is that goal of experiential knowledge transformed into emotional resonance that has driven me to continue pursuing that game about abortion. The game has changed since it was the seed of an idea. It’s an interactive fiction game now, for one thing. And, it’s not my very own pet project now; I’m working with a team of great people, and the game is already better for it. For the past six months, I’ve been collaborating with writer and activist Allyson Whipple. For the past two, we’ve been working with illustrator Grace Jennings. That “game about abortion,” now called Choice: Texas as it focuses on the experiences of women in Texas, has a new sense of urgency in the wake of increased abortion restrictions and clinic closures in the state.

As we continue to work on it, we have found ourselves asking, again and again, if incidents are too traumatic or too grisly to include. But, I have played games in which I watched bodies disintegrated by explosions, ripped to shreds by animals, and impaled on spikes. I have, through games, been stalked, been assaulted, been murdered, been hit by a car, and fallen off a cliff. By comparison, the daily traumas women face should pale in comparison. And, regardless, life pulls no punches, neither should the games that try to make sense of it.

You can learn more about Choice: Texas here, or contribute to our IndieGoGo campaign here.


Related Jobs

Nexon America, Inc.
Nexon America, Inc. — El Segundo , California, United States
[04.24.14]

Web Designer - Temporary - 3 month
Darkside Game Studios
Darkside Game Studios — Sunrise, Florida, United States
[04.24.14]

Mid-Senior Graphics Programmer
Digital Extremes
Digital Extremes — LONDON, Ontario, Canada
[04.24.14]

UI ARTIST/DESIGNER
Digital Extremes
Digital Extremes — LONDON, Ontario, Canada
[04.24.14]

UI ARTIST/DESIGNER






Comments


Joseph Majsterski
profile image
I think a lot of the issue on the Steam Greenlight comments are that many Steam players are just teenagers or younger, with no real filters or maturity, who are just looking to have fun. There are also tons of older gamers who are probably open to a variety of experiences, but the fact is most kids aren't going to be interested in most forms of media if they're not "fun", not just games. Other forms of media, though, such as TV, film, and especially books, have a much longer history. Books in particular have covered every topic under the sun for decades and even centuries. Video "games" started as just that, and only recently (say, the last decade or so) have begun to move into new genres if you will. There are close-minded people everywhere, sadly. Gamers are just disproportionately represented online, I think.

Dane MacMahon
profile image
If you read CNN comments or anything else you find the same stuff. This idea that only gamers are sexist, mean online or immature baffles me every time a gaming site talks about it. The internet is full of uncensored human frailty, selfishness, immaturity and ignorance. It's not a surprise, nor is it gaming-specific.

Daneel Filimonov
profile image
They say there's a time and place for everything. Unfortunately, this cannot be truly said for the internet.

Joseph Majsterski
profile image
That's a great point that I should have emphasized more. Just about everywhere you look are people saying obnoxious things. But there's also plenty of thoughtfulness mixed in.

Joshua Wilson
profile image
I'm not sure the issue is so much the subject matter. Gamers have been and continue to be very supportive of games that include serious subjects - you named a couple. Papers Please and Cart Life are perfect examples (and good games) as well as Gone Home. And games that are outside the norm are often well received in general by smaller but still substantial markets. Dear Ester for example.

What seems to cause at least some of the trouble is when someone creates a game that isn't very good, or perhaps lacking, but defends it as "art", "educational" or somehow "meaningful". It comes off as a bit disrespectful to the medium, like these people aren't taking it seriously and just trying to cash in (figuratively, or literally) on gaming. For whatever reasons some gamers are particularly averse to this, perhaps because they feel too many people are trying to exploit them - f2p, dlc, etc.

And even though Depression Quest has great subject matter it feels more like a choose your path story unfortunately, even if it is supported by game systems.

That said, often times people will be hostile towards those who try to "educate" them. Which is what's great about art - we can kind of trick people into it. I think a lot of times it's better to be a little bit subtle with your message so you can get people invested. Gone Home did this very well - you don't know what it's really about until you're well into it.

Obviously that doesn't excuse the nastiness. But that's the internet. And life, really.

Robert Crouch
profile image
Reading the comments from the linked blog post, I feel that a lot of the people leaving comments act as though they were personally threatened.

The content of the game was depression. When someone is steadfast in the belief that depression is just being sad because you are selfish or entitled, a game that suggests otherwise would be an attack on that belief. The complainer would be misinformed grossly, but perhaps they have someone in their life that is suffering from depression that they don't understand, and they're angry that they haven't just smartened up, and they're angry at the game designer for promoting or condoning that behavior.

The people who were complaining that the game is not "fun" feel more like they themselves are being reminded of something that they're otherwise trying to ignore. Most games, even when they receive down votes don't get numerous comments saying the game is not fun. That doesn't imply a bunch of people think the game would be great fun but vote against it anyways. If you were someone who was struggling with mild depression, but denying it and trying to cover it up, a game like this would be a weird sort of reminder.


That said, I personally do kind of dislike games who are used as a medium for controversy, at least so blatantly. I would rather have a game that is more subtle in that presentation. Papers Please, is a good example of what I do like. It's a game foremost, it's reasonably compelling as a game as well. You have memory puzzles, reaction puzzles and a number of decisions that alter the state of the game; decision that have to be made under the same time pressure as the rest of the game. However the setting is one that makes you think; "I'm in this rotten situation, I'm just doing my job, trying to feed my family. That woman just wants to see her son, but if I let her through my wages will be penalized. And the last sob story I let through blew up my friend"

If Papers Please was instead "Dystopian Border Quest" where you were only asked the "Moral" questions without the paperwork game, it would read more like the author trying to advance an agenda rather than sharing an experience with me.

Likewise, I think "Depression Quest" could be better received if it were marketed as a Life Sim type game, where as time went on, the player began to recognize that the character they were controlling was suffering from symptoms of depression.

When you let the player recognize it, and you provide context, I think it becomes more a more compelling experience anyways. An "Abortion Simulator 2013" would be offensive and controversial, but make an environment where the player begins to identify or empathize with a character who has to choose between abortion or the death of their wife and child, or maybe just raising a child that can't be afforded, make the player feel an impact of either decision. Put that in as, while maybe a central theme, still just a theme in a whole game that is otherwise compelling.

Maybe a game where it's sort of metaphor. A character is guided by some force, or is haunted by some memory, the source of which is at the end revealed to be a manifestation of the feeling surrounding the decision to have an abortion.

Consider something like Ni No Kuni, which deals with the touchy, (though not particularly controversial) subject of the death of a child's mother, and his method of escape and grieving. It's a really emotionally compelling story. While the game itself is centered around collecting monsters to battle eachother, it pulls you back into the real world (literally) frequently enough to remind you that this is all really just the child's fantasy; he's really playing in the park, dressing up, and imagining things are different to shield himself from the reality. If you tried to do that without the game, without the distraction, without the metaphor, it would be a far less compelling and emotional story. The fact that, as a player, I can also sort of get caught up in the fantasy world and forget the things that happened in the child's life because of the game elements really lends to the power of that sort of story telling.

Luis Blondet
profile image
Why would anyone want to make a game about killing an unborn child?

Wow.

I guess if there are games about shooting up a school there ought to be games about other grizzly feats, in a dark, twisted sick kind of way.

...yikes...

Harry Fields
profile image
I know, I know...

"Dr. Kermit's Choice Conundrum "

Then you could stick a year on it.

Then you could just start calling it "Kermit's 2016".

But yeah, I'm all for the rights of all, including the unborn child. I think a lot of gamers are in a similar boat.

Most people in the game-playing demographic support LGBT rights, equality and all that jazz, but abortion is inherently a much more polarizing topic. Anyone who wades into that pool damn well better be prepared for the shitstorm they're bound to generate. This isn't about educating people, it's about advocacy for what a large portion of the population considers the most reprehensible form of murder...

Dane MacMahon
profile image
I have to admit, when I read "And, so, the seed of an idea took hold: What if there was a roleplaying game about abortion access?" I thought to myself: who the heck would think that was a good idea?

Free speech and all that, though.

Kevin Fishburne
profile image
Like Robert Crouch indicated, as long as it's straight down the middle and not trying to brainwash people (realistic in the sense of accurately reflecting the current state of the world with respect to seeking and obtaining an abortion) I think it can only be a good thing to have games like this. The main thing plaguing people is (and always has been) ignorance. So if Choice: Texas lets people know what the real deal is, from the "good" aspects of abortion (feels weird to say that) to the horrific, it's a win.

What I'm really curious about is who the hell would actually want to play a game like that, other than for academic purposes (journalists, students, etc.)? Maybe the same people who watch Faces of Death or Al Qaeda execution videos? In any case, hopefully they're not using CryEngine 3. Perhaps a more retro 8-bit look would less-explicitly convey the details.

Dane MacMahon
profile image
Good post Kevin.

I guess if we are operating on the idea that games can convey these ideas and situations to a certain section of people better than a news story or research paper, have at it. I would never want to play it though.

Kyle Redd
profile image
@Kevin

"as long as it's straight down the middle and not trying to brainwash people..."

Wow. So making a game about abortion is o.k., but only if it is completely unbiased in it's presentation? God knows game developers shouldn't mistake their medium of choice as a sort of "art form" or some such nonsense, should they? Wouldn't want non-gamers to get the impression that we're just as capable of creating passionate, provacative works that advocate a particular point of view as any other medium.

Seriously, how do you think the game should present this balanced view you're looking for? Let's assume that one of the characters in the game is a poor 16-year old girl that was raped and impregnated by her father and wants an abortion. Should she be counterbalanced by a slutty 30 year-old, unmarried childless career woman who only wants an abortion because she thinks a kid would be inconvenient to her carefree lifestyle? Would that be a realistic portrayal of "the current state of the world with respect to seeking and obtaining an abortion"?

Dane MacMahon
profile image
Not to speak for Kevin, but I took that as meaning they should present a balanced and fair look at the issue and not falsify, mislead or misrepresent it in order to sell one opinion or the other.

For example, if the game presented all women having an abortion thinking it was no big deal, and leaving the clinic happy about getting ice cream. Or alternatively, if every woman getting an abortion in the game was presented as trashy, irresponsible, a minority or whatever other conservative idea.

If it is meant to depict a real issue it should be honest, not propaganda.

Kyle Redd
profile image
@Dane

I see. So if the game takes the form of a point-and-click adventure that follows a lone woman who wants an abortion for reasons that you feel are unjust, that would be unacceptable, because it would not be a "balanced and fair" (nice switch there, btw) look at the issue?

As an example, let's say the woman is the game is a 24 year-old grad student who got pregnant during a one-night stand and wants an abortion so as not to interrupt her education. She proceeds to successfully complete the procedure after overcoming many obstacles that have been placed in her way by both her family and the law, and after the abortion she is satisfied and relieved, thus reflecting the experience of the *overwhelming* percentage of women who have an abortion at some point in their lives (http://tinyurl.com/qj3ceo6, http://tinyurl.com/y8boe9a). Happy ending.

Acceptable, or not?

Dane MacMahon
profile image
Kyle, I'm not sure why you're twisting peoples' words to try and have a political argument here. I know it's a weighty topic where both sides think they are obviously 100% right, but this is not the place for it.

The realistic scenario you presented is nothing like the examples I gave, nor is it misleading, a false image of the issue or anything else I said. I already presented the kind of radical depictions that would result in me seeing it more as propaganda than a real discussion of issues or honest opinion piece.

Kyle Redd
profile image
@Dane

I'm not trying to twist peoples' words here. I am specifically taking issue with what I understand is your position on how this game should present the process of getting an abortion:

"Not to speak for Kevin, but I took that as meaning they should present a balanced and fair look at the issue and not falsify, mislead or misrepresent it in order to sell one opinion or the other."

If Ms. Kocurek creates a game in the vein of my previous example, it would absolutely not be a balanced look at the issue. It would, in fact, be presenting a woman seeking an abortion as the protagonist, and the forces trying to prevent her from doing so as the antagonists. It would be portraying an unmistakably pro-choice viewpoint. There would be many pro-lifers who would complain that the game is representing the abortion process as a "positive" choice to make, and they would, in some sense, be correct.

So in short, if gaming is to be taken seriously as a medium with which weighty topics like abortion can be examined, then we shouldn't be prematurely imposing restrictions on developers that require such topics to be presented "fairly," which is how I understand you, Kevin, and others here would like Ms. Kocurek to approach her project. If I misunderstood you, I apologize and look forward to being corrected.

Dane MacMahon
profile image
I think the misunderstanding is this:

I am fine with it presenting a pro-choice stance. I would be uncomfortable if it blatantly misrepresented facts to make abortion look like something it isn't in order to propagandize pro-choice stances.

Kevin Fishburne
profile image
I'm pretty frequently misunderstood, but that's actually exactly what I meant Dane.

@Kyle, I wasn't really speaking of balance, but more or less realism. When the death threats and crazies start their thing it would be nice for the developers be able to say, "We researched the subject extensively, including conducting dozens of interviews with women across the socioeconomic and cultural spectrums, and according to our data these are the real experiences women are having." People may be upset about what they see in the game, but if the game is a reflection on real life their anger needs to be directed at real life, not the game.

If the devs are going the Postal route, then fuck it, do whatever you want (Dragon Punches to uterus, "Flawless victory", etc.), but if they're trying to educate people (which is what it sounded like) then they need to be fairly thoughtful.

An example would be protesters outside an abortion clinic. You'd have one group screaming "baby killers" and that sort of thing, and another group going on about "women's rights" and all that. Individual members of each could approach you engaging in conversation, which you could react to however you like. Depending on if the clinic was in Alabama or California (based on polling statistics) you could have differently weighted protest scenarios.

So you can have all the provocation and avant-garde shit in the world going on to make players think, just don't let it turn into a heavy-handed morality lesson courtesy of the developers' personal opinions on the subject (in either direction). As I mentioned reflecting reality is a great way to achieve that.

Kyle Redd
profile image
@Kevin

Well, I guess I strongly disagree that the developer should have to take all sides into consideration when deciding how they want to portray the issue. If they are passionately pro-choice or pro-life and want to grossly misrepresent the opposing side(s), I say it's better that they do that then not make the game at all. It would then be up to the players and the critics to provide the ensuing conversation on how that portrayal was or was not justifiable.

The bottom line for me is that passionate, misguided art that is heartfelt and provocative is far preferable to bland, generic art that offends no one. Gaming has had little else but meaningless fantasy for 30 years now. It's way past time for us to grow the hell up and start making projects that take a stand on heated, controversial issues that are actually relevant to the real world. If movies and books can have stories about abortion that are powerful and moving, then there's no reason gaming shouldn't as well.

For now, it shouldn't be important that such stories are balanced or well-researched. I'll settle for them simply being made in the first place.

Kevin Fishburne
profile image
I said they could go the Postal route. Dragon Punches and all that. I didn't say anything like, "the developer should have to take all sides into consideration when deciding how they want to portray the issue". Call it "Amnesia: A Machine for Babies" if you like.

I, for one, welcome our new child murder simulators. LOL That was a joke. ba-da-bing! Maybe Duke Nuk'em could run out and kill everyone and dollar bills would fly out. If Polyphony Digital programmed the world sim and mechanical physics, and maybe Ken and Roberta Williams wrote the story, the After Burner II team could throw some sprites on a grid together and a game would be born. Or aborted. You choose. MUWHAAAAHAAAAAAAAA!!!!

Dane MacMahon
profile image
It's not really about realism for me, it's about not falsifying reality to skew people into following you. We always shun propaganda that misleads society when it's about war, drugs, sex or whatever else... why embrace it for liberal points?

Do unto others and all that.

Jeanne Burch
profile image
What you said: "Why would anyone want to make a game about killing an unborn child?"

My interpretation of what you said: "Why would anyone want to make a game about a woman taking control of her life?"

Precisely why discussing a loaded issue like this in a forum like this can be difficult and potentially explosive.

Joseph Majsterski
profile image
@Dane: The thing is, though, that just about everything is propaganda in one way or another. Someone else wrote a piece about it here recently. Whether or not you're trying to convey a message intentionally, it's going to be interpreted as having one. People should go ahead and make whatever games they want for whatever reasons they want. Every other form of media is filled with deception, why should games be any different? And that's not meant to be sarcastic or cynical.

Luis Blondet
profile image
Jeanne,

Control of her life by killing her kid?

Double yikes!

Also, what makes you automatically think is about taking control of her life? For all you know she could be under duress or coercion from her abusive boyfriend that doesn't want to deal with child support.

I personally would not play a game about sending out on a quest to kill your offspring, but hey, that's just me. I don't play games like that.

Dane MacMahon
profile image
@ Joseph

Well, I don't like it anywhere, so why would I want games to continue the precedent?

Also there's a line between artistic conveyance of an idea and insane propaganda. The latter kind of requires that you present the idea as legitimate, the argument as legitimate, but it's actually rooted in falsehood.

My examples way above are suitably deceptive to that degree I think. If the girl walks into the clinic super happy about getting an abortion and leaves the place with a big grin and looking forward to dinner, I will have an issue with that, because for 99% of women that's not going to be how it feels, no matter how pro-choice you are. Telling women it's that casual or easy of a thing to do, younger impressionable women who play video games often times, would be really disturbing to me.

And the same thing on the flipside, with it being presented as only for dirty harlots or whatever else.

Ernest Adams
profile image
We make games about killing anything. What's your point?

Diana Hsu
profile image
What Ernest said. There are games were we kill both evil and innocent people in all kinds of gruesome ways -- presumably we've all played and enjoyed these games. What's so different about games portraying this kind of killing, however the creators choose to do so? No one's demanding that Prototype be sensitive, fair, and accurate to the topic of soldiers being killed in the course of containing diseases.

Joseph Majsterski
profile image
Yeah, it really just comes down to free speech. People can say whatever they want, and we're free to point out the inaccuracies.

Simone Tanzi
profile image
I do believe the idea of such a game is pretty naive.
Do not get me wrong. I am absolutely pro-choice and I think we feel the same about this issue.
But I am afraid that a game in those premises would do more harm than anything else.

Maybe if we are talking abut a story driven game in which somewhere in the game the issue of abortion access comes up... it would be feasible and somewhat constructive.
But a game that Focuses on it ... seems like a sure way to add "satanic baby killers" to a list of absolutely false and preposterous qualities that some reactionary people already consider part of the videogame industry.

Also, quite frankly. I don't see "Abortion: The game" as something entertaining nor educational.
You can make a cultural impact trough game but you need to be smarter than that.
bring the issue in a softer, more casual way. on the sidelines.
If your game main quest is "Obtain an abortion" everyone contrary to it will avoid the game entirely, and they are exactly the type of persons you want interested in your game because, what good does it make if I play your game and I am already 100% pro-choice?
Make it an adventure game, story driven... and put a abortion story in it.
Don't make it the main focus of the game but make sure that while people play the game they are told about what an abortion is, why is important for women and what kind of difficulties they are facing. In an objective way... not in a way that screams "YOU HAVE TO AGREE WITH ME!!!" but rather in a way that says "try to understand our point of view".

That being said... I'm glad that the issue has been discussed, I would make sure to do my part about it if I have the chance.


none
 
Comment: