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Who will be the Michael Moore of serious games?
Who will be the Michael Moore of serious games?
June 20, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

June 20, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Serious

Games can take a few lessons from growth patterns in film history if they're to evolve how they engage audiences -- particularly in the field of games for social good, says EA Maxis' Lucy Bradshaw.

The rise of social networks and mobile platforms have changed the gamer population and had a profound effect on design and business models because they're "grounded in lifestyle," she says.

"Our audience is living with interactive media pretty much from birth," she told an audience at the 2012 Games For Change festival in New York City on Wednesday.

In her view, it's a time not unlike the advent of the digital 35mm camera, which meant more people could produce quality films and bring them to market. Similarly, the availability of cheaper and more accessible tools like Flash and Unity changed the shape of design, in that the focus shifted to mass appeal and social graph rather than cutting-edge technology.

The mobile and social spaces have matured very fast, but there's plenty of opportunity for discovery, she says, and a small team making a game for social good has the opportunity to leverage the new environment.

But the field is so populated with choices -- according to Bradshaw "70 percent of Americans are already taking part in social networks... that are about earning achievements," with lifestyle apps that attempt to shape behavior among the most popular emerging categories

"Today it can be like trying to whisper in a tornado," she says. "How do we get heard -- how do we make games for change ultimately rise to the surface?"

Knowing your audience through appropriate telemetry and design that leverages reward systems to modify behavior are only part of the solution.

"Movies have been around for as long as we can remember... we've broken down any genre of filmmaking and there's a formula, now," she notes. "But movies and TV are still able to surprise us... while still staying in the groove of a particular genre, and I think our interactive media has even greater opportunity."

She points to recent years' evolution on the documentary format to suggest how games, especially serious ones, can engage and energize audiences, and even become part of popular entertainment.

What was once a direct, even staid way of communicating information changed with the advent of passionate personalities with strong points of view.

"They were about literally getting that point of view out there, and they came with main characters, like Al Gore and Michael Moore," Bradshaw says. Regardless of where one stands on the issues such filmmakers championed, their effect on documentary filmmaking and their ability to drive ideas around their chosen issues are impossible to ignore.

"These guys became brands; they became champions of the kind of content they were going to put forward," she says.

Creators of a game for change can benefit from these examples, in terms of how to make serious content something that is energizing. With the added power of interactivity, perhaps games can go even further than documentary films.

"Interactivity is personal," Bradshaw says. "Play is a transformative experience, and by immersing yourself in something it gives you a tangible, personal relationship with it that can transcend the mechanics themselves."

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John Trauger
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One could pick better role models. Justsayin'.

Amir Sharar
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Care to name some better examples of "passionate personalities with strong points of view."? I'm not a documentary buff which is why I ask. To me, someone unfamiliar with documentaries in general, a person like Micheal Moore certainly fits that bill. I may be ignorant in saying this but to me it seems that he was the first to really start the craze of editorializing documentaries.

Megan Swaine
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Morgan Spurlock.

And documentaries were "editorialized" long before Michael Moore. He just brought a level of sensationalism to it that wasn't really present before. While I applaud his efforts, I can't say that the form is better for it.

I think there was a game called "Super Columbine Massacre RPG"? It was (as I understood it anyway) meant to be a reflection about how the creator of the game felt about the tragedy. It caused a great deal of controversy, mostly because some people felt it trivialized what happened.

But in terms of games that are analogous to documentaries, that's the first one that springs to mind. :\

k s
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@Megan Super Columbine Massacre RPG was an attempt to reflect on the Columbine tragedy but many did then and still now see game as toys and couldn't understand what the creator was trying to do.

Cody Scott
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@Amir... well for one Moore is a hypocrite. Uses studies funded by organizations that want to push the same agenda as he is in his documentaries. and he edits his interviews to distort what people are saying..... he is like a more annoying version of a shock jock

Thomas Happ
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Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky come immediately to mind. But I guess she is talking about a developer, and a very outspoken, polarizing one. So I dunno, maybe Jonathan Blow, or Peter Molyneux. Who else comes to mind? Maybe a certain prolific female journalist?

Darcy Nelson
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Auntie Pixelante? Molyneux and Blow, for sure.

I feel that to make a game about social change, it needs to first and foremost not be about social change. Social injustice is pretty polarizing: most people will fall on one side of an issue or the other. If your game seems to be in opposition to the player's belief, good luck getting them to pick up the controller. (I'm not going to provide any example scenarios due to the risk of having hypothetical social justice issues being argued back and forth, I'm sure you can come up with your own.)

The first and really only purpose of a game is fun, if one could make a very serious and important social topic entertaining without sacrificing integrity (here's looking at you, Michael Moore!), that would be an incredible feat. The Metal Gear Solid series leaps to mind, with their treatment of the Cold War and the military industrial complex. However, while those are the main themes of the narrative, each of those games is chiefly about Tactical Espionage Action.

I'm sure we'll start seeing breakout hits in the social change genre as soon as someone at the top decides social change is profitable. Food, Inc. and Supersize Me would've never gotten funded if it hadn't been for an Inconvenient Truth and Bowling for Columbine. There's always gotta be that first one, so I suppose it's just a matter of wait and see.

Michael Rooney
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I think the point of serious games is more about fully educating people and getting them tied to the subject matter. I think a lot of social injustice is easy to be separated from when you don't have any engaged perspective.

I always viewed the best serious games as one that give you an engaged perspective to base your opinion on. I actually prefer the serious games that don't necessarily have a polarizing bias, but just show the facts and let the players come to a fully educated conclusion.

I think my favorite serious game was Budget Hero. It didn't paint a liberal or conservative picture, it painted a picture that showed that going extremely down either path is not sustainable and sacrifices need to be made across the board.

Darcy Nelson
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"I think the point of serious games is more about fully educating people and getting them tied to the subject matter. I think a lot of social injustice is easy to be separated from when you don't have any engaged perspective."

I think that last part is largely due to the fact that people don't *want* an engaged perspective. They're happy in their little ignorant universes and any suggestion that might burst the soap bubble of their perspective makes people fearful and uncomfortable. This is why safe, formulaic media is consumed voraciously and anything outside of the mainstream is either ignored or met with criticism.

"I actually prefer the serious games that don't necessarily have a polarizing bias, but just show the facts and let the players come to a fully educated conclusion."

I have a hard time believing such a thing exists. If your subject isn't polarizing, it's probably not very controversial, not very interesting or not actually relating to social justice. (Since what we're discussing here is in fact games for change.) Social justice either is or isn't, you can't straddle an ethical dilemma and pretend to have credibility.

"I think my favorite serious game was Budget Hero. It didn't paint a liberal or conservative picture, it painted a picture that showed that going extremely down either path is not sustainable and sacrifices need to be made across the board."

Rejecting the two-party liberal/conservative world view is a stance in itself, and one that's been gaining momentum with the Occupy movement. I think your example is good though, because Budget Hero (based on what you've said, I haven't played it) encodes a message about liberal and conservative extremism without actually being about that. As I said before, I think that's where the so-called 'serious games' will hit their stride- not by being serious, but by getting that engaged perspective to the player without using scary loaded words like "educate" and "get them tied to the subject matter".

Michael Rooney
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Budget Hero doesn't take that long to play. You can finish the game in as short as 5 minutes if you really want to get an idea of what I meant.

It doesn't really reject the two party system also. It just paints a picture of the reality of the situation and helps you realize the consequences of different political stances through repeated play throughs.

@"I think that last part is largely due to the fact that people don't *want* an engaged perspective. They're happy in their little ignorant universes and any suggestion that might burst the soap bubble of their perspective makes people fearful and uncomfortable. This is why safe, formulaic media is consumed voraciously and anything outside of the mainstream is either ignored or met with criticism."

It's true safe media is consumed a lot, but when you look at something like how rapidly the Kony movement spread, it's pretty obvious that people don't mind being made aware of injustice despite the fact that they aren't often exposed to it.

Jeremy Reaban
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Are one sided pieces of propaganda really something to emulate in the game industry?

Ultimately they are simply sophistry, a very skilled filmmaker and put anything in a positive light - look at the original maker of these documentaries - Leni Riefenstahl.

Jeremy Reaban
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And let me add, this is pretty rich, coming from someone at EA...why not try putting those social things she advocates into practice at her company, rather than preaching to others?

Darcy Nelson
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It could be argued that the Sims (Maxis) franchise does in a way represent social change games, as it's a AAA series that targets an audience that isn't specifically the 18-25 year old male crowd.

Fabio Macedo
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I saw the title of this article and I LOL'ed so hard I couldn't contain myself.

Moore is a proven liar and manipulator. Who will be him in the games industry? What the heck? All suits in the industry who think they can be edgy by producing games "against the system" while sitting on a pile of money ARE MICHAEL MOORE already.

Fabio Macedo
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"***Regardless of where one stands on the issues such filmmakers championed***, their effect on documentary filmmaking and their ability to drive ideas around their chosen issues are impossible to ignore."

Typical "progressive" obfuscation. I'll only believe in this part I emphasized the day that filmmakers who even TRY to champion ideas on the other side of the spectrum get even 10% of the recognition Gore and Moore get.

God, why try so hard to hide political sympathies? Be direct and honest about it. If Kubrick did a documentary exalting Objectivism he'd never get the press Moore gets with his lies. This has nothing to do with "their ability to drive" anything.

Michael Rooney
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I generally agree. The problem with Moore is that he doesn't make documentaries, he makes propaganda. If the reality were actually the way he displayed it he wouldn't have to manipulate the facts in such a way to fit his bias.

There are plenty of documentary film makers who do great work, and Michael Moore gives them all a bad name. "Michael Moore Hates America" is a good film that at least shows how Michael Moore is a bad documentary filmmaker, and it even has the balls to point out when it's getting too biased itself.

Bob Johnson
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This article makes me want to puke.

It is kind of vague and buzzwords and hipster gaming business nomenclature-ish.

Be nice if the pipe was put down, and she showed us an actual game.

E Zachary Knight
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Based on my own experience, the two designers that come to mind are Ian Bogost and Danny Ledonne.

However, they are not globally known names but they have sparked quite a lot of discussions in the past based on their games.

I do think that more could be done in this space that has not been done. Sure we get the Flash games and a few mobile games every once and a while. However, very few of them get a lot of media attention. I think that is mostly a byproduct of the current view of gaming.

I think there are barriers within the industry as well. A lot of designers and developers do not want to recognize the potential of games. Even here in this thread we have people playing down the ability of games to make social change or raise awareness. Until we can actually embrace alternative game ideas and support those who seek to make change, then it will be a hard road to get such public faces.

Ian Bogost
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Wow, Bradshaw thinks that Michael Moore and Al Gore might be interesting models for mainstream success in documentary media? That's never occurred to anyone, I'm sure, certainly not me. :P

Let's review. Al Gore was VP of the United States and ran the most controversial election in recent memory to become President. Michael Moore released incredibly polarizing and questionably accurate films on hot-button issues *in a medium that celebrates and advances and fucking pays for* that kind of work. Their successes are built on a platform of massive public visibility and considerable funding.

The situation in games is enormously complicated, and related to the market ecosystem, the audience, the kinds of technologies we have developed over the past thirty years, the mechanisms of funding and distribution, the issues of literacy related to games in general and documentary games in particular, the resistance or outright hostility to these sorts of games in BOTH traditional media industries and the games industry, and on and on.

I agree that many (most!) serious games are awful garbage that nobody wants to play. But some of them are made NOT to be mass market media like documentary films, and they have to be understood on those terms. And for those that do have that aspiration, settling on saccharine advice like "be energizing" or "emulate Michael Moore" is hardly useful advice for anybody but a public speaker. Then again, perhaps that's all talks like this are good for.

Isaiah Taylor
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I thought the goal of this was to have better intentions than what is expected of the current from developers in this current genre. Okay, we get it, you don't dig Moore & Gore -- I'm finding it hard to reference public figures who aren't divisive in some way. It's a byproduct of trying for more than what's expected of a person.

Whether we like them or not seems kinda moot. This is coming from someone who doesn't dig Moore as much as I use to and thought Gore was cooler with the beard, post-election [creating Current and what not].

Ian Bogost
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I don't dislike Moore and Gore nearly so much as the rest of the commenters here. The point is that their primary features are (a) existing fame and (b) access to existing resources.

Matt Marquez
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The Tester already showed us what buffoonery game companies can get up to, thanks.

Gary LaRochelle
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If you want to change the world, become a politician, not a game designer.

The only game that I can think of that has caused people to change their lives and to get out and interact with the world is America's Army. When the military asked their new recruits what motivated them to join, most recruits cited the game America's Army.

Is that the kind of change that you are looking for?

E Zachary Knight
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"If you want to change the world, become a politician, not a game designer."

Are you serious? Politics is the only way to initiate change? What a sad life you must live.

Social pressure is the most powerful method of changing the world there is. Just look at history. Civil Rights. Revolutions. Many many other things both big and small. What these changes need are first a spark. Something that raises awareness. Next they need something or someone (or many somethings or someones) fanning the flames. Games can be that spark or they can be the fan.

"Is that the kind of change that you are looking for?"

What is wrong with that? Someone played a game on a topic and became interested in it. The same thing happens with film, music and books. Games have just as much power to create a desire to learn more as those mediums. It can be used for good and bad, just as these other mediums.

There is nothing wrong with any of that.

George Blott
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We'll need an Errol Morris of serious/news games first.

Bart Stewart
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I'd suggest that there are actually two problems for any form of art intended to advocate for some social change: targeting the wrong audience, and a mismatch between the target audience and the tone of the advocate/advocacy.

There appear to be basically three groups you can target with a message:

1. The Believers. These are the people who already agree with you that some social thing is a problem.

2. The Unbelievers. These are the people who do not agree with you that the thing you think is a problem actually is one. (Either they think the effect you perceive is not real, or they also perceive some effect but disagree with you that it is mostly a bad thing.)

3. The Rest. These are the people who either aren't aware of the social condition or do know about it but have no firm opinion on it.

(I suppose there's also a fourth group consisting of people who actually see something as an injustice and like it. But targeting them for persuasion would seem pointless.)

The first problem is that most passionate art seems to be at least half targeted at other Believers and half (if that) at the Rest. This is great for feeling good about your social awareness, but by definition it significantly limits the number of people you can persuade.

For maximum effect, you have to go after the minds that can be changed. I believe that means targeting mostly the Rest plus some Unbelievers.

You want some Unbelievers to join you because there is no better advocate for something than a converted skeptic. You won't get them all, but the ones you do get will have a lot of value.

And you want lots of the Rest because that's where the masses are. Getting them on your side is what makes change actually happen.

So how do you most effectively communicate to the Unbeliever/Rest subset?

That's the second problem Art For Change has: it goes after the Unbeliever/Rest subset with a message and messenger(s) that only Believers could love.

You are never going to effect real change by throwing red meat to your Believer friends. The sweet spot of the Rest + some Unbelievers will always be turned off by -- and thus reject the message of -- sarcastic-angry agitators like Michael Moore/Aaron Sorkin/Ann Coulter and smarmily condescending mouthpieces like Al Gore/Glenn Beck, all of whom fail by assuming that anyone who doesn't share their worldview must be either stupid or evil.

Who wants to be told that, even indirectly? Why would anyone think that being mocked and belittled would persuade any Unbeliever, or would not disgust any of the Rest?

Instead, if you really want to persuade, here's a radical thought: show some respect for your audience. Treat them like you actually care what they think and want their informed agreement.

In practical terms, that means giving information (and not just the stuff cherry-picked to make you feel good, either) to people who don't agree with you, and then trusting them to make up their own minds. If you're not willing to do that, if you believe that you know what's best for everyone and all must be persuaded to your cause even if you have to lie to them or covertly manipulate them for their own good, then you don't deserve their support and shouldn't be puzzled when you don't get it.

When games for change (and those who speak to the change-gamers) stop holding up nasty and condescending propagandists as models, and start treating non-believers as adults who are capable of making their own decisions when fairly given all the relevant information, that's when real and positive change can happen.

So it seems to me, anyway. I hope I haven't come across as mean or condescending, and I encourage readers to decide for themselves if any of the above is persuasive....

Gregory Booth
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Well articulated Bart. +10

Please weigh-in on more topics around here.


John Byrd
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I am sure that in this article, Ms. Bradshaw espouses some sort of opinion, but for the life of me I can't discover it. It seems to me like a long string of extraordinarily softly expressed tautologies.

Stephen Horn
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I think the opinion being expressed is that persuasive games would benefit from stronger, more polarizing personalities behind the games. I don't happen to agree with that opinion when given examples like Al Gore, Glenn Beck, or Michael Moore.

I feel that polarization, even when one isn't explicitly lying to support their perspective, is not intellectually honest. That's because polarization is not about being persuasive, it's about "firing up" the Believers and cowing the Masses into agreement by belittling the Unbelievers. Taken to its logical conclusion, this leads to dark places. Insert obligatory internet-argument extreme comparisons here.

I strongly agree with Bart's perspective that the way you convince people is to respect the opposite position while providing honest information that contradicts it. I find nothing to be less convincing than when someone refers me to some chart or graph and calls me an idiot for believing anything in conflict with that "data". Also, I've discovered that most of the time that "data" can't stand up to even the slightest scrutiny. It's too bad more people don't perform cursory Google searches before accepting random factoids as written gospel.

sebastien ALLAIN
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@Leigh Alexander : thank you for having reported these claims. They echo my own questions. Can you please clarify the context of these transcripts? Where are they from? an event? an article?
I wish I could quote both your article and your source.