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Much was made at the Games for Change festival of the potential in the idea of using games to spread a message and motivate an audience to action. But the movement has more to do before their initiatives—and, concretely, their games—can actually be called successful.
Most notably, activists and academics are not game designers; when polled, only about half the conference attendees identified themselves as active gamers. A major issue raised in discussion was that while the message is essential, the priority still needs to be solid design and engaging gameplay.
“The games that we’re seeing—and I think we all sort of share this frustration—are not really fulfilling on the promise of what brings us to conferences like this, what makes us work on this field,” said Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of GameLab. Zimmerman cautioned against activist designers who, in their eagerness to convey a positive socially-conscious message, judge certain aspects of gaming as “bad”—for example, the conflict, the hyperstimulation or the addictive qualities—and attempt to siphon those elements out of the games they make.
Zimmerman noted that much of games’ pleasurable qualities are actually derived from those elements, and designers of socially-conscious games can make more effective products by embracing the nature of games, rather than combating them.
“We need to understand our medium better,” Zimmerman advised. “Animation and virtual words are fine, but we need to think about games as games—there are very basic issues we should all be thinking about as we try to marry the activist agenda to the work that we’re doing. Is ‘not sucking’ any kind of criteria for thinking about doing cultural work that’s meant to have an effect on the culture at large?”
“A persistent problem in serious games is that they always try to be SimCity,” said Clive Thompson, technology features writer for the New York Times and Wired Magazine. Given that all of these serious game designers have neither the budget or the vision of Will Wright, these activist titles arranged as sims are “too earnest-minded,” Thompson said. Will gamers want to play for four hours simply to get “the message”?
Indeed, according to Thompson, the best examples from which socially-conscious game designers might benefit are surprising—games like New York Defender, the exercise in futility wherein the object is to shoot planes attacking the World Trade Center, or The Anti-Bush Game, a bizarre and sophomoric battle game—where victory actually produces engaging and complex interactive cutscenes designed to educate players about the country’s finances, the deficit and tax breaks.
These sorts of simplistic, viral titles aren’t even made by professional game designers—and yet, they’re swapped frenetically among office inboxes, reaching infectious proportions and millions of audience members per day.
Simplistic, they often state only a single, very basic message, usually something either offensive or amusing about current events. As such, they’re very effective. Could The Paris Hilton Game be a better model for serious game designers to spread a message—and motivate immediate action—than, for example, an elaborate simulation that allows gamers to painstakingly experience Darfur, or re-draw congressional districts by hand?