Finding a Place for Impact Games

by Jorge Albor

28 March 2013

When Apple rejects games like Littleloud's Sweatshop game because it dared to broach a touchy subject, we are losing the "are games art?" debate all over again.
Sweatshop (Littleloud, 2011) 

The 2013 Game Developer’s Conference is in full swing today. Next to Triple-A Post-Mortems and panels featuring veteran designers and luminaries, indie game upstarts shout their own rants and creeds, joining a chorus of people all interested in one way or another in improving games. It saddens me then to not find the Serious Games Summit at this year’s proceedings. If anyone needs to find a place at the table, they are the designers and creators of impact games.

Call them what you want: serious games, political games, games for change, social impact games, whatever. I’m talking about games designed with the express purpose of illuminating, satirizing, changing, or otherwise commenting on real-world issues. Games for Change in New York is keeping up the good fight for designers of everything political, educational, and more, but despite their continued work, both in creating and advocating for impact games, the genre is still having trouble finding a home amongst our pop-culture family.

The biggest dilemma facing impact games today is the genre’s inability to transcend the perception of triviality. We are fools if we really believe games already won the “are they art?” debate. Art is an expansive term. It encompasses a whole array of subjects and subject matter, from hyper-real sculptures to still-photography or urban poverty. Just this week, Tilda Swinton took a nap in a glass box and the world of critical pop-culture was abuzz with both ridicule and appreciation.

Meanwhile, the Apple app store continues to vehemently curate impact games out of their market place. Of course I respect the independent corporation’s ability to manage their assets and brand, no matter how inanely I deem their curation policy. I also understand that iPhones and iPads do not define “accessibility” for the diverse audiences that impact games often seek to reach. That being said, whether we like it or not, Apple both shapes and reflects popular discourse about entertainment and its consumption. When Apple rejects games like Littleloud’s Sweatshop game because it dared to broach a touchy subject, we are losing the “are games art?” debate all over again.

Yes, even the MoMA has its limit; even museums turn away some artwork for being too controversial or ineffective. The problem isn’t that one game or two games have to find another home. It’s that they were turned away by a driving force in the mobile games space not for how they depict their art but for their very subject matter. Simon Parkin, esteemed journalist and Head of Games at Litteloud laments Apple’s decision himself in the Guardian, poignantly stating “the message is clear: certain topics are off-limits for games (although not, for example, killing and maiming other virtual characters as in so many games on App Store).”  To share with you Apple’s own wording, “if you want to criticize a religion, write a book.”

Apple is not the only one playing it safe with game subject matter. TVO, Ontario’s public broadcasting network, has pulled Pipeline Trouble from the app store after critics lambasted the game for portraying the bombing of pipelines. The game is actually a “companion” to the TVO funded documentary Trouble in the Peace, which investigates concerns about gas pipelines in Ontario, including six actual bombings that took place in 2008 and 2009.

Replicating real world concerns was deemed too much even though players in the game manage a pipeline and cannot bomb anything themselves, nor does the game mention any specific pipeline or condone such behavior. Pipeline Trouble tries, perhaps unsuccessfully, to create an educational system in which destructive behavior can result in destructive consequences.

It is a tragedy that games are deemed inherently too juvenile to broach serious real world subject matter. TVO willingly took a risk with Inside the Haiti Earthquake, another documentary companion piece that let players interact with and learn about aid relief in the devastating aftermath of the 2010 disaster. For those interested in realities on the ground, the game opened up some of the systems and dilemmas that slow, impede, and empower aid workers, journalists, and survivors.

Impact games, documentary games, games on any subject matter, can work if done right. We have to make them work. Otherwise, we miss out on an amazing opportunity to teach, subvert, and analyze valuable real world systems that affect the world.  Yet every time a game is pulled, ignored, or relegated not for how its constructed, but for what it dares to discuss, games as a whole take a huge step backwards.

Of course Apple, TVO, and any other distributors have the right to take down games they find unappealing. That’s fine. I just don’t want this occurrence to go unnoticed. The discourse still falls prominently in the camp that games about serious or real world issues can only offend when creating a sense of play. Despite the recent influx of meaningfully rich gaming experience, impact games still have not claimed their rightful place amongst other meaningful forms of art.

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