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Small and Serious Games

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Thursday, Aug 15, 2013
Uplifted (Channel4, 2011)
Environmental change? Gun violence? Urban poverty? As simple, playful things, how could games plumb such intricacies?

No matter how culturally recognizable Mario or Sonic are among non-gamers, no matter how many games of Angry Birds I see played on public transportation, I still see shocked faces when I mention my interest in political games (or social impact games, serious games, whatever you want to call them). Part of this incredulity is the frivolous approach to games that most people take, sure. Conversely, part of this response is founded in how necessarily complex serious issues seem.


Environmental change? Gun violence? Urban poverty? These are big issues with many stakeholders and twice as many opinions. Plenty of people feel uncomfortable discussing these issues around a dinner table among friends. Is it a surprise the idea of games addressing big, systemic concerns, sounds laughable? As simple, playful things, how could games plumb such intricacies?


While I am a professed fan of large systems in games, sometimes it’s the simple things that make compelling and effective serious games. To that end, here are three recent examples of games that offer interesting perspectives through simple means.
  
The Best Amendment


Molleindustria, the “studio” behind Unmanned and a slew of popular (and controversial) games, have mastered artful criticism with seemingly little effort. The Best Amendment addresses gun control by satirizing pro-gun rhetoric. “Explore the complexities of the conservative way of thinking in this unique Massively Single Player Game,” the site suggests. A far more accurate statement than it seems at first.


The goal is simple: collect all white stars on a level before progressing to the next. As a white cloaked individual (a subtle-ish nod to the racism within much conservative rhetoric?), you have to shoot down the black cloaked NPCs using a variety of weapons to get at the stars they carry. As the game progresses, more and more “enemies” appear on the screen. Since every round begins in darkness, knowing where they are and more importantly where their guns are pointing, is even more difficult.


While the darkness at the beginning of levels is a nice way to reflect the actual difficulty one might find in assessing whether or not the use of lethal force is necessary in a night-time home invasion, the “4th dimension” reveal is the game’s best reveal. Every black cloaked figure is a version of you from a previous level. Your death comes at your own hands and the more trigger-happy that you are, the more violent the scenario becomes. It’s a wonderful piece of rhetoric (whether or not you agree with the perspective) created through a simple system.


Uplifted
By commissioning work through their educational arm, UK based Channel4 are responsible for a variety of serious games targeted towards teens and young adults. The End, a Channel4 game released in 2011, discussed death, meaningful life, and cross-cultural experiences in a simple browser game, so the producers have shown no hesitancy in using games to address big ideas. Uplifted, their latest commissioned game from Kanoti, which released earlier this year, is about the broad idea of Happiness.


At its most basic, the mobile game is a swipe-centric platformer of sorts, tasking players to maneuver their little character through a variety of puzzles. The more thematic portion of the game does something quite basic. It asks players to think about and document what makes them happy. “What’s your favourite sensation?” it might ask, or “What are you most proud of this week?” It keeps the answers in each players “Positome”, a diary of sorts that collects your answers regarding “Acts of Kindess” and more.


The platforming elements are unfortunately very much divorced from the documentation, but the effort and the outcome and admirable. Teens, particularly vulnerable teens, perhaps those suffering from depression, could use a little positivity in their lives. Reminding oneself about the better things in life can have positive real world benefits. If a game can encourage this type of introspection among its target audience, then the attempt is well worth the effort.


NarcoGuerra
From Game the News, the creators of Endgame: Syria, NarcoGuerra is easily the most complex of the game’s on this list. That being said, the game about the war on drug cartels in Mexico essentially plays like Risk but with some additional design choices that better reflect some more complex components of the real drug cartel dilemma.


As the game progress, various missions let players accrue more money by accomplishing specific tasks, presumably reflective of the political motivations behind some police activity in the region. Similarly, players can pay to lower corruption among their police force or even contribute to political campaigns, a means to effect the top-down approach to entire war on drugs. The game’s most interesting piece of rhetoric is in the relationship between the drug economy and military action. As players gain more ground in the region, the limited supply of narcotics causes a rise in prices, which funds the illicit activity of drug cartels. Through a simple design choice, the game offers an interactive examination of the endless nature of the conflict.


Of course none of this is to say these games perfectly or even adequately model the systems they seek to address. The Best Amendment cannot and probably should not address the economics behind gun control. Likewise, NarcoGuerra fails to create a compelling model of civilian reactions to the drug war.


Perfection is not what we should seek with these games. In fact, I would prefer a proliferation of small and overly simple games that make mistakes than too few games that dare address complex social issues. Their simplicity is what allows them to be accessible to those doubtful and casual gaming friends and family to act as conversations starters. Even little games can offer enormously influential perspectives on serious issues.

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