The Fate of Documentary Games

Every year, school buses loaded with children of all ages take class field trips to the Ronald Reagan Foundation & Library in Simi Valley, California, which is located about forty miles outside Los Angeles. There, in the Air Force One Discovery Center, library staff lead students through an interactive history lesson. Children take on the role of Washington staff, members of the press corp, and even Reagan himself and replay the events of leading to the 1983 invasion of Granada. In the provocative episode “Kid Politics” from the radio show This American Life, Starlee Kine records one such field trip in which a class of fifth graders joyfully reenact a troubling moment in American history.

The children are shepherded towards the vilification of the press and deification of Ronald Reagan. Loud buzzers and flashing lights punish students for making decisions that err from history and reward them for correctly mimicking Reagan’s actions. At one point, the class lets out a unanimous and resounding “No!” when asked “Just because [the press] have their freedoms, does that mean they should use them?” (“Kid Politics”, This American Life, 14 January 2011). The entire session comes off as frighteningly Orwellian. One individual, discussing the episode, describes the event as a form of indoctrination, stating: “It can be argued that the library’s bias is obvious in the very name of the building. It’s just that they pass these conclusions off as products of the students’ own critical thinking that is misleading and so very Reaganite.” (Paul Steele, This American Life – Kid Politics”, Dogmas of the Quiet Past, 14 March 2011).

Despite the library’s questionable tactics, they clearly seem effective; the visiting children are undoubtedly enthused about history, happily engaged by the roles they inhabit. The desire to enliven a documentary experience with interactive elements stems from the immersive and persuasive power of games. However, if the genre wants to earn the respect given to documentary films, it must avoid the dubious ethical practices of the Reagan library. Yet the burden of documentary storytelling is too confining. In order to successfully create a documentary, game designers must inhibit their own genre from flourishing.

Admittedly, I use the term “genre” despite the extremely few cases of documentary games in existence. In fact, all three examples that I will use are either unreleased and/or unfinished. (Accordingly, none of my opinions should reflect any judgement on the games themselves.) I also differentiate “documentary games”, which address actual historical events using factual information, from “political games”, which fictionalize elements to address real world issues. Of course, as in documentary film, the line between documentary and fictional narrative is rarely disparate.

Designed by Peter Brinson, Kurosh ValaNejad, and a hand-full of others, The Cat and the Coup is likely the most recognizable documentary game. Nominated at the recent 2011 Indie Games Festival for the Nuovo Award, The Cat and the Coup tells the story of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran who was assassinated during a CIA engineered coup in 1953. The game actually puts players in the fictional role of Mossadegh’s cat. The cat then escorts Mossadegh through historical events, solving puzzles to move him from room to room with each space chronicling the events that led to the President’s downfall.

Explicitly a documentary game, The Cat and the Coup incorporates actual text from newspapers and journals of the time to describe the events surrounding Mossadegh’s life and death. However, the player is not actually involved in the occurrences themselves. This might be for the best. Unlike the Reagan Library’s interactive session, the game sidesteps the ethics of historical revisionism by confining the player to the role of an observer rather than as an actor. In a description of the game available online, Brinson states: “This is not a game about alternate histories, but simply one you don’t know. The Cat and the Coup is about your relationship with Mossadegh as a historical figure, even if you didn’t realize there ever was one.” In order to avoid the risk of players subverting the historical narrative described by the documentary, The Cat and the Coup is forced away from the interactivity that makes games so persuasive.

Setting player interactivity momentarily aside, pacing poses a serious problem for documentary game designers. Film has the luxury of telling the same general story in similar contexts to all its viewers. Games, however, must contend with players overcoming challenges at a variety of intervals. How do documentary game designers keep players on track with historical events using a traditional system of challenges and rewards? Brinson, at a recent panel on politics and games for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAFF), briefly discussed his decision to make The Cat and the Coup easier and easier. While he may have adjusted the game’s difficulty for a variety of reasons, ease of entry does corral players moving along a linear path at roughly the same pace, delivering a more traditional documentary experience.

Also at the panel, Take Action Games, the social impact game developers of Darfur Is Dying and Finding Zoe, showed clips from their documentary game In The Balance, a “project that explores a case wherein a Tennessee family was murdered and six Kentuckians were sentenced to life in prison when they were teenagers” (In The Balance, Take Action Games). While players navigate the game, approaching the case from different perspectives and roles, actual documentary footage plays on the screen. In this case, the pacing of historical events is maintained through film. Like The Coup’s avoidance of historical revisionism, the needs of documentary storytelling can isolate players from actual events.

The Center for Asian American Media, hosts of the SFIAAFF, is designing their own documentary game tentatively titled Climbing The Sacred Mountain. In this case, the game is meant to accompany a full length documentary film Daughters of Everest, which chronicles the first Nepali women’s expedition up Mount Everest. Rather than depict historical events as they happened, the child friendly game conveys historical lessons through quizzes and text. While Climbing The Sacred Mountain is currently just a prototype, it clearly abandons the possibility of creating an interactive documentary, settling for the role of educational supplement.

I admire the efforts of documentary game designers. Documentary games can fill a niche and create valuable learning material. During a brief discussion with Brinson, he took exactly this stance. The Cat and the Coup is a documentary game, but he never designed it to give an objective retelling of history. Rather, it serves merely to draw attention to actual events in the hopes of inspiring players to explore their relationships with the past further, be it through contemplation or independent research. This style of game can prove beneficial. However, unless extreme experimentation changes how games can depict historical events, the burdens on the genre will forever confine documentary games into an uneasy category that exists between game and documentary. While documentary films have their own Oscar category, documentary games may never earn such prestige.