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‘iBeg’: An Interview with Chris Worboys

Kickstarter has helped launch some of the most anticipated games in recent memory. Double Fine blew open the game funding floodgates with their upcoming point-and-click adventure and, most recently, Project Eternity broke records with almost four million dollars raised through Kickstarter.

Among the heavy hitters, a small indie-game about a serious issue is making its own attempt at crowd-sourced funding. iBeg, from Last Pick Productions, is a pixelated simulation of homelessness. Like most social impact games, iBeg’s subject matter is sensitive and the issue complex. While the game is still early in development, the game concept alone raises interesting themes in regards to the design of social impact games. Chris Worboys, the game designer behind iBeg, kindly offered to sit down for an interview about his goals for iBeg, the difficulties of addressing homelessness in a game, and more.

Jorge: Is there something about social impact games that piqued your interest in making a game like iBeg in particular?

Chris: I believe that games are a powerful medium. Games are, I think, the next logical avenue to really explore these certain issues in life that certain people want to shy away from. We’ve been doing it with books and art, and film obviously, for the longest time. Games are still relatively new in that use. That’s why there aren’t a lot of games for change or social impact games. It is controversial, so people kind of shy away from it.

But I felt up to the challenge. Also, we wanted to make a game that could help. One of things I’ve been quoted as saying is that I would commute everyday to and from work and I would see these homeless people every day begging for change. Instead of making a game like the next Bejeweled or Farmville, where you sell in-app purchases and all the money just goes to the developer, why hasn’t anyone done it where the money goes towards helping the cause? There is a whole demographic of donors who generally wouldn’t donate in the traditional manner and would play games and learn something about the issue and hopefully purchase stuff in the game and contribute to the cause.

Basically, I really liked that idea of playing games to explore an issue and being able to contribute to part of the solution. You know, there are charities like child’s play. To me it is something similar to that, where you play games and you raise money for fundraisers, so why not the same thing for mobile games.

J: How did you come to the issue of Homelessness in particular?

No. It didn’t come up initially as “Oh, we’re going to do a side project, so let’s do homelessness right away.” It was something that developed over time. The idea just came to me one day while I was commuting to home from work and I was talking to a friend about games where you have to grind. World of Warcraft is a grind, right, you grind for experience. But then we started talking about, well, why aren’t there any games that address the issue of people that have to grind in real life.

Homeless people basically grind day-to-day. They ask the same question to hundreds or thousands of people that walk by in hopes of payoff, which is somewhat similar to what you do in World of Warcraft, where you kill pigs or foxes or whatever.

I don’t want to make that sound trivial, but it is a mechanic. So that was just one of the initial ideas that came to me and started sparking the whole idea of, could we look at this issue of homelessness from the lens of a simulation and experimenting with different mechanics to try to let the player understand what that’s like. That was one of the first goals, to try to actively simulate the tough choices that homeless people have to deal with on a day to day basis.

J: You mention triviality, and I feel compelled to ask you how you feel about the subject, but I want to move a little past that. Given the fact that trivializing the content is always a concern when making a game about a serious issue, what do you think are the biggest risks in designing a non-trivial game about something like homelessness?

My fear is that we are trying to do something different. We are trying to create a game that raises awareness about an issue we feel strongly about and to educate through simulation just what these people go through. And my biggest fear is that it will be lost on people. That no matter how hard we try, people will just not get it.

So that is a challenge, and a risk, and a fear that I have. We’re obviously trying to do our best to get these issues across that is in a way that is still respectful of the subject matter. But also, I don’t want to soften any punches. Homelessness is not fun. So I understand why people get upset when people think we are making fun of homeless people or trivializing the issue, but actually we want to put you through the nitty-gritty in a way. We want you to really relate to this homeless character you have to take care of and realize that when something pops up that hey, that’s a tough choice. We want you to think about that and have to make a tough decision and then have to live with the consequences of the decision that you made.

I believe that simulations that put people through that is a good way of educating people on the issue and imparting a little bit of empathy.

I think the issue of “fun” comes up a lot with the designers of social impact games. What are your concerns with turning a “not fun” experience into, if not “fun”, a compelling experience?

That’s the balance that we have to reach. We want to create an engaging experience that keeps the player wanting to play. But at the same time we also want to bring up all these negative issues that may scare some players away or not make them want to play. So it really is finding a delicate balance between exactly how we do that.

How do we get the player to make a tough decision, see the unfortunate consequences of that, and not lose hope and just stop playing, but to get back on the horse and try again, so to speak. And how do we get them to play for a prolonged period of time? Honestly if you sit down and played the game for thirty minutes and left, you know, you can’t sum up homelessness and the feelings that it can convey in thirty minutes. You really have to play for a prolonged amount of time to see the effect it would have on the character over, say, a week of real gameplay time. So yea, we have to overcome the challenge of how we keep players engaged without driving them away because of the stark realities of the issues that they face.

Judging by the art revealed already, it feels like the art plays a major role in that.

I don’t want to say we necessarily jumped on board the 8-bit retro graphics. We were always a fan of that, but it also acts as a kind of buffer. So if we are going to be exposing the nitty-gritty, I don’t think you would really want it photo-realistic. I think it would maybe be a little too shocking or be too sensitive. So we have a little bit of a buffer with this colorful, happy, pixelated front to the issue. It softens the blow a little bit, but it also creates this unique dynamic of “hey, the game looks really happy, and fun, and colorful. But when you start playing it, you’re actually kind of upper-cutted from behind of all these tough thing that the character has to go through, so it really does create this dynamic of “hey, it looks fun”, but actually, when you start playing it, it’s not fun. It actually deals with some serious issues.

Considering that people often ignore the homeless in their day-to-day lives, I get the sense looking at the 8-bit graphics that they could work to humanize the character.

I think that is a fair observation, yea. One of the things we obviously want to get across in this game is that we want the player to care about their homeless person. We want them to feel bad when their homeless person is sleeping out in the snow and their little meters are going down. We want them to be, “I don’t want that to happen. I want to make a choice in the game to get this person off the streets and into a shelter for the night. Or he’s hungry and I want to be able to have money to feed him and keep him happy.”

The object of the game is to get the homeless person off of the street. You lose your job, you get put out on the streets, and from there you have to start hustling and making your money back, and gaining your skills, in order to make your life better and get back on track with the hope of actually getting off the street. So we want the player to have an investment in the character: want to take character of them, want to do anything they can to help the person out.

I don’t know if I want to use the word “cute”, but in a way, with a cute pixelated avatar, it’s probably easier for them to make that connection.

That approach is an interesting one in regards to how you create an emotional bond between the player and the avatar.

Well I didn’t see how you would do it by controlling a group of homeless people. So I feel the only way you can make an emotional bond is by having a single homeless person that we try our best to make you have an emotional connection with.

But as a game designer, I can see that is my reason for that, but on the other side, I can see people saying “well you just made one person and so you are generalizing homeless people and saying they all look that like.” That’s not what we are trying to do, but for the sake of the game, we needed to make one character. I have gotten feedback on that, with people saying “are you saying all homeless people are white because you happened to choose a white homeless person?” Well no, we are not trying to generalize anybody, we are just trying to get people engaged in an issue, play the game, and open their eyes to what all homeless people go through based on what this one person is going through.

You are in a tough position, I have to admit.

Yea. We are going to do our best. Only time will tell. We are reaching out to charities and organizations and homeless youth. I am talking to all of them and saying, “this is what I’m trying to do. What do you want to see in the game?” I have gotten a lot of different answers so far.

Can you actually share some of those responses?

Above all, the number one thing they want to see in the game is addiction. That is why a lot of them are out on the streets, because they have some kind of addiction, whether it be alcohol or drugs. That is the biggest one for sure.

Mental health issues have also been mentioned a few times. This is kind of weird because we don’t want to have the main character in the game potentially be representative of all these different problems. So we don’t want to have him have mental health issues and be an addict. We don’t want to have these all represented by the same character. So we are trying to come up with ways of touching on these issues in the game while not directly making your character the one responsible for it.

So one of the ways we addressing these right now is by having other homeless people in the game. Your homeless character might be able to meet up with other homeless characters, and one of them might have an addiction problem and one of them might have mental health issues. One of them might have family issues, so we can touch on homelessness in different ways.

I noticed that watching the Kickstarter videos that one of the NPCs says “I’m willing to help, just don’t touch me.” What sort of social reactions or social experiences are you trying to convey in iBeg?

Like I said, we are not trying to pull any punches. We are trying to show what it’s like. I have personally seen homeless people in Vancouver physically and verbally assaulted. So in the game, the cute little pedestrians, if you bug them too much, they’ll hit you with their purse, or they’ll punch you, or they’ll spit on you. So people are going to say “that’s mean, that’s horrible. You’re picking on homeless people.” But at the same time, this is stuff that I have seen with my own eyes and I am sure if you ask a lot of homeless people, which I have, they’ve seen and experienced it too. So again, this goes back to exposing the nitty-gritty truth that a lot people aren’t really comfortable dealing with, or they want to ignore that these things happen, but they can’t. This is part of the issue. These things do happen.

One of the things that we’ve gotten feedback on is that we were using what the journalists called “stink lines” to show your hygiene. It’s a representation in the game. The Sims did the same thing. I don’t really know if it’s a good way to visually get across in the game hygiene when your hygiene is low. So people think, “You’re stereotyping all homeless people as smelly?” Well no, but this is an issue that they have to deal with. They have to figure out where they can go and shower, and clean, and do their laundry. We are hoping to put some of those activities in the game.

Again, we’re not shying away from it. We’re trying to deal with the fact that some homeless people smell. I go for a run and I smell after. You don’t hide it. You don’t shy away from it. You just address it, because that’s how it is. Again, the lady that says “I’d be willing to help you, just don’t touch me,” homeless people get denied basic facilities to restrooms and such all the time. I see it in Vancouver here in restaurants when a homeless person comes in and they want to use the restroom and they are denied and asked to leave. So people do have this social stigma with homeless people and we are trying to not shy away from that and basically say we are not trying to make fun of homeless people, but we are trying to remember the point that people do get treated like that.

Do you plan on showing the game to these same homeless communities and organizations prior to release?

Yes. We want feedback from them on an ongoing basis. I have showed the game already to about a dozen homeless people. They all thought it was a good idea. I mean, some of them have reservations, but when we explained what our goal was and what we were trying to do and how we are trying to show the tough decisions they make on a daily basis and what they go through, just to raise awareness of it, they thought it was a good idea.

I think a lot of the blowback that we get too is that people don’t understand what we are doing. It’s easy to jump on the “oh they’re making fun of it bandwagon” when we are not.

Can you talk a little about your views on win and lose states when it comes to games about serious issues? You mention iBeg has three meters. Is there a point where this meter reaches the bottom and you lose?

That design decision is one that we have been going back and forth on for awhile. Basically, we are still trying to decide: should your homeless person be able to die? In real life, if homeless people are neglected and don’t get food and help, the facilities and services that they need, then unfortunately they do pass away. In our game, I don’t know if we really want to do that.

It’s a thin line to walk.

It’s a very, very thin line. I think just severely punishing the player somehow and still giving them a chance to make their way back up would be punishment enough to make them want to make the right choice. It’s something that I have internally been debating for a while.

To speak on win conditions, we have decided very early on in the game that the game was about improving this homeless person’s life. In the game, the character, through no fault of their own, they are a video game designer who gets laid off because their studio moved. They ran out of money and basically couldn’t find a job. Time went by and they found themselves out on the street, which is, since the recession in 2008, is something that strikes really close to home with a lot of people, especially in the US.

It’s something that touches everybody. So we wanted to make a game that says homelessness can happen to anybody. It’s something we shouldn’t be ignoring. Sometimes in our busy, daily lives, homeless people can fade to the background. It’s something that we should bring to the forefront again and see what we can do. So in regards to win conditions, we always wanted this game to have a positive message associated with it where you are down on your luck, but by working hard and making correct decisions, even if they were tough, and there’s some grinding, and sticking with it and getting help when you need it from the services that are available to you and from the player themselves, that you can get the homeless person back on-track and off the street. That was in from the very beginning.

One of the things I find interesting is the fear that, when a player decides to min-max something in a game about a serious issue, there is a threat the message will be misinterpreted.

There is always a threat that the message will be misinterpreted. We’ve got this feedback saying “kids are just going to play this game, that all the points you are trying to make about homeless and awareness is just going to go over their head,” and unfortunately for some people, that’s going to happen. All we can hope is that we can make it the most informative simulation that we possibly can so it doesn’t go over the head of the majority of people, that they do have these points where they go “Wow, what do I do? I’m stuck in this tough decision. I don’t have enough money to stay in the hostel tonight, but I also don’t have enough money to eat. You can only choose one. What do I do and what are the ramifications the next day when this plays out?”

There is a really great game called Spent. It is just a text game where you get 1000 dollars to live a month, and can you make it to the end of the month. And every day, things pop up and they are just these choices you have to make about caring for your family, or saving money. Or you have to pay the electricity bill and the water bill, you don’t have enough for both, what do you pay? Your son wants to go play soccer, do you pay for the uniform or do you tell him no because you need that money? Then you get to see the different consequences of the choices that you made.

I found it really interesting, and I invite a lot of people to go play it because a lot of those kind of decisions are some of the things that we are trying to do with iBeg.

The “no win” scenario is a really interesting one. That you have to make your decisions given your limitations and hope for the best.

Yea. Hope is another theme in the game too. We obviously want to have this feeling of hope that if you do things right and you work hard and you make the right decisions, that there is hope you can get your homeless person off the street. I think hope is a huge issue. I think that a lot of the times it is one of the main things that keeps homeless people going on.

Given how political homelessness can be, what sorts of conversations are you having in regards to discussing the causes of poverty and homelessness?

Again, those are on the list of things we would like to touch on in the game. Homelessness is such a huge issue. It’s gigantic. If you just talk with a homeless person there is a bunch of different issues they can have. Then if you talk about society, there is a bunch of issues you have to deal with there. We cannot obviously fit everything in the game. It would be too big of a game and we are just a small three person team working on it.

We would like to touch on all these issues, but we just don’t have the manpower or the time to fully explore them all. So we are being selective with what we put in, but we have obviously been talking about the problems in society that lead to homelessness, or individual cases of homelessness. We have talked about both of them.

In the game, we would like to showcase some of the services and support services that are available for homeless people. There are different types of actions you can perform in the game. Right now you can panhandle, play the guitar or busk, convince somebody to action, and we have room to put more of these actions in there as a means of gaining experience and making money. I personally would like to put some in that show what homeless people in Vancouver actually do.

Walking around downtown Vancouver, there are people who sell a calendar call Open Shadows. I would like to have one of the actions in the game being, you can go and you can buy calendars and you can sell them. Because that is a realistic portrayal of what people on the streets of Vancouver do. It’s the same thing if your homeless person needs a meal in the game and needs to go to a soup kitchen, why would we use a generic soup kitchen? I would rather put one of the services in Vancouver, in pixelized form, in the game, and have the player go there and read about the services that that organization provides.

Again, we are trying to raise awareness of the issue and the closer we can make it to things that are actually in real life, I think the better it’s going to be.

To learn more about iBeg, visit their Kickstarter page here. The game is also in the running for KickAssist here.