Games

Finding a Place for Impact Games

Sweatshop (Littleloud, 2011)

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.

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image