So this Sunday I visited the Game Changer Game Jam (GCGJ) in Aarhus to hand out judgement on the games being made there.
A bit of context: a game jam is an event where a group of game developers sit down for a short period of time to try and see if they can make a game really, really fast. This often leads to quirky, but memorable solutions and more than one commercial game started out like this. Sometimes these things have a certain focus or theme for the games, and the GCGJ had the theme of making games about justice that could change the world. No small ambition for game developers to accomplish in around 48 hours!
Before they got down to work, they were treated to talks by Christian Fonnesbech (who’s working on the very exciting Cloud Chamber-project), Adriel Wallick and Rami Ismail (both talented and dedicated game developers, as can be seen here and here) and finally the gracious and sharply intelligent Ryan Green, whom I had the good fortune of consulting with before and during the judging process. I also had the opportunity to finally play Ryan’s much-talked-about autobiographical game That Dragon, Cancer which is very well done and a harrowing experience when you’re a parent.
It was a fun and interesting experience, and I hope I contributed well.
Here are the games.
And below are my comments for them. I may be wrong or right, feel free to disagree.
To re-iterate from my speech yesterday: using games to change the world is a tricky business. While most media are fairly straightforward in the relationship between form and message, games are to a large degree not there yet. Games are systems or models that are interacted with by the audience, not words that are read, music that is heard or art that is perceived; and yet games are often also these three things. While we have an extensive vocabulary for formulating opinions and thoughts about meaning in terms of both form and message in other media – even though we mostly focus on the message in contemporary critical discourse – the same is not true of games.
Basically, we know that what you do in a game has meaning as well as what you are told in a game, but we have a hard time talking very precisely about it. Hence nearly meaningless words such as “gameplay” abound.
This is why we tend to default into using games as if they are any other medium. We think of games as something we can use to tell people about a problem or an idea, and we use them to hopefully create more awareness. Sometimes, we realize that the point of using a functioning model to create awareness rather than a static medium like text is that we can finally realize that age-old ambition of storytellers: show, don’t tell. We use games to illustrate how things work outside games; we simulate to a degree to increase understanding of perspectives and processes. Thirdly, we can use games to aim for an emotional kick to people’s metaphorical boat in the hope that the shock will change their perception of how the world works and their behavior in this world. This is a very 20th century definition of art as provocation. Finally, the 21st century has seen games being increasingly used as motivational tools and social mediums, with everything ranging from Jane McGonigal’s work to the essentially social phenomenon of World of Warcraft. We can use games as tools to organize other aspects of our lives.
To varying degrees all the games at the Game Changer Game Jam deploy these four categories of what you can achieve with games: awareness, illustration, art as provocation and tools to organize our lives.
Now, how does your game fit in?
The idea of using a well-known game to illustrate the point of how justice works in practice is very well realized. By using a familiar game as a starting point, you have also assured that the basic re-organising aspects of the category of art as provocation is there: here is something familiar, but its meaning has changed. I’m not sure I agree with your analogy to modern democratic institutions of government, though – I would think that the game is the legislative branch, pumping out laws, and both the judiciary and the executive branch are represented by the player named “judge” while the Tetris-player is simply a citizen?
Anyway, I think that the demonstration you carried out at the presentation very nicely pointed out some of the flaws in the concept. First off, it was not clear for the judge that he should keep shouting out the laws for the game to work, and as you pointed out, negotiation is also a key point to the game. A lot is left up to the meta-play here, and I believe that the ability to take back punishment – or maybe that the blocking out of the screen automatically falls back in time like years ticking off a prison sentence? – could add to this. But this points out that the instruction before-hand is crucial to the successful play-session of this game. I’m also a little bit skeptical as to whether the rules of Tetris – which are understood universally in the gamer community – are verbally formulated to a degree that the laws are clear. This, though, could be a point from your side. Finally, the swearing-in ceremony was a very nice touch.
Your game was gorgeous and very successful at communicating what it tried to communicate – I’ll get back to that in a bit – but it had very little to do with the theme of justice. An argument could be made that in so far as it relates to powerlessness, it digs at some of the constitutive elements inherent in the discussion of justice, but to me the game felt more like an existential statement about the feeling of loneliness. Does the word justice ever enter into the mind of the lonely person?
On to what your game does illustrate. I was very intrigued by the pulsating circles that seemed to be attempts at communication from the different entities. As such, the final circle when the yellow companions disappear seems to be echoing goodbyes, which is a beautiful sentiment. I am skeptical, however as to the basic structure of the game: you move through the world, being rebuffed by everyone, then you meet the green companion who loves you; why would you keep moving? Why not stay there? In the demonstration it seemed at times like you were fleeing the green companion, which gave the death of the poor little thing a different resonance than I think you were aiming for. What you said was: if you are constantly rebuffed by other people, you will flee from love. I think – with the final Fitzgerald quote in mind – that what you aimed to say was: life is essentially lonely, because there are things we are powerless to change. As such your game successfully said something about the nature of social relationships and their psychological impacts, but not, I think, what you meant for it to say, and not that much about justice. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it a lot.
You have a very well-defined question at the core of your game: why are megacorps evil? The answer to this is very complicated and deserves a very complicated system to illustrate, and I think that you successfully created a game, that show the complexity of the disparate elements in the make-up of a mega-corp. As such you have simulated the perspective of being in charge of a mega-corp well: it is the entire world that is your playground. This creates a sense of awareness that mega-corps exist and what the stakes are in their activities.
The problem with the concept is that your answer is also very well-defined and clear-cut: because they earn money through evil. If what is involved in the decision-making process of mega-corps is really that simple, why do you need to model it through such a seemingly complicated system as your game is presented? More to the point: if rational greed makes people do evil things, then arguments about the other, more problematic consequences of the evil things – environmental damage, trafficking, various other forms of other suffering – should make good, rational reasons for mega-corps to stop being evil. I have a hard time seeing executives playing your game and realizing: “Oh my God, I’m actually an evil bastard. I must change!” not because they are too evil, but because there are other psychological effects in play than just greed. Inertia, alienation, social pressures – all things that are integral parts of the process of choice and planning that you are simulating here, and vital if you want to illustrate the actual workings of mega-corps. However, your game successfully promotes the basic – and also very necessary to the final analysis – idea that the greed of the few undermines the entire world, and it illustrates this very well. I simply doubt the potential for change in the game.
Your game is a classic top-down stealth game that utilizes the conventions of the genre cleverly to put forth quite potent metaphors. Your point in the presentation about the meaning of light as hope, but here re-defined as damnation is solid, and the use of basically unfair traps illustrates the point well that as a trafficking kidnap victim, you have very little control over what you can do to escape. It is also a very interesting mechanic that you progress through the levels by failing, a point that works well with the other points. As such you have very successfully simulated a situation that can raise awareness of the circumstances of trafficking, underlined by the references out of the game to more materials.
There are two points against the game, though; one is fair and one is essentially unfair. The fair one is the one you jokingly pointed out yourselves, that it seems to be quite a big truck you’re kept in. This may or may not be a problem: the conventions of the stealth genre are already highly stylized, but with the pictures and text between the levels shooting for realism, it does jar a bit. (It is interesting to note that apparently it is more of a problem to accept stylization in environment in games than in rules.) The unfair point is that it is always an open question to which degree a game – or any other medium – focused on raising awareness actually changes the world. If the reason people are not more focused on trafficking as a serious problem is because they have never heard about it, awareness is obviously key, and an argument can easily be made that a game can reach people that other media cannot. But a point can also be made that a game to raise awareness will most likely not affect the people who can actually do something about the problem. That is to say: if you are involved in trafficking – either as a victim, a perpetrator, a consumer of goods and services related to trafficking, or as a person in a trafficking-related NGO – you probably know it exists. Who should be more aware and what is the end goal should be at the forefront of your mind when making your world-changing games. Essentially, you have the awareness and the illustration parts down, but you could maybe think on how games can be useful tools.
Your basic concept is very sound: use the genre of the first person shooter’s essential empowering effect to give power back to the panda. Your decision to make the game a no-win scenario focuses in on the question that your game raised in my mind, though: is this related to justice or is it a revenge power fantasy? That the panda cannot win suggests that you view it as an unfulfillable power fantasy more than a quest for justice. This could have been played up a lot: even in the best case scenario, animals cannot fend for themselves against man, so we must assist them.
As such, you have successfully used the game as provocative art, in the sense that you have turned the typical scenario on the head, and in the sense that you have empowered the powerless through effective use of game mechanics. I think, though, that the very sharp and well-formulated points you make could have been taken further, although you may hit your head against the wall of the expressive potential of the rules of the FPS-genre.
Your game is a very cool simulation-based idea for talking about how discussion in a democratic society works. I couldn’t help but think, though, that the choice to make harmony or discord is not a choice that is readily available to all potential participants. It requires that you are able to read music. As such, the game seems to say that you can participate in discussions without any required skills, but that your contribution will essentially be useless unless you are educated enough to know how to express yourself inside the system of society.
This is an interesting point, though I’m not sure it is the point you’re trying to make. It does however raise some interesting questions about justice in a democratic context. Traditional conceptions of justice generally hold that we are judged based on what we do, while modern and most democratic conceptions of justice hold that we should be allowed freedom to do as much as we can because all people by being people are deemed important enough to contribute. Your game could be seen as questioning the democratic ideal of justice, since the point of the game must well be to create harmony and this cannot be achieved through uneducated self-expression. What you do is as important as you. As I said, from your presentation I’m not sure that this is your intention, since you seemed to be focused on players choosing between discord and harmony; I present the idea that this choice is not actually available to all players as the actual point of your game. And I think that it makes that point quite successfully on a conceptual level.
Forget Evil & Laugh
As I said yesterday, the very simple rules system of working towards the goal of achieving power and then immediately shifting the perspective to the person you took that power from is an essentially powerful idea. The moment in your demonstration where the sword was stolen and you changed control to the smith was a real shock, since it plays with both the narrative conventions of video games – as you pointed out – and with the ludonarrative conventions as well; you should be rewarded as player, when you complete your quest, but here you are punished.
This kernel of a very interesting idea does have a weakness, though: what is the end game? How do you have progression, when your progression is constantly rewarded by regression? Find a good answer to that, and you have a very good indie game concept on your hands. Suffice it to say that for the purposes of this GCGJ the big problem is that it is hard to see what this game could change in the immediate world. While the play with power-relationships is entertaining, enlightening, and functions very well as provocative art (again through the narrative and ludonarrative upsets) it is playing the long game as far as changing the world matters. That is the game of awareness of general structures and representations of perspectives not often represented in media – that of the powerless – rather than something immediately changeable.
Are We The Yet?
Your game was wonderful and imaginative, and basically a system simulation of the way a mind and its imagination works. The choice of a platform game as the game played outside the window is inspired, since to many gamers it represents the joy of movement that is also the basic joy of thinking – feeling your perceptions move. The contrast in graphics between the car and the imaginative platform game worked very well to underline this, too.
The question is obviously what this has to do with justice. An argument could be made that the freedom of imagination and the space for personal expression and thought is a necessity for justice, at least in a modern sense of the concept. However, I think this argument cheapens the impact of a game that is essentially more about intimacy and the child-adult relationship. You have a good idea here, and it is wonderful that you held on to it in the face of the lack of cohesion with the overall theme of the jam. Polish this and release it.
The mystery of the holy nuts
Your game is essentially a tool, in the sense that you use the game and the very central concept of humour in it to draw people to the message at the end. This is interesting from my perspective, because it seems to be so firmly rooted in the idea that games can do exactly the same things as other media, but the interactivity simply make them more engaging. This is a paradigm that is shifting in game studies circles at the moment, where there is more of a movement towards pointing out that meaning is created through the player’s interaction with the game. To the point: in your game how the game is played is essentially irrelevant, since the message comes through anyway, as long as you don’t die. As such your game – especially with the twist in the end – works very much like a movie with interactive bits.
Given these parameters you succeed very well. I am spontaneously thinking and saying things in the voice of the Rabbit Master even the day after seeing your demonstration, just as I would with a movie character that made me laugh. You have created a great product of entertainment (although not all territories are as relaxed as Denmark when it comes to the (very mild) racist humour you employ, so be aware of this), but I am skeptical as to what the game will change and as to what the game mechanics as such say. The game purports to be choice based, but repeatedly in your demonstration you made it clear that there were only one real choice. This diminishes the shocking effect that what you did helped the trafficking, magical tree (yes, it is funny!) at the end, because you basically just did the only things you could do, which lessens the idea of ownership of a story or a character that games can achieve so well. You mentioned, though, that this was your team’s first foray into games and I really want to stress that this is promising in the presentation and the entertainment department, so I think you should keep it up.
As I pointed out yesterday, you have made an excellent simulation-based game that illustrates the building up of a trafficking ring. This obviously goes towards creating awareness, but also an increased understanding of how an alien system works. It seemed like the feedback system and the decision-making UI were very well thought out and the game seemed easy to play.
Maybe this is where the game aspires to be provocative art, too. It is as easy to build up this ring as it is to interact with your Sims family or manage a football team in another manager game. Maybe the ability to switch skins from trafficking to similar systems elsewhere could hammer the point home further? The question obviously remains as to how much this game can actually change the world. An awareness game must make very sure it can actually reach the people it needs to make aware, and to a certain degree maybe this game would work better if it was a hidden-away option in Movie Star Planet or another similar type of management/sim-game.
Bully the Bullies
Your game has a very simple moral system, which nevertheless works pretty effectively. The idea that your actions change your identity is vital to many different conceptions of justice through the ages, and it is certainly relevant to the idea of bullying.
However, the problem is whether the game is actually fun to play and act in. In your presentation, you mentioned that the player could let the bullies be and just move through the level. But why would the player do that? To make this a viable option, you would have to design the gameplay around something other than bullying the bullies, since this is clearly the core of the game and what you do. As it is, the message your game is actually carrying to people is this: you bully people because it is boring not to bully people. This could be an effective message, if it is presented more deliberately, but as it is, it is not likely to be noticed by players as anything other than the problem that the game is boring unless you bully these people. That’s a shame, because as I said, the core concept is simple, but solid and sits squarely between the awareness and illustration categories outlined above.
At your presentation you characterized your game as: “A fun game of trafficking!” (or words to that effect). However, I think that you did not really achieve this based on what I saw at the demonstration. Fun is engaging, explorative, optimizing – a host of different things – but you seem to have constructed a fantasy power simulator aimed to be titillating rather than fun. This is not necessarily a problem, but you should be aware that what you are saying with your game is that trafficking as an activity simply is titillating for the traffickers.
An argument could be made that making a game like that is provocational art, but from you presentation I got the sense that this was not your point. That is to say, the game was not made sarcastically or to show a point that went beyond the basic and titillating power fantasy of being a trafficking pimp. As long as you are aware what you are saying, this is obviously perfectly fine, but it relates very poorly to the theme of justice and rather than wanting to change injustices in the world, it seems to revel in them. What I’m saying is this: if your point was to show how awesome it is to traffick women, your game seemed to make it excellently. If your point was anything else, it was not very clear.
Your game is clearly a tool to help raise awareness of the consequences of being or neglecting to be a political consumer. It is at the same time a system that simulates a process that is well documented, and it seemed from the presentation that this system worked fairly well – although it may be a bit complex for the player, but we’ll get back to the player in a bit – and to a certain degree the concept works as provocative art as well, in that it challenges the good intentions of the player. So basically, you’ve hit all the bases in your concept and this is very impressive.
I am, however, skeptical as to the world changing potential of the game. This is simply because I have a hard time visualizing who would play this game. I can see it working in a classroom setting, but mostly because students would then have to play the game enough for the point to get across. Getting a shopping list and making purchases is a sound mechanic in theory – basically the resource priority gameplay of many, if not most, strategy games – but when it is modelled so closely to the real world, it seems to me that much of the motivation for making decisions is non-existent. Games are unique in that while we can use them to illustrate the consequences of choices, games are only fun in so far as it is fun to make the choices themselves, not just seeing the consequences. This is tricky and there are no easy solutions I can give you, so take my thoughts as they are. Again: conceptually your game is very sound, but think about how it will work in practice, too.
Your game takes up some interesting ideas about perceptions of justice and how our movement through the world affects those around us, even when we do not understand our actions. The use of the typical genre convention of moving from left to right and then turning it on its head by re-tracing your steps works well, as does the use of color to indicate a new understanding of the world spreading.
The question is obviously what this can change in the world. An argument can be made that raising awareness of our limited perspective when we speak to others will make us treat other people better. But it seems to me that the ending of your game – the suicide scene – tells us that we can do very little to change this. That perspective is underlined by the relative powerlessness of the player as shown by the mechanics – the only real choice for the player is whether he/she will play the game or not. Nevertheless, your game provoked an emotional response through the effects I mentioned above. I’m just not sure what you are trying to say with it.
Traffick by Igor
As I mentioned yesterday, your game succeeds as a game primarily because it uses the basic structure of games – the player making choices – to illustrate powerlessness effectively. The obvious example is the three options at the beginning, where only one is viable, but for example the thread where you do not follow Loverboy and then history repeats itself illustrates the same point structurally.
Another aspect that I tried to get across was that your game can be used by the people who are actually in the situation that the game is about, which makes it rather unique among the games at GCGJ. Not just a game that lets you empathize with the powerless, this also lets the powerless explore their own situation by using literalness rather than metaphor to describe it. This runs the risk of alienating the disaffected – in the same way a moral preaching can do – but you seem to have made this choice very consciously, and it is probably the correct sacrifice if you want to change the world through awareness. Rather than seeing awareness as the privileged become aware of the situation of the underprivileged, your game wants to raise awareness of the underprivileged’s situation among themselves. This can lead to empowerment.
The conceptual problem with this is that the very powerlessness you illustrate to the game runs contrary to that purpose. The “happy ending” in your game is entirely dependent on what someone more privileged does to the underprivileged main character. This seems to make the point that the choice that an underprivileged person has to make is: which person of privilege can I trust? This may be true, and it may be a good point, but it does seem to conceptually jar a bit. Nevertheless, your game is very impressive.
Your game takes its inspiration clearly from Jane McGonigal’s work, and as such it is firmly rooted in the category of being a tool that can be used in a different context than the game itself. You’re hitting all the right bases in the design of the system and the intention of making it easier to help each other, so as a gamification tool you are quite in the clear.
However, I remain skeptical as to what mechanics you have to actually get people started. Why would people play this? Surely not because of costumed presenters? Surely not to get achievements and badges that have no meaning until you start collecting them? In your presentation you emphatically pointed out that it feels good when you have helped people – why then introduce mechanics that make it feel even better to have helped people? To change the world shouldn’t you make something that makes it feel better to decide to help people? To start helping people? I saw very little in your game that made me want to play it, and that is actually the crucial place where you need to do something. Post-helping is already fine, you should design a game that makes you want to help, not want to have helped.