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Serious Gaming: Saving the World, One Game at a Time

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Contributor:
Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

Videogames have long had a rather tragic PR problem. Coverage of games will generally fall into two categories; the hobby is either seen as the catalyst for violently antisocial behaviour or, at best, an insubstantial form of entertainment. What you don’t often hear, from any mainstream source at least, is praise for videogames engaging with the gravest of social, political, and ecological issues facing the globe today – but that’s not stopping a growing community of game makers from trying.

As is the case with sex, art, and many other weighty subjects so thoroughly explored in other mediums, social issues have been taboo subjects that the gaming industry has been resistant to approach. In recent years however, as independent game development has slowly swollen into an exciting movement in its own right, the space in which videogames dared to move has dramatically expanded. They might not do boffo numbers on the gaming charts, but the number of games daring to confront important, politically controversial issues is growing, as is the attention and acclaim they garner.

Often billed as ‘serious games’ (as opposed to ‘fun games’, one cynically supposes) or grouped under the Games for Change umbrella, the topics that these socially aware titles broach are as broad as Third-World development, illegal immigration, economic policy, climate change, institutionalised racism, disease control, electoral process, healthy eating, globalization, indigenous struggle, the refugee experience, and sexual violence.

All that might not sound as cathartic as shooting aliens in the face or stealing cars and running drugs, but these games seek to harness the unique power of video games to promote a more equal and tolerant society. The ambition goes beyond base entertainment, but (for the most successful at least) keeping the fun factor intact is a high priority.

The following is a sample of some of the more engaging and applauded titles to come from the socially conscious gaming movement thus far:

September 12th: A Toy World

A response to America’s War on Terror, September 12th caused quite a stir upon its release. The game puts the player in control of an aiming reticule that hovers over a town; clicking, as per usual, fires the weapon, launching a missile towards a terrorist target. However, no matter how well you shoot the missile creates ‘collateral damage’, dead civilians are mourned by loved ones, who then become terrorists themselves due to the damage the player has caused.

The game cannot be won; the player’s violent actions only make the situation worse, a damning commentary on the US's interventionist military campaigns. The New York Times described the game as “an Op-Ed composed not of words but of actions,” and the controversial title has become one of the most discussed in the ‘newsgame’ movement.

Darfur is Dying

A browser-based game that sets out to give the player a window into life as one of the millions of refugees in the Dufar region of the Sudan, Darfur is Dying is an intuitive example of activism education through gaming.

Beginning by selecting a character to forage for water, the player quickly discovered how heavily age and gender play into the success or failure of simple daily tasks and how dire the consequences can be. The game offers an opportunity to explore a typical village, discovering all the dangers and deprivations within. The game also gives the player the ability to improve conditions in the village through various actions such as petitioning politicians to pass laws that will benefit Darfur’s refugees.

PeaceMaker

Attempting to warp the real-time strategy genre into something meaningful and non-violent, PeaceMaker gives players the opportunity to orchestrate peace in the Middle East.

Choosing to play from either the Palestinian or Israeli perspective, players must react to unpredictable real-world events in order to steer the course of a successful two state solution.   

The game promotes small, realistic steps, compromise, and empathy as the path to peace, but as in real life the player never has complete control of a situation, and perfect solutions are not always possible.

ICED: I Can End Deportation Now

This free, 3D downloadable game seeks to educate the player on the plight of illegal immigrants and the violation of human rights resulting from the denial of due process.

Choosing from a range of characters with different ethnicities and immigration status, ICED walks the player through an experience that affects all members of society; legal residents, students, asylum seekers, and undocumented refugees. The player is faced with making moral decisions while ducking immigration officers, and is also challenged to answer questions about preconceived myths surrounding immigration law.

Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City

A side-scrolling platform game set during the 2006 disaster in New Orleans, Tempest in Crescent City aims to teach players the importance of disaster readiness (and the error in relying on the government for help) while telling the real-life stories of ordinary people’s heroic deeds during the crisis.

The game is the result of collaboration between young members of the Golbal Kids Youth Leaders organization and game developers Gamepill, a project originating from the minds of concerned, active youths brought to life with the assistance of committed, socially aware professionals.

You can check out a great deal more of these games at Games for Change.

Aside from their bold discussion of problematic or unpopular subjects, you will notice one of the unifying characteristics of these games is their simplicity. While such basic gameplay means the message is accessible to a large audience, the fact is that such games do not have the budget to compete with expensive blockbuster titles even if they wanted to.

This can change. If these simple, impassioned games get the attention that they deserve then there’s no reason that the movement couldn’t grow into something more sophisticated, better resourced, and able to contend on the same level as the entertaining fluff that tops the charts.

They have the talent, they have the drive, and they have the commitment, all they need is an audience to match that passion and we could be gaming our way to a better tomorrow.

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