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Can video games be a force for change?

Video games are tackling some of the most pressing issues of our time. But while some  activists think games are a potent way to spread the word about important topics, some folks believe that serious and games are two things that just don't mix.
Image: Darfur is Dying
Serious games, such as 'Darfur is Dying,' tackle pressing and depressing issues facing society today. Activist argue that these games are important — but are they any good?Susana Ruiz

I can’t say that “fun” is the first word that comes to mind when playing the computer game called “ICED.” And I wouldn’t dare use the term “entertaining” to describe a rhythm game called “Hush.” And as for “Darfur is Dying,” I wasn’t exactly leaping out of my chair shouting “Wheeee!” as I vigorously tapped keys in an attempt to win this particular game. 

Then again, how do you make a game about human rights violations fun? And can a game that drops players into the midst of Rwandan genocide squads — even one that’s a distant cousin to “Guitar Hero” — really be expected to create an experience one could call amusing?

Meanwhile, the only thing I shouted as I played “Darfur is Dying” — that is, as I helped a 13-year-old girl named Poni sprint across a scorching desert, past the rotting carcasses of dead cows, desperately seeking water for her malnourished family — was an unprintable curse word. A group of gun-toting militiamen had snatched up the poor girl and the game informed me that she’d likely be raped.

Genocide in Rwanda, torture in Sudan, poverty in Haiti, political shenanigans in the United States — video games are tackling some of the most pressing and depressing issues of our time. They’re called serious games, persuasive games and games for change. But while some developers and activists think these games offer a particularly potent and increasingly important method of getting information out to the world at large, some gamers and game industry folks seem to think sociopolitical messages and games go together like dog poo on a birthday cake.

The Believer
“I play games because I enjoy running around Dracula's castle killing skeletons, or doing a 720° kickflip-to-faceplant, or driving around a coastal city on a motorcycle while listening to '80s songs,” wrote a gamer called J. Kyle during a discussion on the topic at “I don't play games to be delivered a heavy-handed message about why my political views are wrong.”

Suzanne Seggerman doesn’t have anything against running around Dracula’s castle, but she definitely believes video games have more to offer the world than skeleton-killing extravaganzas.

“We believe that games can and should have a powerful impact on society,” she says.

Image: Ayiti: The Cost of Life

Seggerman is the president and co-founder of Games for Change, an organization that supports and promotes the development of socially-responsible games and, earlier this month, hosted its fifth annual Games for Change Festival in New York.

Check out their site and you’ll find links to the likes of “ICED – I Can End Deportation,” a role-playing game that puts players in the shoes of a young immigrant trying to navigate the byzantine and often terrifying U.S. immigration system. There’s also “Ayiti: The Cost of Life,” a strategy game that challenges players to help a family of five in Haiti survive for four years.

“At the very least, some of these games are simply raising awareness of issues because they’re being played by millions of players,” Seggerman says, pointing to the likes of “Food Force” – a free game published by the United Nations World Food Programme that tasks players with managing the various challenges that come with distributing food to poverty-stricken people. “But what we hope to see is a shifting of both mindset and behavior.”

It’s a tall order, for sure. But Seggerman believes games like “Food Force” and “The Cost of Life” are especially good at allowing players to explore complex issues with multiple variables. And she believes that, unlike movies, games can help people feel more connected to an issue by actually putting them in control of it.

Good intentions, bad games
But here’s the thing … I can’t use the word “fun” to describe many of these games not because the topics they address are too dire for such frivolous descriptions, but because, frankly, a lot of these games are downright tedious to play.

Take “Real Lives” for example. Though the game strives to help players better understand what existence is like for the many different people living on this planet, when it dropped me into the life of a young boy growing up Syria and began pummeling me with tedious boxes of text, the experience quickly became about as compelling as reading an encyclopedia.

And while “ICED” is a surprisingly polished 3-D game in some ways, it’s also strangely devoid of things for your youthful character to do. I mean, you can only run around a mostly empty city answering immigration-related trivia questions for so long before skeleton killing starts to look super appealing.

“The complaints are valid,” says Ian Bogost. “A lot of these games are really bad.”

Bogost knows a thing or two about serious games. As the co-founder of Persuasive Games he’s helped develop the likes of “Fat World,” a game that takes a look at the multifaceted problem of American obesity, and “Airport Security,” a game that takes a satirical poke at airport security practices in a post 9/11 world.

He admits that his company has had its share of hits and misses. In a rather cutting article, Slate writer Justin Peters took Bogost’s company to task for creating games that “play like ‘Sims’ expansion packs that were too boring to be released.’”

But Bogost thinks that Peters and others have missed the point, that “serious games” aren’t necessarily trying to create the same experience mainstream commercial games create or speak to the same crowd.

“I'm less and less interested in satisfying the perverse demands of gamers and much more interested in talking to ordinary people through games,” Bogost responded to Peters. “The idea of making games more alluring to people who don't love games is actually something of a noble goal, in my mind.”

Meanwhile, he points out that serious games — many of which are funded by non-profits or created at the behest of organizations with little game-making experience — are usually produced with very limited time, money and game-development expertise. And if video games are a young medium, then serious games are still in diapers.

“The more games that we start to see that are doing things other than purely entertaining, the more rapidly the sector will grow in size and dollars and in sophistication,” Bogost says.

Play these games
But for all the naysaying, there really are some very good games that have something meaningful to say. Take “Hush” for example. In this little rhythm game created by a team of students from the University of Southern California, you play a Tutsi mother from Rwanda trying to keep her baby quiet while Hutu death squads hunt for you nearby. The gameplay is simple – you must type the letters of a lullabye at the right time to soothe the baby. If you don’t hit the right letters at the right time, the baby will start to cry and draw the attention of men sure to kill you both.

“Hush” is elegant and short (you can finish it in five minutes) and it actually gave me the chills as I listened to the sounds of a crying baby juxtaposed against a background of gunfire and human suffering. Unless you have a heart made of rocks you can’t walk away from this game without feeling something more for the plight of the many real-life Tutsi mothers who must have found themselves singing these songs.

Meanwhile, though I’m not usually inclined to tell people to stop reading something I’ve written, I’ll make an exception here. Do this: Stop reading this article and go here to play a little game called “Execution.” It won’t take you long, I promise.

Now that you’ve been given a spoiler warning: Here’s a little experimental game that manages in its own small way to impart a message … and one that’s particularly relevant to the gaming crowd. In “Execution,” players are shown an unarmed prisoner tied to a post. You have a gun and it’s clear that you’re supposed to shoot this defenseless man. What do you do?

If you’re like me, you eventually end up gunning him down … only to discover that the game abruptly ends and every time you restart it you find the prisoner still there, riddled with bloody bullet holes, dead because of your choice and dead for good. (There is a different choice you could have made, but I’ll leave it to you to figure out.)

“I didn't set out to make a statement actually, but I did intend for you, as the player, to think about your actions,” says Jesse Venbrux, the 21-year-old game design student from the Netherlands who created “Execution.” “The experience I wanted to create was for the player to shoot the guy, restart the game, and be surprised, frustrated, and maybe feeling a little guilty, realizing you can't turn back to the previous state.”

A serious hit
While no game for change has yet to become a hit like, say, “Grand Theft Auto,” Seggerman predicts that a serious game will rise through the ranks to become a genuine blockbuster within the next five years.

“We’ve seen a lot more interest from the games industry,” Seggerman says, explaining that she was recently contacted by a number of fairly high-level Electronic Arts employees planning to leave EA and form a company dedicated to making environmental games.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has teamed up with Games for Change to create a competition that challenges student developers to create games based on the theme of a sustainable environment. And at last week’s Games for Change festival, attendees got a sneak peak at the finalist — among them a a “SimCity”-meets-“Tetris” game called “City Rain” in which buildings drop from the sky and must be strategically placed on a grid so the community can grow in an ecologically mindful manner.

“I think people are ready for new games,” Seggerman says. “These games aren’t perfect, but there are moments in them that are sublime.”

Winda Benedetti is a Seattle-based writer who feels guilty even when she kills digital people.  Tune in weekly to her for a look at independent and casual games, as well as games that are flying under the radar but shouldn’t be.