The Iranian government recently introduced the propaganda PC game Rescue the Nuke Scientist (the kind of name only a totalitarian regime can come up with…). Reports Gamepolitics:
The PC game was created by the Union of Islamic Student Societies, a radical student group. It is said to be a riposte to Kuma Games’ Assault on Iran mission for its reality-based Kuma Wars military series.Mohammad Taqi Fakhrian, a leader of the student group, was in what passes for full game hype mode in Tehran these days:This is our defense against the enemy’s cultural onslaught. We tried to promote the idea of defense, sacrifice and martyrdom in this game.Game play, as described by the AP, is as follows:In Rescue the Nuke Scientist, U.S. troops capture a husband-and-wife team of nuclear engineers on a pilgrimage to Karbala, a Shiite holy site in Iraq. Players take on the role of Iranian security forces carrying out a mission code-named “The Special Operation” to free the scientists, who are moved from Iraq to Israel. Players have to kill U.S. and Israeli troops and seize laptops containing secret information.Players who lose the game receive an onscreen message which says, “With resistance, you can battle the enemy.”The Union of Islamic Student Societies, which created the game, also sponsored the 2005 World Without Zionism conference at which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”
This made me think: Do these kind of games really do have an effect on players? And if that's the case, what can we learn from them? When it comes to the representational level the degree of realism certainly seems to be quite high, even though it's still way behind Western state-of-the-art FPPs. But is that enough to be engaging?
In his paper "Social Realism in Gaming" Alexander Galloway explains that realism 'requires "a more-or-less direct criticism of current society and morals" which America's Army does not do, nor does it aspire to do. In fact the game can be viewed in exactly the opposite framework: as a bold and brutal reinforcement of current American society and its positive moral perspective on military intervention, be it the war on terrorism or "shock and awe" in Iraq'. Simply replace America's Army with Rescue the Nuke Scientist, American society with Iranian society and the war on terrorism with the war on zionism and there's not much left of any form of realism – realism in Galloway's definition that is. Basically it amounts to a challenge of hegemony which I think is too simplistic, one of the consequences being that if a game corresponds with the political positions of the author it's deemed to be realistic (such is the case with State of Emergency: 'While the game is more or less realistically rendered, its connection to realism is seen primarily in the representation of marginalized communities... but also in the narrative itself, a fantasy of unbridled, orgiastic anti-corporate rebellion). Also it seems that Galloway's position amounts to a simple binary opposition of escapism and "realism" with nothing inbetween respectively no potential for subversive readings.
He nevertheless has a point when he brings up his so called "congruence requirement": 'I suggest there must be some kind of congruence, some type of fidelity of context that transliterates itself from the social reality of the gamer, through one's thumbs, into the game environment and back again. This is what I call the "congruence requirement (…) So, it is because games are an active medium that realism in gaming requires a special congruence between the social reality depicted in the game and the social reality known and lived by the gamer'Now saving kidnapped nuclear scientists is hardly the social reality of the average Iranian (who probably has other things to worry about) but I would suggest that the fidelity of context here is nevertheless bigger than in America's Army, simply because of the dogmatic indoctrination of a suppressive regime that tries to eliminate any deviant opinions and instead perpetuates a propaganda induced struggle against the forces portrayed in the games. (The uncompromising Left might point out that this is not too different to the USA, but the last time I checked they were still a democracy that didn't stone women accused of adultery to death nor did they want to wipe any countries of the map.)
So the effect of a game very much depends on its social and instructional/ informational contexts (amongst other things); if you want to design a game to effectively convey your message you have to pick up the people where they coming from and establish a strong link to the minutia of their everyday lives (something that might explain Ian Bogost's interest in the mundane and boring) – and give extensive background information to strengthen the instructional context of the game and the information it tries to bring across. As Squire points out 'the instructional context that envelopes gaming is a more important predictor of learning that the game itself. Specifically, how the game is contextualized, the kinds of cooperative and collaborative learning activities embedded in gameplay, and the quality and nature of debriefing are all critically important elements of the gaming experience'. Likewise his colleague Christian Arnseth suggests that 'the contextualisation of gaming is in regard to learning is probably more important than specific features of the same game in its own right. That is to say, the instructional context is probably a more important predictor of learning'.
Now if you want to publish a game designed to convey your ideas/ agenda you of course can't put them back into the classroom or expose them to a totalitarian regime; but what you can do is enhance the quality of the debriefing. A good example for this is The District Game which to ensure that the perceived information really gets across the game sets the mechanics in a real-world context by providing extensive background information and quotes for every form of redistricting as well as links to websites and several reports dealing with the issue (not limiting itself to a political direction) – being linked these kinds of resources is definitely a crucial point. A little improvement, taking the congruence requirement into account, might be the possibility to influence the borders of the districts you're living in or replay a recent gerrymandering that led to the passing of a law whose impact you're starting to feel so that the social reality of the gamer plays a more important role.
In short: Pick them up where they're coming from, show the connection to their lives and embed the game in a well thought about instructional context to bring the message across and explain yourself extensively and thoroughly.