Digital Games as Social Commentary on Migration

Gamepolitics brought my attention to this interesting PBS website maintaining a collection of games dealing with immigration. I think games are the perfect medium to explore this issue due to the similarities between playing a game and negotiating one's way in a new, alien society: In both cases it's about trying to figure out the rules and stick to them in order to succeed. If you fail you won't be able to finish or enjoy the game respectively slip into the role of a social outcast – with the difference that games will in most cases give you another chance. An arcade game in this connection can even serve as a metaphor for bribery or the fact that money helps to gain social acceptance: As long as you feed the machine with quarters you're allowed to stay.

Due to their simulational nature and their reliance on rules as their core mechanic and defining criterion, games offer fascinating possibilities for cross cultural training and they can also serve to highlight the prejudices migrants or minorities feel in a new environment. Let's say statistics found that the chances of dark skinned emigrants finding a job are 40% lower compared to white people despite them having the same qualifications. This result now could be included as a arbitrary rule in a game dealing with finding a job in their new environment. Arbitrary because not only because it would reflect the different real-life attitudes of people living in this society (prejudiced/ not prejudiced/ not too sure etc.) but also because it can help to built up the frustration a migrant might feel while on the job hunt.

Also it made me think about the assumption that we won't play a game differently just because the tokens changed. Take chess for example, you can play it with the figurines of king and queens but you might as well just play it with different piles of mud. Will this change your overall goal or your style of play? Probably not. But imagine a game of Space Invaders where you as some border patrol officer have to shoot illegal immigrants instead of aliens. Due to the meta-text and intertextuality of the game and the representations in it you might more consciously think about your style of playing (meta-text and intertetuality = the marketing, box art, references to other media, the way the player's character and NPCs are presented and what that entitles etc. – it basically it means games don't exist in a vacuum but within discursive formations of the society they're played in). This of course always depends on your political beliefs and attitudes. Do you see these migrants as intruders who just want your piece of the cake or poor, disadvantaged people who contribute valuable services to society by doing the jobs no one wants to?


The World of Borecraft?

Justin Peters over at Slate takes a critical look at games that are trying to teach you something. And he has some interesting arguments:

In taking the fun out of video games, companies like Persuasive make them less alluring to people who love games and more alluring to people who don't. Your boss, for example (…)I think game designer and theorist Raph Koster has it right. "[J]ust strapping an incentive structure on rote practice doesn't work very well, compared to ... building a long-term goal structure, and then presenting challenges on the way," Koster writes on his personal blog. The perfect embodiment of this idea is Sid Meier's Civilization series. In these games, players build a society from the ground up, interacting with other, competing civilizations along the way. It's addictively fun, and you learn a lot about history along the way… The basic issue here is that it's easier to make a fun game educational than it is to inject fun into an educational game.  

In his reply to the article Ian Bogost, founding partner of Persuasive Games, explains that

'the idea of making games more alluring to people who don't love games is actually something of a noble goal, in my mind, especially as those who do love games become ever more narrow-minded about what a game experience needs to be'.  

And he gets support from Gamasutra who in their coverage of the 2007 Games For Change Conference point out:

'It follows, then, that concerns about the number of copies sold, or number of audience members reached, while common to the commercial market, might actually be less important for socially-conscious games. “In terms of changing people’s attitudes about things,” Sawyer [Ben Sawyer, co-director of the Serious Games Initiative] noted, “it actually matters who plays the games. Let’s make a game that only ten people need to play—because it’s the right ten people and the right game."'  

So designing games for your boss or other people's bosses to pick up might not be a bad idea after all. I can see where Peters is coming from though when he writes that it's easier to make a fun game educational than it is to inject fun into an educational game. The implicit allegation here is that the designers of educational software somehow lack the knowledge or will to design compelling games respectively don't exploit their full potential. Writes Gamasutra

'“The games that we’re seeing—and I think we all sort of share this frustration—are not really fulfilling on the promise of what brings us to conferences like this, what makes us work on this field,” said Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of GameLab. Zimmerman cautioned against activist designers who, in their eagerness to convey a positive socially-conscious message, judge certain aspects of gaming as “bad”—for example, the conflict, the hyperstimulation or the addictive qualities—and attempt to siphon those elements out of the games they make. Zimmerman noted that much of games’ pleasurable qualities are actually derived from those elements, and designers of socially-conscious games can make more effective products by embracing the nature of games, rather than combating them'.   

Fair enough. At the same time what one has to keep in mind though is the variety of serious and educational games and therefore a variety of designs, purposes and audiences. Just like there are editorials there are books. While they're both using the same medium to convey an opinion or educational message to their viewers they utilize it in different styles. So while a simple newsgame at the New York Times takes over the role of the editorial column and reaches a broader audience (including influential non-gamers), a complex game like Peacemaker is more akin to reading a book; the audience might be smaller, but the information conveyed is much more extensive. The only difference being the simulational and interactive nature of the game is more suited to explain the underlying mechanisms and processes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and unlike in a narrative medium there're of course no fixed sequences. Both game-genres can co-exist, they both have their merits and distinctive forms and designs; they only thing they eventually have in common is that they use the same medium. But to improve a newsgame it doesn't necessarily have to be influenced by in-depth simulators which rely more on the traditional game mechanics Zimmerman talks about since it serves a different purpose through a very different engagement of the medium – maybe boredom works for it better than hyperstimulation. Just like we divide texts into editorials and books and other categories and see their differences and different aims and styles, we should also clarify which kind of serious game we're talking about – to improve each genre and to avoid generalisations and confusions.