Iran Releases Anti US/ Anti Israel Game

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.

The World of Borecraft Pt.2

The World of Borecraft Pt.2 As a counterpoint to Justin Peter's rather critical account of the serious game phenomenon over at Slate, Gamasutra takes a more sympathetic look at digital games with an agenda. In Who Says Video Games Have to be Fun? The Rise of Serious Games some major players in the field get a chance to voice their opinions on the current state of the discipline, its potentials and problems – one of them being that despite the increased media coverage, these gaming forms still lack some mainstream success. Says Chris Swain, assistant professor in the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Division and a co-director of the school’s Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab:

"the field of political/activist games is very young. We need some success stories to prove our value because right now political games mostly grab headlines and have little real impact.”

But the cause is legitimate and important and in the long run can only benefit the medium:

“I’m all for escapism,” Frasca [Gonzalo Frasca, co-founder of Powerful Robot Games] of says, “but I think that games that deal with serious topics can be more engaging to certain people.” “For 30 years now we’ve focused on making games produce fun,” adds Bogost [Ian Bogost, founding partner of Persuasive Games]. “Isn’t it about time we started working toward other kinds of emotional responses?” Bogost believes that will happen eventually. “I know that comparisons to the film industry have grown tired and overused,” he says, “but indulge me in this one: when you watch the Academy Awards this year, how many films in the running for awards are about big explosions and other forms of immediate gratification, and how many are about the more complex subtleties of human experience? “Someday, hopefully someday soon, we'll look back at video games and laugh at how unsophisticated we are today,” Bogost adds. “It's like going to the cineplex and every screen is showing a Michael Bay flick.”

Good call. Even though taking fun out of games while keeping them engaging is a very thin and delicate line. Which also leads to the question: can a game about such an issue as Israeli-Palestine conflict be "fun"? Or rather: should it be fun? Wouldn't that trivialize the horror and the casualties of the conflict? It certainly can be engaging, as PeaceMaker demonstrates. But then again, as I pointed out before, the decision for a certain form of game design always depends on the kind of agenda-game you're working on. Taking the fun out of games might work better for Bogost's newsgame approach and his focus on the mundane. The annoying issues these games are dealing with are mainly conveyed by annoying mechanics, which constitute the main message (actually that's the case with all games since they aren't a narrative medium – they, so far, just aren't suited to tell stories – but here this fact is put to the front).


Tabloid Gaming

With more and more Flash-based casual newsgames popping up on specially designed websites the nature of these games varies greatly. To stop the confusion and differentiate games like Game Show Network's The Prison Life: Paris from serious editorial efforts such as September 12 Zach Whalen over at Gameology introduced the newsgame subcategory tabloid game.Writes Zach:

GSN's goal isn't to offend or be provocative, however, or even to educate us about what happened. Rather, this game is news in the way that Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood is news -- something did actually happen, but the angle for covering it is fluffy with a hint of derision. I think GSN's games should still be considered news games, but perhaps its appropriate to think of them as a subset thereof. Let's call it "tabloid gaming." Not only do most of these GSN games rely on celebrities and sex, but like tabloid news, they also revolve around a hook or punchline and are more concerned with framing a reaction to something having happened rather than reporting what actually did happen. So even though these games aren't all individually impressive or interesting, I think if we take them as the same kind of rhetoric that tabloid journalism produces, we can agree that they are generally rhetorically effective. I guess I've had mixed feelings about them, though, because when I think of newsgaming, I want it to be on important topics that I care about. I want to play a game and then feel informed, persuaded, or even motivated. I want newsgames to be Frontline, not Inside Edition.

Although Ian Bogost has a point when he writes that that the examples of good newsgames we have seen thusfar editorialize more than they report Zach makes a necessary distinction to tell the different categories apart. Also I can see where's coming from when he talks about having mixed feelings about the tabloid approach. But I guess in a world where entertainment is sold as news and untalented Hollywood crackwhores accordingly get more attention than the erosion of civil liberties that development was probably inevitable. And now that serious gaming finally reaches the mainstream it would be a shame if it suffered an image drawback by being associated with this sort of games, so by introducing new subcategories it's possible to take countermeasures.-Jens 

Avoid Missing Vicious Volley For Presidency

Newsgames are the new black: After the NY Times now CNN enters the field of games commenting on the political landscape by releasing Presidential Pong. Return the verbal ball in a vicious rhetoric duel with your opponent, answer his attacks and sweep him off the political stage. While the game itself might have lost some of its appeal to the avid gamer after 35 years, it's still a good example how games can take an editorial stand by adding special superpowers based on the candidate's perceived strengths.John Edward's Two America's Power Up for example allows him to break the ball in two, both because he has said he sees America as divided, and because of the formidable asset of his wife. This allowed me to beat Mitt Romney but the Republicans had their revenge when Guiliani's Name Recognition Power Up drew the ball to his podium, just as his name and fame as "America's Mayor" draws attention. Hillary Clinton's special strength – The Clinton Family Power Up – gives her two podiums, one for her, the other for her husband, the ex-president while McCain Military Veteran Power Up makes the movement of the ball unpredictable on the opponent's side of the field. It's a simple but clever, satirical commentary game. One of my complaints though is that the candidates don't posses different special powers when presidential hopefuls of same party play against each other, e.g. Clinton having an advantage through the huge donations her campaign was able to secure while Obama's enjoys better support by bloggers. (And yes, it could be a tiny little bit more entertaining but then again the simple, iconic mechanics can probably reach the broadest audience possible – before your grandma discovered the Wii there was Pong!)