How So Serious?

This week’s topic was serious games. I have to admit I was greatly intrigued by the games we played (Darfur is Dying, Sweatshop) and readings but I remain decidedly unconvinced by both.

First, the readings: “The Effects of a Serious Game on Role-Taking and Willingness to Help” by Wei Peng, Mira Lee, & Carrie Heeter and “Political Internet games: Engaging an audience” by Joyce Neys & Jeroen Jansz.

I found two underlying assumptions that seemed problematic: the issue of technological determinism and the over-reliance on intentionality. Neys and Jansz do allude to the problem of technological determinism briefly and in their last paragraph. In spite of this, I found both their article and the Peng, Lee & Heeter one to be significantly slanted towards a technologically determinist argument. The simple fact that the research question is geared towards investigating the effect that serious games have on political engagement and social change elucidates the fact that the focus is on the medium itself. Granted, both articles concede that the self-selection and control aspects of their respective projects could be influential in the positive results they saw in regards to the newfound social/political engagement of the players. However, I would argue that these limitations themselves are where the more compelling research question can be found. It is more indicative of the usefulness of serious games to prove that these incite politically apathetic gamers into social change than to prove that serious games can make already politically-minded people more interested in a particular cause.

Similarly, the argument that game playing provides greater engagement than text-reading seems like a reductive approach to differing styles of learning. The Peng, Lee & Heeter study attempts to place the aspect of interactivity as a fundamental tool in greater engagement with social change, but it is conceivable that people less adept at (or even less interested in) games will find this interactivity to be, in fact, a hindrance in their process of political engagement.

The problematic I found with the intentionality assumption is two-fold. In the first part, the studies rely on the assumption that the intended effect of the game programmers will undoubtedly transmit onto the players. This bias might be understandable due to the fact that most of the games studied are based on humanitarian causes. It would be unlikely that anyone (sociopaths excluded) playing Darfur is Dying would come out wanting to make the situation worse. Nonetheless, research on the effects of politically charged games that take on issues where opposing camps are more polarized might elucidate the extent to which the intended effect is subverted depending on gamers’ preconceptions.

The second part of the intentionality assumption is the inverse of the first part. Both articles presume that engagement with political or social change is solely done through games that decidedly set out to do so. However, it is conceivable that social change might arise from games whose primary purpose is not to educate on a particular issue. At the very least, social assumptions might be questioned which would lead to politically divergent opinions. For instance, an adventure rescue game where the player is allowed to choose the gender of their character and that of the partner they wish to rescue might be instrumental in breaking paradigms about gender norms and sexual pairings, even if the explicit purpose of the game is not to do so.

Now on to the games.

Darfur is Dying was instrumental in reinforcing my doubts stemming from the intentionality assumption within the readings. I understood what the game was intending with the different goals being based on real life-or-death situations faced by people in Darfur. However, I was already aware of these realities and the actions I could take to produce some effect from afar. I remain unsure of how effective the game would be to someone who is unaware or uninterested in these problems around the world.

SweatshopPlaying Sweatshop was elucidating in other aspects. It was particularly interesting that the character we play is not in fact the factory workers but the trainee manager in charge of them. For the intended political engagement of the game, being the manager might not have been the most effective choice of character. Are we supposed to take away that sweatshop workers’ conditions are harsh and therefore something needs to change or could we just assume that these workers have to work hard in order to meet the needs of the capitalist system? Given the choice of character identification, I would assume that the answer to the question lies more heavily on the gamer’s own values than on the game itself. Naturally the cute scared little kid and the mean heartless boss man are meant to drive the game’s point home, but these are such thin caricatures that any gamer who wishes to can easily disregard them.

In Sweatshop and to a lesser extent in Darfur is Dying, the issue of automatization was also problematic. If the articles’ research attempts to point out that it is the increased cognitive requirement of games that provides opportunities for social engagement, the fact that the games are designed in a straightforward manner might undermine this advantage. Each level in Sweatshop is meant to introduce some new complication to the assembly line. However, the repeating nature of these complications and their straightforward mastery do little to elucidate social realities and remain simple gameplay obstacles. This problem is somewhat differently played out in Darfur is Dying. The immediacy of the at times unexpected complications of the game is more effective at making the harsh social realities visible (e.g. when randomly a tribe raids the camp you are in and takes all the food). However, as opposed to Sweatshop, where the failure to fulfill the requirements of the factory means the game is over (and therefore the stakes are high), the death/game-over correspondence in Darfur is Dying undermines the intended impact. Death in games is integrated into the gameplay so that it might not register as a momentous occasion. The fact that the game allows you to retry scenarios if failed and that it gives you another character when yours dies is consistent with internal gaming constructs of death, but this fact also undermines the reality basis that the game is attempting to convey.

In spite of my misgivings, I remain intrigued by the topic of serious games and their purported uses, but I believe the current prototypes and existing research is insufficient.

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