How Shooty Skies dev Mighty Games aims to do serious games right

Contributor Katherine Cross chats with the team at Australian indie Mighty Games about their new serious games branch, Mighty Serious, and the ethics of making F2P games about real-world issues.

It continues to be a busy time for the Australian game industry, with more marquee initiatives coming out of its state-level governments that leave me cautiously optimistic about its future.

Not long ago I talked about a notable funding stream for local devs in Adelaide, South Australia; now Victoria’s back in its usual spotlight with a state government minister announcing a partnership with Mighty Games (one of the nation’s biggest indies) to develop a “game-changing project to combat homophobia,” according to an October press release.

Mighty Games (Shooty Skies, Charming Keep) has partnered with Victoria University and the Victorian AIDS Council to produce a game that promises to give all players insight into the lives of queer and intersex Australians.

For now, the specs on the project are being kept mum, but it’s part of Mighty Games’ serious games initiative--aptly called Mighty Serious--and it appears to be an empathy game with gamification aspects. Both types of games have met with criticism, so it’ll be interesting to see if Mighty manages to add anything new to the discussion. 

Notably, I recently spoke to Mighty's CEO and technical director about the studio’s future, gamification, and how to ethically handle microtransactions as an indie dev:

Katherine Cross: Thanks for speaking with us. What can you tell us about the app you're working on with the Victorian AIDS Council and Victoria University? Is it designed to engage serophobia specifically or larger issues surrounding the LGBT community in Australia?

Al Gibb, Mighty Serious CEO: VAC began its life specifically as an HIV and AIDS support and advocacy group, but its mission has expanded over the years and now it’s also one of Australia’s leading organizations advocating for LGBTI+ acceptance. It still does amazing work around HIV, of course, but their role on this project is to share their wealth of experience from providing counselling and support services to LGBTI+ Australians.

They’re the folks on the ground, if you like, the ones out there in the community, seeing the real impact of queer- and transphobia on the people they help. That’s what they are bringing to this project: hands-on experience of the way things are. VAC are only one of our partners however. Victoria University supported the project by providing us with an amazing research report on the current state of LGBTI+ discrimination in Victoria and also the groups most likely to enact these discriminations.  Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria also supported the research and the workshop. Then there’s us, the ones who know how to make games!

"Our goal is to keep players in the game long enough to change behaviors. If we keep them in even longer, the thinking is these behaviors can flip into habits, and ultimately the players can take these habits out of the screen environment and into the real world."

So, the three of us, VAC, VU, and Mighty Serious, backed up by the resources of the Victorian Government, are currently in the prototyping stage, trying out ideas and seeing what works. Our overall vision is a fun interactive experience that presents everyday situations that LGBTI+ people might experience. The goal is to make players think about things from other people’s perspective, and hopefully get them talking, stimulating conversation with friends and family.

The press release for the funding announcement about Mighty Serious came out at the height of the same sex marriage postal survey’s bitterly acrimonious campaign. Have these last few tumultuous months shaped what you want to do at all? Did it give you insight into problem areas that you might've missed before?

Gibb: Yes, that was interesting timing. From a business perspective, it was incredibly useful to witness examples of prejudice thrust in our faces every day. It gave us a lot to think about, and lots of material to potentially work into the game.

Personally, though, it was awful. We’ve are very proud to have the opportunity to work on this project, aiming to reduce the various LGBTI+ phobias in the community, and here’s this campaign that seemed to be actively trying to increase it. There’s reason to hope, though: the result of the vote was positive, and the images of Australia celebrating the passage of marriage equality into law was amazing.

I suppose there are positives and negatives, really. Unfortunately this game sadly still has a reason to exist, but there’s also reason to hope, and to believe that change can happen.

Gamification is not without its critics, myself included. One of the biggest issues I have with it is that it incentivizes "good" behavior without actually teaching people how or why a given behavior may be desirable. You do a thing not because you learned how to morally reason, but because it gets you the gold coin, in essence. How would you tackle that issue in this forthcoming project?

Gibb: I wish there was a simple answer to this.

The area of “serious games” or “games for change” is still a pretty new concept, certainly in Australia. We have lots of promising examples that show it can work, but you’re right, basic game mechanics don’t always achieve long term outcomes. This is why we’re aiming for long term habitual belief and value change through self determination theory. We are working with an amazing behavioral psychologist advising in this area.

It could start with a basic rewards system that you mention, but our goal is to keep players in the game long enough to change behaviors.  If we keep them in even longer, the thinking is these behaviors can flip into habits, and ultimately the players can take these habits out of the screen environment and into the real world.  It’s a big ask I know, but we’re going to give it our best shot.    

This is a big step for "serious games" in Australia, with a state government minister touting your work and that of several other Victorians. What's on the horizon for serious games in Australia?

Gibb: There’s a reason why this project isn’t just being tackled by the original Mighty Games, why we founded Mighty Serious to create it. We don’t plan for this to be a one-off. We’re putting together a permanent team to work on future projects after this debut is complete.

So there’s that on the horizon: more titles from us! Serious games is growing at 16 percent per annum which is twice the rate of the entertainment sector as more organixations look at new innovative ways to tackle problems.  There are heaps of problems out there, not just across governments, and people are looking at serious games and gamification to move the dial on these problems more than it’s been moved before.  At Mighty we are attracted to projects with a social change agenda, but serious games are being used more and more in education for example.  As games is the medium of this century more companies are looking at games thinking to reach their customers.

There’s a movement out there, a lot of people trying new ideas and talking to each other about what works and what doesn’t. The pool of knowledge is growing, and collectively we’re only going to get better at this. There will be more serious games and applied gamification, and they will get better at achieving their goals, affecting behavior and raising awareness of important issues. We’re really excited to be embracing this so fully by founding a whole new studio in this field.

Obviously, the biggest gaming controversy of the season involves microtransactions and lootboxes. While the latter in particular are proving to be dismally unpopular, I've also heard from more than a few developers that they want to find ethical ways of monetizing their game and avoid appearing to be the "bad guys." Given Mighty Games' history, what are your thoughts on F2P? How do you do right by the players while being paid fairly for your work?

Ben Britten, technical director at Mighty Games: What we’ve always tried to do with IAPs is that old Google line: “Don’t be evil.” You can do that a bunch of different ways, but we approach it with a few specific steps.

First, fit the IAPs smoothly into the game, so they’re not in-your-face and intrusive. Second, make them truly optional, so you can enjoy the game just fine and have a good time without feeling forced to buy something. Finally, make them something that the player will actually want, something that adds value to their play experience, so afterwards they’ll feel good about buying it and feel like they made a good choice.

Yeah, I know, that’s a tricky balance to find. How do you make IAPs feel worthwhile and good value while also making it clear they’re optional, all without intruding too much into the player’s game experience? We’re still perfecting the answer to that question.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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