I’m from India, and have been conducting a study about the Indian persuasive game market. As a researcher who is exclusively looking at the persuasive/serious games genre, my preliminary research has revealed that persuasive games are not so well known in India and there is a large research gap. Considering that the consumption of video games is rapidly increasing in India, I thought it would be a great opportunity during my master’s thesis to research if persuasive games can affect the beliefs of the players in India and if they can prompt players to think more about a widespread problem in society.
Selected game and my research process.
For my research, I decided to use a game called Missing. It revolves around the story of a young girl that is abducted by sex traffickers in India. The aim of the game is to draw attention towards the plight of sex trafficking victims in India and to generate empathy in players. Since India is a major hub of sex trafficking, and the game pertains to this issue, Missing was a perfect match for my research. I have been working in the Netherlands so I flew to India, asked participants to play this game, and conducted an in-depth semi structured interview. With a small yet diverse selection of 6 participants (N=6), I believe that some of my findings can help persuasive/serious game developers in producing games that will meet their end goals.
As with any study, there are limitations with the study I conducted which needs to be addressed. The major limitations are as follows:
Sampling from middle class families.
Most of the participants recruited for this study come from the upper/lower middle-class families. Hence, there can be a correlation between the knowledge that participants demonstrated about the given subject and already high literacy rates in that group. The middle classes are growing in India so this is an important demographic to study, for their political and social weight.
All of the interviews were conducted in Hindi language and, while I would consider myself relatively fluent in English, it is important to notice that Hindi and English are vastly different and some expressions used in Hindi do not translate well into English. This can come into play during the transcription and data analysis process where some data may get slightly affected due to the difference between the two languages.
The participants recruited for this study were more informed and opinionated about the subject presented in the game than those who are living below the poverty line and may not have access to higher education. It could be because the literacy rates are higher in the Indian middle class than those in lower echelons of the society.
The level of realism in the game provoked a lot of discussion among the participants. There was debate about whether the events of the game were true to life. Regardless of the accuracy, this debate distracted them from engaging meaningfully with the game's messages. This implies that persuasive game developers need to contemplate the level of realism presented in the games they are planning to develop. It also appears that participants are much more likely to ask themselves critical questions regarding the level of realism presented in the game and if it truly reflects a real-life scenario.
Cultural traits presented in game.
My study revealed that adding certain cultural traits or aspects in the game can help enhance the desired outcome of a persuasive game. In the game Missing, the majority of the participants in my study reacted positively to spatial immersion elements that reflected of Indian culture and the infrastructure commonly found in Indian cities. One of the participants even exclaimed, in their words, “the game is made for us”. I believe that adding cultural elements of a country or a society in level design and animation can lead to more player participation and engagement. Game developers need to take a note of this because players do notice these traits in the game and can react positively towards them. As an example, you can see an image below from the game Missing and how there is a very traditional looking Indian truck parked right beside a group of buildings with a construction style that is often seen in major Indian urban centers.
While the term “research” itself is rather ambiguous, my study suggests that persuasive game developers do need to commit to a greater level of research during pre-development of the game to explore what game design philosophy suits them the best. This also includes doing extensive research on the topic they wish to address with their game. The game Missing fell short on portraying the true face of a trafficking victim in India. All of the participants in this study had a preconceived notion that victims of sex trafficking in India are females; however, the government of India’s statistics contradict that and suggest that almost of half of the victims are male. For a game that focuses on highlighting the condition of sex trafficking victims in India, the developers could have used their platform to challenge these pre-existing beliefs within the Indian society and bring forth a new piece of information that the community is not widely aware of. On top of that, glitches and bugs in the game also affected the player experience during this study; therefore, there is a need for more in-depth research looking into the extent at which bugs and glitches can affect the messaging of a persuasive game.
What do persuasive game developers need to know?
Changing behaviors or beliefs through serious/persuasive games is a painstaking task; however, with proper research and planning, even developers with limited funds can produce a game that is effective in reaching its end goals. Things such as cultural traits of a society cannot be ignored as they may induce a positive response from players to make them feel connected with not just the spatial elements of the game but also with the characters themselves. Using cultural traits in the game and level design process can help persuasive game developers connect with their players, leading to a potential increase in the efficacy of such games. Many of the participants in my study showed a positive inclination towards level design elements that showcased typical Indian streets with shops and businesses made with traditional construction design. One of the participants even exclaimed that “the game is made for us”.
While developers are often short on funds to produce such games, it is clear that when making games focusing on complex social issues, inexpensive methods such as qualitative/quantitative surveys can help developers to understand the point of views and opinions of prospective players of the game even before any development takes place. These perspectives can then be included in the design process and, if combined with reliable and factual data, the finished game may have a more profound impact on the beliefs of those who play it.
For persuasive game developers, it is prudent to focus on the design process of the game and the target audience instead of only focusing on the issue they wish to represent. A balanced game design with a focus on user experience can lead to more player engagement which may ultimately increase the likelihood of the game impacting the core beliefs of players.
I would like to thank my thesis supervisor Thomas Buijtenweg and Dr. Mata Haggis-Burridge for their invaluable feedback during this research process.