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New social issue games tackle education, big pharma

Subaltern Games' No Pineapple Left Behind and Twice Circled's Big Pharma are two new games that represent a humorous, provocative approach to social issues.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

October 24, 2014

8 Min Read

Games are often one of the best places to play with ecosystems, rules, and cause and effect -- which is why they have long been incredibly effective avenues to educate and provoke critique of the real world's systems. Whether you call them newsgames, serious games, "games for change" or something else, the broadening audience of adult players and the numerous platforms on which those players can now be reached is helping sow some new ideas. In an environment where games like Sweatshop, about the ethics of clothing manufacture, or Phone Story, about the human cost of device demand, can actually be stricken from the storefronts they aim to critique, the social and political issue game seems more necessary than ever -- although funding and marketing them outside of the cozy but often-clueless world of nonprofits remains a challenge. Subaltern Games' No Pineapple Left Behind will need a major push to make its funding goal on Kickstarter. The lively-looking simulation interrogates government-mandated, teach-by-numbers educational approaches that rely on testing benchmarks and often ignore students' diverse and inconvenient human needs. Former teacher Seth Alter was motivated to develop the game after a series of discouraging experiences in his teaching work. "I taught special education, but my kids were expected to follow the same curriculum and behavior plan as everyone else, which involved, among other things, literacy and the ability to sit still on their own volition," he explains. After numerous frustrating conversations with administrators, it dawned on him: "The actual purpose of my classroom was a statistical matter," he says. "Since the school budget was determined by the school's grade, and that grade was the average of classroom grades, if one classroom had all of the 'bad' students, the overall average went up; what actually happened in that classroom was largely of secondary concern." These and other experiences led to a revelation: "As long as I treat my students as numbers, everything is fine and I don't have to worry about much; but as soon as I think of them as people, I have hardly any resources for them," he says. "[No Pineapple Left Behind] was born right around then."

"What better way to express the de-humanizing nature of a stats-based institution than parody it in a game simulation, where everything has to be rendered down to numbers?"

In the world of No Pineapple Left Behind, teachers cast spells on students that turn them into pineapples -- as objects in the classroom rather than children, the pineapple has no unique needs. The spells teachers can cast depends on how much energy they have in a week, an amount directly related to their salary. This relatively-simple balance of resources intends to quickly illustrate the challenges schools face, Alter explains. "We want the player to realize that there are two basic strategies: they can either keep a clutch of skilled, well-paid teachers (and risk bankrupting the schools) or continuously burn out, fire, and re-hire cheap and inexperienced teachers," he says. "It's accordingly implied that neither strategy would not be possible or especially necessary in a unionized public school." Suppose, for example, a child named David comes to school wearing makeup. As the principal, you can choose to welcome and accept his personal expression -- "but then you need to be on the phone with the parents, and the parents of other students, and implement an anti-bullying policy, and actually enforce the anti-bullying policy; and all of that costs money," he suggests. "Or, you could stamp on that shit and turn David back into a pineapple." Why pineapples, incidentally? They're inherently strange-looking with no anthropomorphic qualities, and are associated with very few cultural tropes ("though I've recently learned that they are slang for both grenades and pot."). "We wanted to pick something that was clearly not human," he says. "They are a reference to a question on the New York State Regents 2012 test for eighth graders that made national headlines." [You can check out the questions here (PDF), and a video of Subaltern Games attempting to answer them.] Alter has no specific game development background (aside from a Civ5 total-conversion mod he made in 2011). He became a teacher directly from college, and is trying his hand at indie development for the first time, after noticing that games could be one ideal route for expressing some of his views. Big Pharma "Charter schools rely on quantifiable systems: students receive numerical grades for everything, and teacher assessments can similarly be rendered into blocks of statistics, and everything eventually comes down to money," he says. "What better way to express the de-humanizing nature of a stats-based institution than parody it in a game simulation, where everything has to be rendered down to numbers?" Tim Wicksteed has been a hobbyist developer since his teens, up til launching his studio Twice Circled in 2013. His team is developing Big Pharma, a game about the pharmaceutical industry, launching on PC in May 2015 with Mac and Linux versions planned. The studio's first game, Ionage "failed... because it had a weak theme," he says. "For my next game, I was desperate to engage [with players] before they even sat down to play. The pharmaceutical industry theme does this. Everyone has taken drugs and everyone has been to hospital. We all know what drugs are, but very few of us know how they're made. It's really the perfect backdrop for a game like this."

"The more research I conduct and the more I learn about the [pharmaceutical] industry, the more I feel a duty to make this game right."

Wicksteed and team didn't set out expressly to "inform, empower and change" -- the idea was for a Tycoon style game, just an addition to the popular simulation genre. "I started out thinking 'a game about making drugs sounds cool!' But the more research I conduct and the more I learn about the industry, the more I feel a duty to make this game right," says Wicksteed, "to fairly portray both the people who work in this industry as well as those who are hurt by it." According to Wicksteed, at the heart of Big Pharma, is the question, "are the goals of running a profitable business ethically compatible with the goal of making people healthy -- We don't try to answer the question, just ask it." In the pharmaceutical business, says Wicksteed, major clinical trials to prove the safety and efficacy of drugs don't have to be published if the drug manufacturer, which sponsors the study, doesn't like the results. The industry's patent systems let companies maintain monopolies on particular treatments for up to 20 years -- "during which they can effectively hold the lives of patients to ransom, charging them whatever they want," says Wicksteed. "Then you have the moral grey areas which result when you try to align the goals of running a profitable business with those of making people healthy," Wicksteed explains. "Life-saving drugs are shunned in favor of ones which treat (but importantly do not cure) chronic illnesses; companies are incentivized to simply copy their competitors and tweak the formulas rather than create new cures; and treatments for rich Westerners are prioritized over those sorely needed by the poorest communities around the world." "These last ones are some of my favorites because they sound horrific but strangely understandable," he continues. "If you think about these companies on a human scale, you can imagine the people working for them, under intense pressure from their boss to hit their targets, and when you put yourself in their shoes can you really, I mean really say you would do things differently? That's the question Big Pharma asks of its players." In the game, players can run clinical trials with "gagging clauses" in place which allow them to pull results or stop trials early to exploit statistical anomalies that make their drug look good. Players and AI competitors race for patents that lead to market monopolies, but can also evade patents through subtle formula tweaks. Players can also change the strength of drugs so that they alleviate symptoms but don't eliminate causes, meaning lower revenue per product -- but demand is maintained. "It'd be remiss not to include a 'Cure for Cancer', but it's going to be very difficult to achieve," Wicksteed adds. "It'll require an incredible amount of money to obtain all of the ingredients and machines necessary, but it'll also be a complex puzzle to solve logistically based on how the drug synthesis mechanics work." "One of the more interesting learning outcomes should come from the scenario editor. This will allow players to tweak the parameters of the simulation and then play a game to see their effect," he adds. "Imagine a world where pharma companies were taxed heavily but grants given to incentivize new research. Or one where gagging clauses are banned by law. In Big Pharma you can see the effects these policies might have for yourself." Wicksteed hopes the game gets people educated and thinking about the issues. "I'm trying to keep the game as neutral as possible. I want to make certain things possible and I want to represent the consequences of these things as realistically as I can," he says. "That way, players can explore the issues and make up their own mind about how one might ethically navigate this landscape." Subaltern Games' Seth Alter says that provocative issue games "are working against the majority of educational technology, which mostly exists to reinforce neo-liberal education reform... most educational technology products are basically neo-liberal projects, so we anticipate some ruffled feathers."

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