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Some Thoughts on Making a Very Serious Game

Choice: Texas is an interactive fiction game about abortion access in Texas. Working on it has me considering what it means for a game to be "serious" both as a designer and a player.

About a year ago, the news cycle had come around to the abortion access debate again, and something about the rhetoric of “choosing” presented as if the particular choice of whether or not to continue a pregnancy was equal for all women struck me as particularly strange. Those seeking abortion have their choices shaped by factors ranging from where they live to how much money they have to the hours at the local clinic – if there even is such a place. The number of factors at play reminded me of the character building process in many roleplaying games. And, so, the seed of an idea took hold: What if there was a roleplaying game about abortion access?

Abortion is far from a playful subject. But, many games tackle serious issues – war simulation games, of course, are among the oldest games. Games for education – both in primary school subjects like history, English, and spelling, and for job training in a variety of industries – started in the Oregon Trail era but are still thriving. Perhaps more relevant, though, are a number of recent games which have worked to address significant social problems while managing to be both engaging and emotionally wrenching.  Shay Pierce recently posted here on Gamasutra about the importance of Papers, Please. Spent, produced by McKinney and funded by Urban Ministries of Durham, invites players to navigate the financial difficulties faced by those living at or below the poverty line as they struggle to maintain employment and cover housing, food, and other necessities. Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia is an autobiographical game about hormone replacement therapy. Depression Quest is an “interactive (non)fiction game” about struggling with depression. And, perhaps most notably, Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life, which won three Independent Games Festival awards, is ostensibly a “retail simulation,” but forces players to contend with the difficulties of attaining work/life balance for those working overtime to make ends meet.

All of these games have achieved some success and have been covered in various review outlets. However, for at least some players, these games seem to question what games can and should be. When Depression Quest was submitted to Steam Greenlight, for example, a number of gamers were outraged. How outraged? Zoe Quinn, one of the game’s creators, received rape and death threats via e-mail. And, some of the comments on Greenlight weren’t much kinder. The idea that a game should have an educational purpose that put at odds with players’ abstract notions of fun was taken as an offense. I can think of no other medium on which such boundary policing would make sense. Most of us have read novels, watched films, heard songs that brought us to tears. I know I have. I have also learned a great deal from media across all these forms, including games.

Games are particularly provocative because they promise experiential knowledge – whether or not they provide that is debatable, but the promise is tantalizing. That educational potential is tantalizing both when a child manages to steer his car to safety based on his experience playing Mario Kart or when someone who has played a game about depression, or poverty, or hormone replacement therapy comes away with a deeper sense of sympathy, or even empathy. It is that goal of experiential knowledge transformed into emotional resonance that has driven me to continue pursuing that game about abortion. The game has changed since it was the seed of an idea. It’s an interactive fiction game now, for one thing. And, it’s not my very own pet project now; I’m working with a team of great people, and the game is already better for it. For the past six months, I’ve been collaborating with writer and activist Allyson Whipple. For the past two, we’ve been working with illustrator Grace Jennings. That “game about abortion,” now called Choice: Texas as it focuses on the experiences of women in Texas, has a new sense of urgency in the wake of increased abortion restrictions and clinic closures in the state.

As we continue to work on it, we have found ourselves asking, again and again, if incidents are too traumatic or too grisly to include. But, I have played games in which I watched bodies disintegrated by explosions, ripped to shreds by animals, and impaled on spikes. I have, through games, been stalked, been assaulted, been murdered, been hit by a car, and fallen off a cliff. By comparison, the daily traumas women face should pale in comparison. And, regardless, life pulls no punches, neither should the games that try to make sense of it.

You can learn more about Choice: Texas here, or contribute to our IndieGoGo campaign here.

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