Edit: I've changed the article just a bit to include a section on making games more accessible to people with disabilities as well as making games that help people cope with disabilities
Games don’t have the best image in the world today. They’re branded as toys, bad influences, evil, and they are definitely not as respected as other mediums of expressions. However, I believe there will be a change of the public’s perception when it comes to games if we set our sights high enough. Many games and game development companies are already setting their sights higher. All we need now is for commercial games to catch on. So how much chance do we have of commercial games becoming more than they currently are? I’ll be discussing the chances of just that based on reviewing survey results, looking at games that have a big impact, and what some commercial games get right.
In order to get a better picture of how exactly people’s lives are affected by games and in what ways I made a Google survey. I asked people to participate in it via Twitter and Facebook. On this survey I asked people’s occupation, what their favorite game currently is, what their ideal game is, if games have had a noticeable impact on their lives and how. I received 23 responses and while it isn’t enough data to come up with a ratio of people whose lives have been affected to the amount that haven’t been affected by games, I can go into the vast variety of reasons that games have affected people’s lives. 22 people said that their lives were affected by games in some way. What ways they were affected differed vastly. A vast majority of them gained social, vocabulary, and reading skills from games. Others were drawn to a career in game development. Some families were drawn closer together because of games. A few were helped to forget that they were extremely ill or break them out of their shell. One, almost universal effect was bringing friends together in a way that would forever become a fond memory. Not all the responses in regards to a game’s effect were life changing, but they don’t have to be to be meaningful.
A meaningful game whose aim is to drastically affect you in some way, influence a change in society, stir such strong emotions that long after they still reside when the player quits, forever a part of you, is rare. They’re almost non-existent, but they are out there and they can change your life. Take for example a well-known board game in the game development community, Train by Brenda Brathwaite. In this board game you and two other people compete to get people from one place on the map to another. This is accomplished through the use of a train boxcar which you use to carry all the people. You also have various actions that you can use to obstruct the other players. While the concept has been seen before, the end, where you find out what the destination was, is where Train hits you. If you reach the goal before the other players you not only win, but find out where you took all those people, Auschwitz. An article on Escapist Magazine wrote of one instance in which Brenda Brathwaite took Train for a public audience to play. Upon revealing the destination one woman became so emotionally touched that she burst out into tears and left the conference room.(1) One of the great subtleties about Train is how differently people will play, if at all, after they’ve learned the destination. Games of this caliber are rare to bringing up such a devastating event as the Holocaust; some will just improve lifesaving skill.
During 2001-2003 Rosser JC Jr and his researchers conducted a study about video games improving the reflexes and overall skill in laparoscopic surgery. (2.a - pg. 154) They compiled the results of the study in an article called The Impact of Video Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century. 33 participants were recruited and were submitted to tests and skill before and after they played 3 video games that were chosen specifically for this study. (2.a - pg. 154) Overall the 33 participants scored 33% better on a skill test called Top Gun. (2.b) Participants that played more than 3 hours a week scored 42% better. Many surgeons now play video games that require precise movements similar to those used in laparoscopic surgery in order to keep their ability and reflexes high.
Along those same lines is a game called Capable Shopper created by Jennifer Ash, Zach Barth, Peter Mueller, other students, and the Adult Services Division in Albany. This game helps people with disabilities gain confidence and ability in doing everyday things. In Capable Shopper there are two screens, one with a list of dishes they can prepare and another which gives them a view of a grocery store. The player navigates through the grocery store finding each ingredient they need. The game was so successful that they were asked to install the game and its necessary components in a permanent installation at the Center for Disability Service’s Adult Services Division. (3) Making it easier for people with disabilities to gain skills and confidence in necessary activates through a game might not be a mainstream commercial success, but does that really matter if it can help someone? If you don’t have a disability or know someone with one you might not be able to answer that question. However, how about a game that can help cure a deadly disease?
AIDS has had many breakthroughs to help fight it, but one problem has troubled AIDS researchers for years, what a protease looks like. Foldit, a game designed by Seth Cooper, is a puzzle game where players try to change shapes in order to make a specific stable protein. The more stable your protein is the more points you get. Foldit is similar to a program called Rosetta which relies on distributed computing to run thousands of different scenarios for proteins. (4) Where Foldit differs is using players instead of distributive computers to find the most stable proteins. Utilizing the Foldit community, Firas Khatib from the University of Washington, entered the community into a contest called CASP (Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Predicition) (4). Initially, the solutions the community came up with didn’t really work. However, after Khatib stepped in to randomize the starting proteins the community starting coming up with some of the best answers for protein structures in the competition. (4) To find more about Foldit, you can read this article or visit the Foldit website where you can also download the game, here.
Obviously, I don’t expect every game to aim as high as affecting AIDS research, but affecting someone’s life is not as difficult as it sounds. Whether the change is as small as getting your players to care about the character or as big as breaking someone out of their shell, making games that mean something is not only possible, but something companies should be aiming for. Games should no longer be looked upon as children’s toys and shouldn’t have goals of selling millions of copies or gaining enough interest to warrant making a sequel. Instead they should be a meaningful part of someone’s life and should help people coup and understand a problem or at least face it.
Will commercial game companies take this path? Sadly, probably not because let’s face it. Companies that make games are mostly making games so that they can make money. Few of them have goals that go beyond making money. There is however a game company that is striving for more, that is making sure that when you play their game you don’t just have something to occupy 30 minutes of your time while you wait for such and such to happen. The company thatgamecompany have made such popular games as Flower and flOw that have had a big impact on how games are made. TGC's goals as a company, found on their front page, are to push the boundaries of interactive entertainment and provide meaningful and enriching experiences that inspire their players. Their current project, Journey is no different. Their aim is to enforce the wonder of another human being instead of focusing on the powers and abilities of your character in game. (5) Will Journey accomplish this goal? I can’t say for sure, I hope so, but what’s great about TGC is that they’re aiming for something more than just a piece of entertainment. They try to change people’s lives or even the medium of expression they’re using, video games.
There’s a side to this argument that mainstream commercial companies should really be looking at. About 54 million people in America alone could be buying and playing games but because of a lack of support from game developers and hardware manufacturers these people are unable to. (6) Disabled individuals have a wide range of physical and mental disabilities that disable them from playing games. Take for example Chuck Bittner who is a quadriplegic, but regardless of his disabilities is a huge fan of video games. He can play games such as Brink because it allows him to remap the keys since he is unable to use a controller as intended. However, Red Dead Redemption does not allow him to remap the controls to the point that he is able to play the game. It simply does not give the player the ability to fully customize how the player interacts with the game to fit their need or play style. (7) The amount of financial gain alone is worth taking the time to implement customizable controls. Customizable controls aren’t even the easiest addition that can aid people with disabilities play games. Subtitles that show audio cues and dialogue are easy to add and can help the millions of people who are deaf and would otherwise miss the entire audio portion of a video game. Commercial games don’t need to do a lot to make a difference in whether or not someone can play a game. They don’t even need to put a lot of effort in to have a big impact on someone’s life.
Looking at the list of answers I got from people about their ideal game, not all of them talk about a game that changes their lives. So of course there will always be a place for companies to make pieces of entertainment purely for entertainment value. Not every game company will turn into TGC and actually I’d prefer every company to make their own goals, but hopefully those goals turn out to be more than “Let’s sell 5 million copies” or “Let’s get enough publicity to make 2 more sequels.” Companies don’t even have to change much because a lot of games already have a big impact as they are. What’s important to focus on is quality, not quantity and with that life changing games will come. Some companies, like TGC, are already going in that direction and I believe many more will come in some form or another. You can have an impact on someone’s life in big or small ways, but what’s important is that you made a game that is meaningful to someone.
You might not have played a game that affected your life in a meaningful way or even in a noticeable way, but I imagine something that you read, watched, or experienced did have an impact. If other forms of expression can have an effect, why not games? Games are the only form of expression that requires the player to interact with it. There is something extremely powerful in that requirement and as game designers we need to tap into it to not only improve the image of games, but also improve how meaningful they are.
Bryan Di Fatta
As well as everyone else who participated in my online survey.