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An analysis of various games for social change, defined as a game that has a goal of social change or comments on society, with the goal of finding commonalities in design that may signify how to go about making a successful and popular game in the genre.

Johanna Hardner, Blogger

December 20, 2016

12 Min Read

Bogost opens Persuasive Games with a simple idea, that video games have the power to “disrupt and change fundamental attitudes about the world, leading to potentially significant social change.” This is precisely the goal of games that fall into the Games for Social Change genre. This genre is closely related to the non-profit organization that is known as Games for Change; Games for Social Change has been defined here in order to make sure it is understood that some games not included on Games for Change’s list are still a part of this genre. As such, this genre encompasses any game that has the goal of social change in mind or commentates on society. When we look at the games produced in this genre, three large categories emerge as subgenres: war, immigration, and interpersonal issues. The following is an analysis of various games in these categories.

The goal of looking at games in these genre is to understand what makes an entertaining and compelling Game for Social Change. Bogost argues that the power to make social change is not in the game content, but how it is presented, in a method he labels procedural rhetoric. We are moving into an age where these games are becoming increasingly more common as it is discovered that “despite the reputation games have earned for being dumb, mass entertainment, in the right hands they can make insightful political commentary (Smith).” This makes it more important to look into what makes an effective presentation for Games for Social Change. Comparing all of these games may reveal common design elements that could have led to their popularity. That said, these games are not being judged for their design choices; the fact that a developer took the time to use this median to express and create a discussion around these tough topics makes these games worthwhile.

There are so many video game titles out there that focus on war, in which you play the soldier and fight the good fight that it is easy to forget the context for the fighting. First person shooters define a large portion of gaming culture, but they make it easy to miss that not everyone in a war is a soldier. A few games have tried to instead portray the effects of war on civilians. One of the most popular is This War of Mine, in which you control a small group civilians as they attempt to survive a siege like scenario going on around them. Despite the game taking place in an unnamed location, the developers did extensive research into the situation they were portraying, primarily by communicating with civilians and others who have survived similar situations, like the Siege of Sarajevo (Totilo). The result is a dark and grim toned game, where every decision you make affects whether or not your people will survive another day. And even if you manage to survive, what shred of humanity will you have left? The game makes it easier to understand how hard living through conditions like these really is; as it becomes harder to keep going as the player, it becomes harder to see how any person put through conditions like this would not just give up. This War of Mine makes the experience so many gamers are used to seeing from behind a scope about the human condition and the limits to which people will go to survive.

Many other games in the war subgenre have taken a more direct approach, specifically focusing on the plight of a certain group under specific circumstances, which is equally as effective but at different goals. Both Endgame Syria and Syrian Journey focus on the Syrian plight. Similarly, Darfur is Dying focuses on the refugees of Darfur (“Darfur”). The main difference between these games and This War of Mine is their goal. These games are designed to raise specific awareness and get people to help out ongoing conflicts in parts of the real world. The creator of This War of Mine chose to keep the conflict generic in order to make the experience applicable to many different conflicts (Totilo). Games that focus on specific conflicts obviously excel at getting specific knowledge out there, but games like This War of Mine allow a more general commentary on human right concerns connected with war. They are more approachable as games and more likely to be played by someone just for the gameplay.

Not far away from the topic of war and refugees is the broader discussion of immigration policy in games. Papers, Please was created in order to create some empathy towards border guards. As a guard, you will certainly want to keep the terrorists out of your beloved country, but what about a woman following her husband across the border who lacks the proper documentation or someone who might be murdered if they remain in their country? You can afford to make a mistake here and there, but make too many or go too slow and you risk your paycheck. And if you do not make enough money, how will you feed and support your family? There is no commentary here really, nothing saying that you should have done it this way or that a risk is too big, just a simple goal of getting the player to implicitly understand that a job like this is never easy (Webster).

Other games in the immigration genre have been much more direct and educational about US immigration policy. ICED – I Can End Deportation has you play as an immigrating youth being chased by immigration officers, while in the game Homeland Guantanamos you play has an undercover journalist looking into the death of real life immigrant Boubacar Bah, who died while in custody of U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement.

Lastly worth mentioning in this genre is a somewhat odd addition: Smuggle Truck. As the creators explained, they wanted to start a dialogue about immigration despite it being mostly ignored in popular media, and thought the best approach to criticizing the difficulty of immigrating to the US was to satirize it (Owlchemy Labs). Whether this is factually the best method to discussing immigration policy is up for debate, but it is one of the most approachable.

The subgenre of games addressing issues of immigration offers a lot of commentary and knowledge on immigration policy and humanizes a lot of what is going on, but not all games are created equal in the sense of who they will reach. This subgenre has a lot of excellent offerings to education, but not much that people are liable to pick up out of curiosity. Papers, Please helps put the issue of immigration out there, but the game is very far removed from the modern day and the direct human rights issues that the others aim to address. Smuggle Truck is much more of an approachable game that might raise interest in what inspired it. Unfortunately, one of the main reasons the game may never launch the conversation on immigration its creators wanted is not the game’s fault. The game was rejected from the App Store; the only way the publisher could get the game on the platform was to release a reskinned Snuggle Truck with stuffed animals instead of immigrants.

Lastly is the broad category of interpersonal issues. This subgenre includes games that attempt to discuss labor and environmental issues, in addition to games that tackle physical or mental health issues, and anything where the conflict is largely a personal one. One of the most prominent titles both in the genre of games for change and among games that specifically address personal issues is Life is Strange. The game does an excellent job of portraying the problems of teenagers from one’s point of view and without trivializing them. Even if you do not happen to be a senior in high school with the power to rewind time and go to specific points of time via photographs like Max, the social problems of feeling alone, being bullied, and figuring out relationships are real issues that every youth deals with in some form. In fact, it is the ability to redo your choices that punctuates these choices difficulty, because even with this power it is rarely clear what the correct choice is, assuming there even is one, only that there are consequences no matter what. One scene in particular embodies this, in which one of your friends ends up standing on top of a building ready to jump after being extensively bullied. You are forced to talk her down without your powers as you recently overused them, so whatever you endeavor to do to save her is final for the rest of the game (Frank). When you arrive on that roof in Life Is Strange, it is real and immediate and heartbreaking and that is an experience that video games can create better than any other, save for having to go through an incident like this in real life.

Another prominent title in the interpersonal issues genre is Undertale, which takes almost the polar opposite approach as Life Is Strange. Similar to Life Is Strange, Undertale is a game where your choices affect the outcome in the form of multiple endings. But where everything in Life is Strange has ambiguous morality, it is pretty clear upon a play through which Undertale ending is the ideal one. However, Undertale is an important landmark for the genre because it has been one of the most popular indie games to date. It sneaks discussions of how to treat others into a fantasy realm with acclaimed mechanics and story that has huge attraction (Hughes). For a title that went over so well to be able to subtly influence opinions has huge power to show developers what can be achieved in this genre.

There is also Papo & Yo, the story of a young Brazilian boy, Quico, living with an abusive and alcoholic father. As Quico you must deal with what it means for something you love deeply to hurt you, both in a dream world that you play through and the real one. It is a simple, touching, and very game-based way of conveying how it feels to be raised by someone with addiction issues (Good).

Lastly, That Dragon, Cancer strikes a darker tone for the interpersonal issues genre, telling the story of two parents raising and losing a young child diagnosed with cancer through a visual novel. It tells the story of loss and cancer in a way only a game can. Even though the game is very much like listening to the creator’s story, it is the fact that you still have to play and move through it that conveys the feelings in a way that just listening does not, instead putting you there with the parents of young Joel (Machkovech).

If the aim is to make a title that would be widely popular, not just as an educational game, then considering only the games that had that goal in mind reveals a large commonality: generalization. This is a careful line to walk in this genre, because inherently the commentary has to be real and rooted in actual events enough to resonate with players to accomplish its goal. However, all of the seemingly popular titles on this list have taken the topic they are discussing and put it in the context of a fantasy world or in a completely unnamed version of reality. This allows for more creativity that allows the game aspect of the title to thrive and seems to mask the underlying discussion. Overall, the formula, as much as there can be one for a well-made game, is that you need to somewhat hide the topic at hand with game mechanics, but not so much that they distract from the story, with enough generalization that the topic applies to the most people while still feeling genuine.

While the norm may be that most games for social change are from indie developers and most mainstream games avoid discussion of social issues, it is not universally true. What’s interesting is that the mainstream games that break this pattern talk about issues in a very general way, perhaps because they fear being panned like Six Days in Fallujah if they speak more explicitly (Dinicola). Every mainstream game may not choose to have a dialogue, but it is becoming more common to in very broad terms, and this is ultimately how to make a game for social change that the majority of people will still consider worth playing and fun. Another advantage to commentary being generalized is the possibility of choice. Games can easily show both sides of the issue by simply presented the situation where the player has to make a choice themselves. This approach takes advantage of the inherent interactivity of games the most, though games should be allowed to comment directly on social issues without suffering the fate of Six Days in Fallujah (Dinicola).


Works Cited:

“About.” Games for Change. Games for Change, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge: MIT, 2007. Print.

“Darfur is Dying." Games for Change. Games for Change, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Dinicola, Nick. “The State of Social Commentary in Gaming.” PopMatters. PopMatters, 04 Sept. 2009. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.

“Endgame: Syria.” Games for Change. Games for Change, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Frank, Allegra. “How Life Is Strange Just Might save Lives - In-game and in Real Life.” Polygon. Vox Media, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Good, Owen. “Papo & Yo Is a Bittersweet Allegory of Growing Up With an Drug User.” Kotaku. Gizmodo Media Group, 03 June 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

“Homeland Guantanamos.” Games for Change. Games for Change, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Hughes, William. “Undertale Dares Players to Make a Mistake They Can Never Take Back.” The A.V. Club. Onion, 09 Dec. 2015. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

 “ICED – I Can End Deportation.” Games for Change. Games for Change, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Machkovech, Sam. “That Dragon, Cancer: A Game That Wrestles with Grief, Hope, and Faith.” Ars Technica. WIRED, 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Narcisse, Evan. “This War of Mine: The Kotaku Review.” Kotaku. Gizmodo Media Group, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Smith, Ed. “Computer Games Swap Shoot 'em Ups for Social Commentary.” The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.

“Smuggle Truck.” Smuggle Truck. Owlchemy Labs, 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

“Syrian Journey.” Games for Change. Games for Change, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Totilo, Stephen. “The Making Of A Very Different Kind of War Video Game.” Kotaku. Gizmodo Media Group, 08 Apr. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Webster, Andrew. “Immigration as a Game: ‘Papers, Please’ Makes You the Border Guard.” The Verge. Vox Media, 14 May 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

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