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Q&A: Ruiz Talks Finding Zoe Anti-Violence Game

MTVu-sponsored social activism game Darfur is Dying has caused quite a stir, and Gamasutra talks in detail to lead designer Susana Ruiz on her new project, <a href="http://www.metrac.org/replay/index.html

Game Developer, Staff

June 18, 2007

8 Min Read

MTVu-sponsored social activism game Darfur is Dying has caused quite a stir - and lead designer Susana Ruiz has now revealed her latest project, RePlay: Finding Zoe, a game encouraging children to report domestic abuse. The Flash-based educational game that "promotes positive interpersonal relationships aimed at children 8 to 14" is a collaborative initiative led by Ruiz’s Take Action Games and the Canada-based Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC). Just prior to attending, the fourth annual Games For Change Conference in New York City, Take Action Games' Susana Ruiz and Andrea Gunraj of METRAC were able to provide some insight on the game's production. Can you tell us a little about RePlay? Susana Ruiz: RePlay: Finding Zoe is about a girl in trouble and her friends that act on their feelings of concern in order to help her. You can say that it has the traditional “damsel in distress” factor, but the hero’s – i.e. player’s – untraditional superpower is her/his degree of emotional stamina. What the game attempts to convey is that, while it can be extremely challenging to act out on an injustice around us, it is definitely our greatest power to observe, care and take action. How did you get involved with the Canadian team behind RePlay, and what is your current role? SR: I first met Andrea Gunraj – Outreach Manager for the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC) at the Games 4 Change conference (G4C) in 2005. METRAC is a not-for-profit organization based in Toronto, Canada that seeks to prevent and end violence towards diverse women, youth, and children, and is spearheading this project. A couple of months after I presented Darfur is Dying at G4C 2006, METRAC was ready to begin development of RePlay. They put out a call for proposals and we submitted because the opportunity to design around the issues of gender stereotyping and sexism was truly exciting for us. Take Action Games - the game design company I co-founded, along with my fellow Darfur is Dying co-producers – Ashley York and Huy Truong – are the developers of RePlay. We’re working in close partnership with METRAC in order to create an experience well founded on their thorough expertise of the themes. Our developing team is made up of a small and committed group of wonderful artists and programmers. The game requires players to make decisions surrounding a scenario in which the character Zoe is presumed to be in an abusive relationship. In what ways are you ensuring that the multiple choice gameplay doesn't come off limited and unrealistic compared to real life situations? SR: We were very conscientious of giving the player the option to not do the “right” thing. We were inspired by Grand Theft Auto and Bully in this respect, except of course, that in these games you have the option to not do the “wrong” thing. RePlay is a casual game with a non-profit budget, so clearly we did not create multiple missions throughout a vast world, but you actually don’t have to find your friend Zoe and try to help her - you can just explore the game space and even antagonize other characters. The multiple-choice gameplay was a tough nut to crack. Even with a target audience of 8-14 year olds, we quickly understood that deciphering the “right” thing to do or say in the context of a game is not much of a an analytic challenge. Additionally, because more often than not we instinctively react judgmentally and unproductively while engaged in stressful confrontations, the game is designed such that it’s actually easier to do the “wrong” thing. In the context of gameplay, it is more challenging to say the “right” thing, and it is also worth your while. Conflict resolution requires effective communication and so in the midst of sexist and potentially intimidating confrontations, we emphasize the use of words to resolve and surmount. In this regard we were inspired by word games such as puzzles, Scrabble and in particular, magnetic poetry. And to note - we’re certainly big fans of groundbreaking projects such as Facade (Carnegie Mellon), which implements natural language processing and advanced AI in order to create a robust interactive drama. So yes… breaking through this inherent multiple-choice simplicity was a hard one for us… a real challenge to do it in a simple and elegant way. RePlay is planned to be promoted in schools as a special Educators Kit incorporated into the school curricula. Will children be required to play the game? Andrea Gunraj: Students won't be required to play the game, but our hope is that teachers and youth workers will take it up as a resource to enhance existing learning. Schools and teachers have already shown great interest in the potential of using the game in the classroom. A Handbook for Educators and a Handbook for Parents are being released along with the game, so that educators, parents, and guardians can understand the variety of ways the game can be used to help youth learn about healthy, equal relationships. RePlay collects statistics and analyzes the players' responses by incorporating a survey feature. Can you talk a little about that? AG: The survey gives us an understanding of where players are at before they play the game, as well as after. It's intended to help us know some of what players are bringing to the game when they play it and how they like the game afterwards - that information will help us understand how effective it has been and how we may be able to use future resources to improve it. The survey also allows players to get a sense of community as they play the game, at the same time that it's completely anonymous. There's no reason to assume players will answer untruthfully. Instead of somehow frightening people to say the right thing, what it'll likely do is show that many players actually do answer in positive, healthy ways. It'll probably show players that many other players do value healthy, equal, and non-violent relationships and that as individuals, we're not the only one who care about those things and we don't have to hide it or be afraid to start a dialogue about it in our daily lives. Since the game has Canadian funding and is planned to be in Canadian schools, how do you think RePlay will do in America? AG: While RePlay is really geared towards youth in the Province of Ontario, its ideas and themes have broad relevance. I think the game will of great interest to players beyond Canada. In developing RePlay using Flash, what are some of the technical issues you face, the difficulties and the similarities between your previous project and this one? SR: We really try to look upon the technical limitations as an opportunity to be more creative. Flash, like any other medium, contains its own distinct benefits and constraints. The goal is to effectively communicate with the chosen medium. For instance, we wanted to make a multiplayer game primarily to achieve a sense of community. Since this proved to be unfeasible at this time (as was the case also with Darfur is Dying) we found a way to incorporate this sense of community in the survey questionnaire. As you answer these questions, you’re presented with the percentage of players that agree with you. Granted, it’s not the kind of community one may experience in an MMO, but the notion evoked is similar. It’s been a year since Darfur is Dying was released. In what ways are you and mtvU keeping the word out on the game and the Darfur crisis? SR: Darfur is Dying truly took on a life of its own. In regards to traffic, it has been played 2.5 million times by over 1.2 million people. As I mentioned before, it is in the curriculum of universities and high schools. Stephen Friedman – General Manager of mtvU – and I were invited to speak about Darfur with members of the United States Congress at Capitol Hill. As a vital part of mtvU’s Sudan Public Service Campaign, it helped garner the prestigious Governor’s Award at the 2006 Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Emmys ceremony. It is the winner of the 2007 Cable Television Public Affairs Association’s Beacon Award in the New Media Category, and was showcased in the 2006 Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival at the American Museum of Natural History. One direct product of its gameplay has been the writing of tens of thousands of letters to President Bush and our elected Representatives. Lastly, mtvU has been contacted by groups internationally that want to translate the game into other languages. How have events like the Games 4 Change Conference helped you and other developers who create content for activism and social change? SR: Games 4 Change is truly unique. Frankly, I think that it’s in great part because of G4C’s existence that I have a grasp on what drives me. Merging the medium with sobering and often non-fictive subject matter is a notion I found largely met with disdain a couple of years ago. G4C and the G4C community have been instrumental at breaking down that barrier between play and gravity, between innovative game behavior and social action. It is my opinion that, like most barriers, this one too will one day seem completely pointless in retrospect.

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