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Opinion: Serious Games, Serious Responsibility

In this opinion piece, 'serious games' maker and Will Interactive CEO Sharon Sloane discusses the Super Columbine Massacre RPG controversy, looking at how games should address sensitive subject matter, and why tackling the tough questions can make
In this opinion piece, 'serious games' maker and Will Interactive CEO Sharon Sloane discusses the Super Columbine Massacre RPG controversy, looking at how games should address sensitive subject matter, and why tackling the tough questions can make for "greater opportunities for understanding and learning". Sloane's viewpoint is particularly interesting because her company has recently produced Hate Comes Home in association with the Anti-Defamation League, an educational game in which "...two students are killed in a hate crime committed by other students", and: "Four students hold the keys to a peaceful outcome. As each character you must decide whether to let the incident happen or stop the manifestation of hate and the biases that caused it." Serious Games, Serious Responsibility "Recent controversy surrounding this year’s Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition and the Super Columbine Massacre Role Playing Game incited a debate and raised important questions. The commotion has subsided, but we will see this debate return because games, and more accurately, “serious games” are exploring a much greater range of topics. As a result, a serious game will soon hit a collective nerve again, causing us to ask, does this cross a line, and just what is a serious game anyway? In the flurry of articles written about the controversy, some questioned whether games can be seen as a valid form of art; whether games should address sensitive subject matter; and whether there is a double standard between what topics films can explore and what games can address. I think that it is appropriate to compare interactive games with film, particularly as serious games continue to develop and become more complex. We should make some important distinctions, though, which will highlight some of the responsibilities that the serious game maker should bear. Films are, by virtue of their genre, passive. The writer/director seeks to entertain, impart information, comment on a theme, instill emotion and/or move people to action. The viewers do not become the characters in the movie. The viewer never owns the decisions or behaviors made by the characters, nor is he/she responsible for the consequences. In role playing games we give users the power to make choices and to live out the consequences of their decisions. As a result, the game developer must accept a new level of consciousness, sensitivity and accountability. A developer/publisher must understand the psychology behind what he/she is doing, what is being brought to the audience and the impact that becoming the characters has on the user. The importance of this responsibility is evident in the sentiment of some that tried the Super Columbine Massacre game. Despite being advocates of serious games or supporters of Danny Ledonne, the creator of the Columbine game, they found playing the game difficult or unbearable. Yes, there is a big difference between playing Super Columbine Massacre and watching the movie Elephant. It is not that games cannot address important issues or should not personalize experiences in order to elicit emotional reactions, raise awareness or seek to modify the future behavior of the user. In fact, this is precisely what many serious games aim to achieve. When these games are based on real events and the behaviors of real people in difficult, stressful or emotionally-charged situations, they have the potential to become more powerful and create greater opportunities for understanding and learning. In short, it is important to engage users both cognitively and emotionally. We absorb information more readily when emotions are involved and when connections to the material are deeper and broader. That being said, there is a fine line when deciding how real to be. The point is not that games cannot cover serious subjects. The point is that if they choose to do so, they must do so in a considered way that is not about what the developer wants to convey, but is about what the user will feel and come to believe based on age, circumstances and personal experiences. Designing these games is part art, part science. Doing it well requires attention to many disciplines including psychology, screenwriting, learning and game design. This brings us to a definition of "serious games" that is not simply a game developed on a serious subject. Some commented that they felt that Columbine was designed to be a serious game. Its intent was to teach, to shed light and to provoke thought. Some felt that Ledonne sought to provide a forum to understand and examine the two killers. Danny Ledonne has called the game an, "electronic documentary" and was also quoted as saying, "I wanted to explore who they really were, and I didn't have the funding to make a film." This may be the case, but an important question to ask here is, where does that leave the learner? How is the user ushered through events in order to create a positive educational experience? Where is the guided learning? Where is the remediation if someone chooses the wrong path? Sometimes learning involves compressing experience, which can be accomplished by enabling users to make decisions in the safety of cyberspace. At the same time, there should be enough psychological distance to allow for learning without damaging the user. This is a very delicate balance and an important responsibility. I wonder whether Ledonne sought to teach and instruct, but if so, I question whether he employed the science of learning and psychology along with the desire to engage when designing his game. Regardless, what he created is what he created and this is what has sparked debate. Can a serious game about the Columbine tragedy be made if the designer sets out from the start to teach people lessons by having users step into the killers’ shoes and live their lives? Maybe this question really should have been Ledonne’s goal from the beginning. But let’s say that these were not his goals when he created the game. How can we take the concepts from this game and present them in a constructive way that encourages people to experience and learn something, rather than as entertainment and sensationalism? And can we convince those that the game may offend that this is what it should be used for, as opposed to trivializing the tragedy or upsetting those affected by it? This was the dilemma for [Slamdance's] Peter Baxter and I sympathize with that. I personally have no reason to believe Ledonne's intentions were dishonorable. I believe this was more an error of omission than deliberate commission. But how do you deal with Super Columbine Massacre and people’s perceptions and reactions towards it? Particularly when the line is blurry on its intentions? Perhaps the answer is for Slamdance, or any competition, to initiate a category for "Serious Games" where thoughtful work in the Serious Game genre can be judged and rewarded on its merit. Serious games are in many ways as different from conventional video games as video games are from film. And in fact the most advanced serious games borrow from the best of both filmmaking and game design. As a result, just as we’ve seen films develop, progress and spark controversy, serious games will follow that same path, causing us to meet again to address these same questions that have been left unanswered this time around." [Sharon Sloane is President and CEO of Potomac, MD-based WILL Interactive, Inc. She has 25 years of experience in producing instructional systems for behavior modification and performance improvement technology across a range of industries including the military, education, healthcare and law enforcement. WILL Interactive, Inc. was recipient of the National Training and Simulation Association (NTSA) 2006 Best Serious Game.]

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