“Why can't Call of Duty actually be about duty?” This was the question posed by Ubisoft computer game designer Clint Hocking at the 2008 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. He voiced the growing frustration held by mainstream designers that their industry is trapped in a kind of perpetual adolescence. Game boys want to grow up and real world issues – genocide, poverty, conservation and the like – are increasingly seen as viable content and a right of passage towards a mature industry.

Ethical games with titles like Darfur is Dying, Escape From Woomera and World Without Oil wear their politics firmly on their sleeves. But can they raise awareness while scoring big with gamers and even possibly turn a profit? Talk to industry experts like Justin Halliday, who co-produced Escape from Woomera and he’ll tell you that only 12 percent of computer games are actually violent in nature. It’s an encouraging statistic. “Unfortunately that 12 percent accounts for over 75 percent of the market,” he laments. “If you look at the successful games – outside of licensed properties like Harry Potter – almost everything else is based on violence, and I think it’s kind of sad.”

The general decline in interest in all things political didn’t go unnoticed by Suzanne Seggerman. She saw the lack of civic engagement and newspaper readership among younger generations as good reason to found Games for Change in 1997. The organization provides visibility and resources for computer games aimed at affecting social change. Take a look at their site and that of sister organization Serious Games and Social Impact Games and the numbers seem healthy. There are over 500 games like 3rd World Farmer and Catch the Sperm (an AIDS prevention title) that don’t play like a splatter movies. Seggerman believes it’s the dawn of a new era. “I think there’s a certain amount of stagnation in the mainstream market and people are ready for a change. There are huge audiences with different tastes that haven’t been reached: art games, documentary games, games that are emotionally riveting. It won’t be long before there is an ethical game blockbuster that will really surprise us.” The big challenge, she admits, is to actually design one.

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In "3rd World Farmer" the player gets to manage an African farm, and is soon confronted with the often difficult choices that poverty and conflict necessitate.
Image courtesy www.3rdworldfarmer.com

The process of designing violent versus non-violent games is, according to Halliday, basically the same and good designers, he maintains, should be able to turn virtually any topic into engaging content. “In a game, to shoot someone and watch them explode should be equally rewarding as, say, a time-trial or maneuvering a horse. Essentially as a designer you break down what the player does every few seconds into challenges and rewards. That’s the basic atom of game-play,” he says.

When reduced to elemental units a compassionate Lara Croft might be as easy to create as her skimpy new garter/gun belt. For Hocking at the Game Developers Conference, this frustration boiled over into a tirade against conservative design. “Do you really think that the thing that moves people in Lord of the Rings is a dagger that glows when Orks are near or a piece of braided rope?” he questioned. “What people care about is that Frodo has to trust Sam to hold the other end of the rope and not drop him off the cliff and steal the ring. The mechanics of trust are not harder to simulate than the mechanics of rope.”

There’s no doubt that the gaming industry has feature films firmly in its crosshairs. The problem is the compassion factor for even popular characters is pretty close to zero. Audience members love reality TV so reality gaming about real issues should be a sure-fire winner. Jack Emmert doesn’t agree. He’s the founder and chief creative officer of Cryptic studios, a company responsible for multi-player success stories City of Heroes and City of Villains. “A game about Darfur or Hurricane Katrina sounds horrific,” he says. ”In entertainment, the whole goal is to have the audience experience an emotion then [empower them to] let it go. The problem with playing Darfur is Dying is, not only am I feeling awful, but I can’t stop feeling awful because it’s a real. There’s no end so now I feel even worse. It’s not bad enough that I read about Darfur in the newspaper, my country won’t do a damn thing and there’s not much I can do about it either. Let’s say you play the game and save Darfur or whatever – it’s a frustrating experience because it’s a game and you didn’t actually do anything. In the end you can only feel bad about it.” He maintains that expecting gamers to behave honorably is completely counterintuitive to the appeal of computer games and points to games like Fabel and Knight of the Old Republic as revealing of players’ true nature. “In these games, if you do good your character becomes good; do evil and they become evil. These are very interesting games but, in the end, most people frankly just turn evil -- if only to see what horrific things they can do,” he says.

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FreeRice not only increases your word power but every correct answer donates 20 grains of rice through the UN World Food Program – made possible sponsors who advertise on this site.
Image from freerice.com

Even without the added difficulty of weaving ethics into an evil dystopia, Seggermann estimates that around 80 percent of mainstream computer games fail. “You can’t just have a fun game and then tack on an ethical message. The message has to be the mechanic,” she says. With computer game development budgets now topping $50 million, ethical game designers are significantly under-funded and unlike film there’s virtually no independent art house distributors prepared to take on smaller titles. “We’re not at a stage yet where we can take risks like the film industry,” says Seggermann.

But a new era may be one tantalizing level away. Mike Fegan, CEO of the Australian-based Transmission Games made a deliberate choice to not work with violent games. His company pioneered equestrian games in 1997 to aggressively lure the tween girl market and to date has sold a respectable four million copies. Sure it’s not a game about feeding the starving masses but, as a business model, it demonstrates that non-violent content can make money. It’s this changing demographic that might lure game publishers Sony and Microsoft one step closer to taking a risk on content with meaning. “Today almost 46 percent of gamers in Australia are female and female players are not really are interested in twitch games or beat’em ups,” says Fegan. “They’re into games that are more about thinking, relationships and so forth.”

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This game represents in an informal and fun way today's European PVC industry and the efforts it is making to ensure the sustainability of its production processes and applications
Image www.vinylgame.com

For games with high morals and low productions budgets, the general feeling is that it doesn’t matter if you pay as long as you play. Even so, Xbox and Nintendo licensing fees frequently stand in the way of widespread distribution. The solution, Fegan feels, may be found by taking a lesson from the brief history of computer games are rediscovering old technology. “There are 250 million people in the Indian middle class earning over $50,000 a year and most of them have a PC. India is also the center for game production worldwide and there’s a lot of potential talent there for coming up with original content on issues that affect them,” he says, and forecasts a massive resurgence in cheap PC based games. But the real revolution is quite literally in the palm of your hand. “Ultimately cell phone games will be bigger than console and PC games. There are over three billion mobile phones worldwide. In markets like Africa, India and China people can afford a mobile phone. A lot of governments embrace gaming. It’s perfect for teaching people about aids, pollution and conservation. Not only that you can develop a cell phone game in India for about five thousand dollars so it’s ideal for games with a message.”

While ethical games are clearly viewed by some as a political side issue, to others they’re the issue, one thing’s for certain: as frustrations reach a crescendo no one’s backing down – so let the flame war begin...

Homepage and top image: Escape from Woomera is a first person game in which players assume the character of, and 'live' through the experiences of a modern day refugee at Woomera, an Australian detention center. (Image from http://www.selectparks.net/archive/escapefromwoomera/)

Posted July 29, 2008