New research on the impact of game design suggests that playing digital games is not merely a mode of escapism or symptomatic of the no-socializing malaise of the millennial generation, but rather it can be a powerful vehicle of expression and communication between designer and player—and among the players themselves. Designers embed moral and political values or messages (intended or otherwise) in games, which can affect our human behaviors, psycho-virtual cognition, and ethical awareness. Such games with clear sociopolitical or moral lessons have been called social impact video games. Some researchers have called them persuasive, critical, or serious games “that immerse people in the real world, full of real-time political crises [as] a medium for change” (Thompson 2006). Advocacy for this movement in gaming is rooted in the belief that interactive technologies are effective, educational tools providing players with a safe space to problem-solve, comprehend complex situations, expand inter-subjective reasoning skills, and build deeper thresholds of empathy.
Pioneering an ethics for thoroughly-crafted game paradigms and providing a heuristic or toolkit for other designers to encode positive social messages and practices in digital game architecture, Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum in their recently published book, Values at Play in Digital Games, introduce the rara avis of the often melee-oriented, macabre, and violent game industry: the “conscientious designer.” From their standpoint, conscientious designers purposefully engender their games with critical values and positive messages that are “ethical (they are truthful, factual, and alert and have the player’s best interests at heart) and also strive to make a difference through their work” (2014, 12-3). The main aim of the serious game designer is to create a game system that “exists purely to intrigue [players] long enough so that they poke around and figure out the underlying argument: an op-ed composed not of words but of action” (Thompson 2006). Therefore, the player is meant to critically distance himself from the play in order to objectively look at the game not only as an observer but also as an activist. Analyzing two computer games, Kabul Kaboom! and Hush, I will investigate the different structures of these conscientiously designed games with respect to conflict, values, safety, outcomes, goals, and winnability.
Defining Play & Agency in the Context of Serious Gaming
Firstly, it is necessary to form an agreed upon taxonomy for games and play. American game theorist Chris Crawford in his seminal book The Art of Computer Game Design (1982) clarifies and concisely denotes the terminology within computer game design. Crawford defines game: “a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset reality.” To clarify any possible misprision, he defines every aspect of the definition. A “formal system” represents the explicit game rules embedded in a game’s collection of parts, which complexly interact. “Subjectively represents” refers to the creation of a reality that is subjective to the fantasies of the player. As a subjective reality, video game designers have focused the majority of their attention on detail and authenticity for the sake of player immersion. Finally, the “subset of reality” is the logical positioning of time, space, and experience within a given system—that is to say, “no game could include all of reality without being reality itself; thus, a game must be at most a subset of reality.”
In addition to his definition of game, Crawford uses four commonalities of games: representation, interaction, conflict, and safety in order to elucidate any ambiguity. Representation is indicative of the previously stated Crawfordian definition of a game. Because games are dynamic, complex, and closed formal systems, interaction between the user and the structure of the game is inherently the most effective way to learn and communicate ideas. Crawford argues that understanding is found through re-playability in games, which gives players the capacity to explore every facet of a game via interactivity. The game designer, as a result, has indirect control of his players’ decisions made in-game. The next commonality is conflict. This game norm thus implicitly assumes that all games must have an explicit goal, for conflict keeps the player from successfully completing the goal of the game. If games do not have conflict, then there is no in-game active response––dutifully nullifying the concept of interaction. Finally, safety is a shared aspect for all games. Crawford describes safety as “an artifice for providing the psychological experiences of conflict and danger while excluding their physical realizations.”
Although Crawford’s definition of games is useful, some of his views about game design are consumerist or perhaps more rightly representative of the overly structural and technologically sterile concerns of 1980s game studies. For example, he stipulates that the objective reality or the player’s off-game interpretation of meaning and value in computer gaming is not a worthy, academic concern. Additionally, Crawford not only assumes that games must cater to the public, but he also undercuts the player’s agency as being a subset of re-playability––contending that a “good” game must not let the personalities of its players dominate the progression of the play. Certainly, the emergence of the critical game has subverted this definition of gaming and redefined the agency of the player.
Despite the contentions raised in his work, Crawford does set the foundation for the didactic and educational theories of play, which he describes as the basic and most natural motivation for playing computer games. The motivation may be unconscious; however, the values that emerge from these systems are undeniable. As their three core premises of conscientious game design, Flanagan and Nissenbaum specify: “(1) there are common (not necessarily universal) values; (2) artifacts may embody ethical and political values; and (3) steps taken in design and development have the power to affect the nature of these values” (2014, 11). Thus, the notion of designer intentionality/un-intentionality versus user-experience takes center-stage, for “[g]ame design is, therefore, the creative attempt to imagine, a priori, the kinds of experiences players will have with [the designer’s] game, and through that act of imagination, create a structure to point them toward the kinds of experiences [he/she would] like them to feel” (Costikyan 2002, 31-2).
For our purposes, American game designer Greg Costikyan’s more aptly defines game as “an interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward a goal” (2002, 24). The major difference between his and Crawford’s definition is the notion of “endogenous meaning”: “A game’s structure creates its own meaning. The meaning grows out of the structure; it is caused by the structure; it is endogenous to the structure” (2002, 22). The endogenous meaning within games is significant to the formation of critical and conscientious games. The two games of interest, Kabul Kaboom! and Hush, share three aspects: they both present anti-war and humanitarian values, are framed by violent narrative contexts, and provide physical safety for the player. In all critical games the player is only made unsafe or, perhaps, vulnerable by the psycho-virtual affect or conceptualized, R.L. (real-life) epiphany of the in-game semiotics rooted in serious, socio-cultural, and political messages.
The Futility of Winning in Serious Game Design: Case-study Kabul Kaboom!
What is in-game semiotics and how does it relate to building conscientiously designed games? In his book Trigger Happy (2000), Steven Poole explores interactivity and agency with respect to in-game semiotics. Poole argues games that successfully scaffold players into the artifice of the play inspire users to more deeply value and identify with the narrative schema, setting, points of view, characters, avatars, etc. For Poole, this deeper investment of play occurs when the player submits to the game world’s symbolic order. Poole defines three signs that are omnipresent in games: symbols, icons, and indices. Utilizing Costikyan’s notion of endogenics, Poole’s hermeneutic of in-game semiotics is essential for unpacking these conscientiously designed games and will be called, here onward, “the ludic context”––as a contrast to the narrative context. Thus, the ludic context refers to a player’s relationship to and negotiation of the in-game, symbolic topography.
In Kabul Kaboom!, serious game designer Gonzalo Frasca (2010) creates a critical game that projects a violent narrative and peaceful ludic context. In its pre-play mode (Fig. 1.1), the irony of the game is evident from the start: “A humanitarian game for a ‘humanitarian’ war.” The narrative context refers to U.S. operations in Afghanistan during 2002. Frasca criticizes the efforts of the U.S. military by interactively portraying the coincidentia oppositorum (“unity of opposites”) inherent within its modus: aiding Afghani civilians with food/hamburgers yet simultaneously sending missiles against the Taliban regime. The butt of the unfunny joke is the War on Terror. Just from the instructions and pre-play mode, values manifest: justice and peace (“JUSTICE, NOT WAR”), martyrdom and inexperienced futility (“you can’t win this game, just lose”), health risk (“nice American food”), and player survival (“avoid their missiles”).
After clicking “PLAY,” the player is taken to a simple screen where an avatar is controlled by the left and right arrow keys (Fig. 1.2). Controlling this open-mouthed female avatar, the player must capture falling hamburgers whilst evading an onslaught of missiles. Frasca’s use of the iconic hamburger not only textually puns the “common slang term for ‘mutilated bodies,’” but it also acts as a symbol for American consumerism and imperialism (Lee 2003, 2). Game studies academic Shuen-shing Lee further connects the design of the avatar to the powerful irony of the situation by deconstructing the avatar’s origin: “the figures of a wailing mother with a dead baby in her arms, cropped from [Picasso’s] ‘Guerníca’, [which] are relocated to the interactive situation and assigned the avatarship” (2003, 2-3; Fig. 1.3). It is worth noting that “Guerníca,” painted in 1937, was originally a work of protest against the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and Francisco Franco’s Fascist regime. Picasso created his work in black, white, and grey tones to mimic the newspaper clippings of the time; his piece was meant to advertise war as an abomination and mutilation of human welfare. Therefore, even in a historical context, “Guerníca,” like Kabul Kaboom!, was and always will symbolize obdurate anti-totalitarianism and pacifism. The values that manifest in the ludic context are survival (The goal of the game is to avoid the bombs and consume the unhealthy, American food.), autonomy (The avatar is alone and has no protection except avoidance.), and family (The avatar is of a mother holding her child.).
With almost a Beckettian flavor, the ending––“victory impossible, only a lose-state”––appears with a voracious voiceover greedily saying, “Mmmm. Yummy” and the depiction of the mutilated avatar. These minced pieces of monotone flesh are arbitrarily placed in front of a real, black-and-white photograph of two Afghani men watching the cleanup of their homes turned wreckage. Although the game ends with a touch of black humor, new serious values emerge––experienced futility and impotence. Overall, players’ actions are proven powerless, i.e. “retrial proves nothing, but only intensifies the sense of impotence and tragedy […] the game assert[s] that there is no winner in a situation in which […] bodies are turned into ‘hamburgers’, and the form reflects and strengthens this message” (Lee 2003, 2-3). The button hostilely and imperatively labeled, “GAME NOT OVER––PLAY AGAIN” appears at the center of the lose-state. Frasca does not intend the user to play again per se, because the game is endogenously futile and cannot be won. However, through a didactic maneuver, he expects his players to realize that the violence and narrative of U.S. brutality in Afghanistan happened regardless of the player’s off-game security and distance from the conflict.
The Madonna-Child Avatar in Peril & Player Anxiety: Case-study Hush
Similar to Frasca, conscientious designers Jamie Antonisse and Devon Johnson––providing a peaceful ludic context and a violent narrative context as well––developed the serious game Hush in 2007, which “won the 2008 Better Game contest, where judges said that they were amazed by the anxiety that the game causes” (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014, 44). The game starts with a tutorial (Fig. 2.1). The player must press the matching letter on the keyboard when the falling, on-screen letter glows brightly. The in-game semiotics is singing, which requires exact timing and coordination. After passing the prerequisite tutorial, the game reveals the violent narrative context (Fig. 2.2).
The game takes place in 1994 Rwanda modeling the genocide committed by the Hutus against the Tutsis. Similar to the avatar in Kabul Kaboom!, the player becomes a mother holding her infant, yet remains stationary positioned at the right side of the screen. Accompanied by Fig. 2.2 is an authentic, radio voiceover of a heavily accented Hutu man’s call for the ethnic extermination of every Tutsi. Thus, pre-play values manifest: anti-violence/peace (The narrative context engenders a desire for peace yet simultaneously creates an atmosphere of threat, fear, and anxiety.), maternity and family (The task at hand is to console the cries of the avatar’s child by singing.), and autonomy (The avatar is alone and must fend for herself without protective weapons; only patience and the power of her lullaby can save their lives.).
During the official game play, the violent narrative becomes more immersive through militant visuals: images of soldiers marching accompanied by aural disturbances of hostile gunfire, the shrieks of neighbors, and the avatar’s restless child’s incessant crying (Fig. 2.3). If the player is unsuccessful during the play mode, two states of conflict or struggle bilaterally manifest: the actual call-and-response when missed augments the severity of the Rwandan violence in the narrative. The sensory gratification distracts the player from achieving the task of consoling the child, which is achieved by pressing the proper buttons at the precise moments. These distractions help scaffold the player into the authenticity of the play, thereby intensifying his or her identification with the avatar, for the struggle of the player (who misses) mirrors the stress of the mother’s inability to focus on her song in the midst of unsettling violence. Flanagan and Nissenbaum astutely note that this “strong sense of empathy for the mother […] is an example of what psychologists call parallel empathy, where one person feels emotions that are akin to those felt by another person” (2014, 44). Despite a game’s traditional limitations in affecting the subjective realities of its players (We are implicitly safe from harm.), Hush masterfully achieves an inter-subjective and empathetic connection between player and avatar that has psycho-virtual consequences for the player. Thus, new values manifest during the actual play: strength, endurance (The situation is dire––life or death.), and patience (Preemptive or prolonged button pressing will stifle the mother’s song; therefore, the player must be attentive and tenacious like the avatar in the throes of chaos.).
Finally, Hush, unlike Kabul Kaboom!, has two specific outcomes: survival or expiration. The win state hushes the violence causing the screen to fade to black; and, as the screen’s color shifts, an image of a child’s ragdoll sitting bleakly on a wooden table appears on the bottom left side of the screen. The Madonna and child vanish; there is peace and serenity present, yet the music is soft, grim, and sobering. Yellow script appears detailing the family’s safe escape from the carnage. The conclusion is not overly optimistic; in a double-motion, the win-state is also feels like a lose-state. The game as an artifact bears testimony to hope in the face of suffering, yet instantiates a spectral feeling of inexhaustible tragedy. Nevertheless, if the player does not perform adequately, the child will cry unremittingly, thereby causing the official lose-state. Flushing the mother-child avatar away, the screen turns to blood, and a final scream from the child is heard but remorselessly smothered. The implication of loss in this game is absolute death with a compassionately toned button appearing at the bottom of the screen labeled, “Press Enter to Try Again.” The game designers intend the player to right the apparent wrongful murder of the mother and child due to the player’s lack of attention or care during play.
Turning Play into Activism: The “Telos” of the Conscientious Game Designer
Conscientious designers not only wish to use game design to inspire play, but also to leverage the medium for all of its didactic potential. Frasca, Antonisse, and Johnson encode sociocultural messages for the sake of turning players into activists. Frasca’s critical game, for example, has a specific outcome––loss. It does not matter if the player avoids the bombings for one second or ninety minutes, the result will always be the same. Indeed, the game is pointless, if not deceitful to the teleology of Crawfordian gaming as winnable conflict. In opposition to this win-lose logic shown in Hush, Kabul Kaboom! offers the illogical “you-never-win” scenario, which intuitively is meant to focus on off-game conceptualization instead of in-game reality. This serious game subverts the expectations of entertainment and consumerism indicative of the “fun” game––favoring a game play that is meditative and focused on off-game thinking. Therefore, it offers the player the chance to become an observer of the overall interaction outside of the game––focusing on pain as opposed to expected gratification or the pleasure of winning. Lee cunningly puns Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum––with a serious game perspective––“I lose; therefore, I think,” or Desum, ergo cogito. To analyze this conception of loss further, this state of losing becomes the telos of this critical game.
Goals in games may be explicit or implicit. Explicit goals tend to follow a centralized structure, while implicit goals give players free-range to choose from a specific set of goals. For Frasca’s critical game, the object or goal of the game is to lose in a very tangible way but also in a metaphorical way. Players must become what Umberto Eco calls “second-level model players,” designated as users who “inquire into the designer’s strategy[;] [they are] the opposite of the first-level model player[s] who, solely [are] concerned with conquering hurdles or solving riddles” (1994). Therefore, the true goal is to “morph the player from an in-gaming loser into an off-gaming thinker […]” (Lee 2003, 4). Unlike Kabul Kaboom!’s singular outcome, Hush retains the win-lose dialectic. Antonisse and Johnson designed their game to incorporate a strong, aesthetic subjectivity or immersion of the player as embodying the mother-child avatar, thus creating a stronger sense of identity through the imaginary or fantasy of the experience.
Although both critical games use identical avatars (the mother-child in peril), Frasca’s avatar is symbolic and not meant to be an adopted identity of the player (even though the movement of the avatar is more hands-on via arrow keys). This makes it easier for the player to focus on the social message embedded within the game; nevertheless, Hush (although employing an immutable avatar) sends a strong socio-cultural message through its poignancy and parallel empathy. Both games achieve the intended task––showing through interaction and agency respectively the game designers’ values at play. In critical games, there are two types of pleasures: the “immersive identification” or authenticity of in-game schema like Hush and engagement through “grappling with an awareness of text, convention […] in the direction of authorial intention” like Kabul Kaboom! (Lee 2003, 7-8).
Critical game designers try to obfuscate the former in favor of the latter pleasure––emphasizing off-gaming engagement. The content and contexts are self-reflexive and in opposition to the entertainment value that has been deemed essential to the ‘shoot-’em-up’, ‘beat-her-down’ successes of the gaming industry. Unlike the Grand Theft Auto, God of War, Mortal Kombat, and Postal empires––games grounded in valueless play proffering fora for unabashed violence, entitlement, and psychopathy––serious games and conscientious design hoist the user’s experience onto the shoulders of valuable play enriching the aesthetic investment with intellectual curiosity, empathetic responsibility, and artistic performance.
Antonisse, Jamie and Devon Johnson. 2007. HUSH. University of Southern California Interactive Media. Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X. Accessed 15 Oct. 2014.
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Crawford, Chris. 1982. The Art of Computer Game Design. Berkeley: McGraw-Hill/Osborne Media. N. pag. Vancouver.wsu.edu, Sue Peabody.
Eco, Umberto. 1994. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Flanagan, Mary and Helen Nissenbaum. 2014. Values at Play in Digital Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Frasca, Gonzalo. 2010. Kabul Kaboom! Ludology.org. Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X. Accessed 15 Oct. 2014.
—. 2006. “Videogames of the Oppressed: Critical Thinking, Education, Tolerance, and Other Trivial Issues.” In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, eds. Pat Harrington and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Digitally archived in Electronic Book Review. Electronicbookreview.com, 2008. Accessed 15 Oct. 2014.
Kücklich, Julian. 2002. “The Study of Computer Games as a Second-Order Cybernetic System.” In Proceedings of Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, ed. Frans Mäyrä, 101-11. Tampere: Tampere University Press.
Lee, Shuen-shing. 2003. “‘I Lose, Therefore I Think’: A Search for Contemplation amid Wars of Push-Button Glare.” Game Studies 3 (2): 1-14. Accessed 15 Oct. 2014.
Murray, Janet H. 1997. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press.
Poole, Steven. 2000. Trigger Happy. London: 4th Estate.
Thompson, Clive. 2006. “Saving the World, One Video Game at a Time.” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 23 July. Accessed 15 Oct. 2014.
Here is a Seattle Times article about “Video Games Packed with Political Messages.”
A New York Times piece about social-change gaming movement “Games for Change.”
An article about interpretation of message-driven games.
Eli Rachovitsky-Duarte received his B.A. in English from Dartmouth College in 2014. Although he primarily studied literary theory, medieval literature, and the ambiguities of translation, Eli learned about the captivating world of Digital Humanities in 2010 while working under Dr. Mary Flanagan. Currently, Eli resides in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, where he acts as the Associate Project Manager of The Gallery Project––a nonprofit dedicated to activating community by mentoring underprivileged students and young adults. When he is not volunteering or reading, Eli enjoys yoga, computer science, languages, and astronomy. In the future, Eli plans to venture into the design world, write existentially nauseated novels, and attend the Oxford Internet Institute for graduate school.