Challenges of Making Games About Social Issues
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Videogames can be a distraction from our real life. They help us forget our worries and concerns, giving us a means of enjoyment; a temporary feeling of happiness and excitement. However, that does not mean videogames have to be without substance. For instance, compare the movie Transformers to The Hours. The former is fun and exciting -- there's nothing wrong with that. But the latter has heart, and makes you think - it addresses real issues and gives you a different perspective on them.
Emotions are what make us human. Sadness, anger, happiness, pain; all these feelings shape who we are. Processing these emotions help us get through life and deal with challenging situations. Therefore, we at RosePortal Games value videogames with substance, with a message - videogames that make you feel something. Whisper of a Rose, our first title, deals with escapism, domestic violence and bullying. It’s not a shallow game that keeps you distracted with lots of explosions, random enemies and guns. It is intended to be memorable and meaningful. We've received many e-mails from players thanking us for creating Whisper of a Rose, as they identified with the story and it helped them process their own events in life.
Of course, dealing with a social issue is serious business, but you have to make sure it doesn't become 'too' much of a letdown. A videogame that is repetitively dark and depressing will not be enjoyable to play. Enjoyment is, after all, the main driving force behind videogames. You have to make something that is fun to play but also touches the player's heart. The most important points here are contrast and variation. If you create a light-hearted chapter with some humor and follow it up with a dark, serious event, it is bound to be much more impactful than if the entire level was dark. You need to switch between different emotions in order to keep the player invested.
In our upcoming game Unraveled: Tale of the Shipbreaker’s Daughter, for example, the two main characters are a little girl and her stuffed animal. These two represent innocence. They have plenty of playful scenes together: chasing after a crab, roaring at some butterflies, etc. These make the player feel hopeful and light-hearted. Follow these scenes up by the “real” content of the game: the drama, the conflict. It increases the impact on the player. If we hadn’t added any of these lighter scenes between the two main characters, their ‘innocence’ would not be as strongly represented. And innocence, in Unraveled, is the main contrast with the darkness of the story.
One of the problems you may encounter in presenting real-world issues is a potentially massive amount of negative online feedback. Anything with a message, with an opinion, especially something different from the standard, may be bashed by a vocal minority of individuals. A game that covers a sensitive subject is no different. You can be accused of using the subject for self-gain, of being insensitive, and of using the videogame platform for your "political agenda." This is a tough stage to go through, especially if it is your first game, but bear in mind this is an unfortunate reality of the Internet. Yes, the Internet is likely your only means of getting your game "out there,” but the Internet is a crazy place where people can vent off steam and express themselves in whatever way they want, constructively or destructively. It's important to try not to take this sort of feedback personally, even if the game you have created is as personal as it can be. Keep in mind that negative feedback (aimed towards your story) is better than no feedback at all. It means that your game is making an impression, and people are having an emotional response. This means you're doing something right!
Ideally you should tie the subject you are working with into your actual gameplay. If, say, your main character is addicted to a substance -- add some kind of counter or system to the game where you have to get your next 'hit' or face negative consequences (lose health or have limited control or access to abilities). If you're working with schizophrenia, show the actual environments change depending on the character's mood -- colors jumping, confusing dialogue, and voices in the background. Make sure the gameplay reinforces the emotional impact that you want the story to have. In the case of addiction: if you want to show the bad sides of it, don't make the main character a robot that has to recharge its energy. That's a cool system and misses the point. Instead, make the game darker and more confusing as your addiction starts to kick in. The screen could become blurry and vibrate. The main character performs actions without you ordering him to. Perhaps, you even lose control over him. A few examples of this include the classic sanity meter featured in Eternal Darkness, where camera angles shift and environmental changes occur, such as sounds and visions that are not actually there, as the player loses their grip on reality. SPATE, a title that explores alcoholism, is another more recent example, requiring the player to consume alcohol at regular intervals to prevent distortions in the visual presentation and control of the game as withdrawal sets in. Keep in mind what you want the player to feel when making these design decisions.
Unraveled: Tale of the Shipbreaker’s Daughter addresses a subject matter that is unlike any other that we as developers have attempted to tackle before. It is based on a human rights issue in the real world: the process of ship breaking. Decommissioned ships (in the real world) are taken to third world countries such as India where they are deconstructed. The wages of the workers are on average $0.50 per hour and the working circumstances abysmal. They breathe in toxic fumes, interact with toxic waste and have minimal security regulations. However, these people are forced to work there to support their family. What appealed to us the most with this real world issue, on an artistic level, is the thought behind it. Vessels holding years of memories, years of of lives, and of countless people -- they’re taken to a graveyard to die at the hands of humans. Humans who build the ships so many years ago.
Regardless of the subject you have chosen, you must make sure that you are properly informed on the issue. You need to do thorough research on the subject. Even if the approach you wish to take is more popcultural and not so realistic, like Eternal Darkness, it is a must to have a good understanding of what you’re dealing with. You need to build a good base for yourself first. Gather as much material and research as you can find, then start removing the unnecessary data until you’re left with the information that matters the most to the way you want to approach the issue in your videogame. With Unraveled, for example, we watched many documentaries on the subject of ship breaking and even personally got in touch with the company who filmed and produced them: VegaProductions. Read blogs, get in touch with people who are personally involved with your subject matter, use Wikipedia as a source to find reliable literature, etc. Get out there and do your research. Make sure that the subject matter you have chosen is something you truly wish to work with.
Now, once you’ve chosen an issue you wish to address in your videogame, you must make sure that your message is subtle. No one wants to be treated like an idiot. Morals and messages that are in-your-face are far less efficient in reaching the player’s heart than something written beneath the surface of the game. For example, take the indie videogame Journey. It shows you what has happened to a civilization that became too arrogant; that thought they could become Gods. A line can be drawn between that story and our own world, and how we are continuously flying “closer to the sun” with genetic manipulation and advancing technology. It makes you think, without being preachy. Being preachy is never effective. Treat the player with respect and trust that they can make up their own mind. If they disagree with you in the first place, you cannot convince them otherwise. That is why attempting to defend your game every time there's criticism from some corner of the Internet is a useless pursuit.
Unraveled unfolds as you play the role of a little girl whose father has not returned from work at a ship breaking yard. The girl’s sole possession, her younger brother’s blue plush monster, is her sole companion. This is the perfect point of view for the story. It doesn’t show the direct effect of bad circumstances at a ship breaking yard on the workers, but it shows the effect on the family and those involved. The TV series Breaking Bad -- a show about crystal meth production -- is a good example of this approach. Most of the show involves the “higher up” end of the drama. It shows the producers of the meth, but not the effect is has on the “low end”: the addicts, the family of the addicts. Then in a handful of episodes, it does focus on the lower end. And it is so much more effective at showing emotional drama than the higher end.
Furthermore, Unraveled’s only in-game text consists of a single line. You're given the opportunity to create your own feelings, thus your own story. It doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to feel. It gives you the opportunity to make up your own mind. Then because the subject material is so dark and serious, we gave it a twist: most of the game is seen through the little girl’s imagination. A patch of moss turns into a forest, a flooded hallway turns into an underwater level, a small spider becomes a boss battle, etc. This makes the game fun and gives it well-needed colorful variation to the otherwise dark and serious material.
You must keep in mind that first and foremost you are creating a videogame. It is not a format to express your personal agenda. It is not a blog, or a Do-It-Yourself book, or a documentary. Our videogame The Princess’ Heart tackles addiction and alcoholism. That was the first decision we made: what do we want to explore? Then, similar to the approach taken with SPATE described above, we thought about creating a dark game with a gloomy story about a character who needs to get a shot of alcohol between each certain time interval. However, this system did not work well for the role playing genre that we wanted to work with. It made the game too repetitive and even annoying. It wasn’t fun. So we turned the whole concept upside down and created a game that was made from the perspective of an alcoholic. The entire story and gameplay is smooth, perfect and absurd, through which cracks of desperation can be seen. It became far more effective and enjoyable than if we had literally made a game about a character who needs to feed an addiction the entire time.
So, there are a lot of considerations when making videogames that tackle real world social issues. To summarize, here are three "Do's" and "Don'ts" that we've devised internally when making these kinds of games:
1. DO explore a topic that means something to you. Whether drawing from personal experience, or exploring a subject that interests you and requires research on your end, you're going to do a much better job of getting other people to care about this issue if you yourself are passionate about it.
2. DO keep gameplay in mind when writing your work around a real issue. Your game will be most effective if the way it plays reflects the subject you’re tackling. Think about how you want the player to feel and come up with gameplay elements based around that.
3. DO proper research before you begin production on your game. Read blogs, get in touch with people directly involved with the subject matter, use Wikipedia as a starting point to find reliable literature, etc. You need to have a good understanding of the issue you are working with.
1. DON'T make your game all doom and gloom. The point of a videogame is to entertain, and your message will be most effective when you contrast the heavy stuff with some lighter scenes (think of how comic relief is used in some of your favorite films, like R2D2 from Star Wars)
2. DON’T make the deliverance of your message or tackled issue too in-your-face, predictable or obvious. Subtlety, surprise and trusting your player’s intelligence are key. Make the player think, don’t tell them what to think.
3. DON’T be insensitive or thoughtless. What one person perceives as insignificant could be a huge emotional trigger for someone else. Realize that you’re dealing with a real issue that actual people are struggling with all over the world, and keep that in mind while writing.
Thank you for reading! I hope this article was helpful for your future or current endeavours in the videogame industry. We still have a lot to learn, but have been happy to share our acquired knowledge with you.
RosePortal Games is a development studio based out of the Netherlands. They've worked on several titles exploring complex topics including alcoholism, bullying, domestic violence and homophobia. Their latest title, Unraveled, is an RPG that explores workers rights issues within the shipbreaking industry, and is currently on Kickstarter seeking funding.