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What are games?
Well, that’s an easy question, especially if are in this website. Games are, basically, a form of achieving fun, controlling a virtual body, through physical inputs, made with your physical body. The actions and course of gameplay were thought by the game designer; the place where the virtual body acts, the level designer; the feedback, game, sound, and HUD designer; the way the game looks, artist(and/or 3D artist) and art director; and it was all put together by the programmer. Lots of tiny gears turning around, making whatever possible to bring a game to life just so you can buy(or pirate, yaaaaar!), and have fun playing it.
The thing is, games are more than that.
Games are a way of telling a history in a more personal way. If you studied game design, you probably know the “flow theory”, but, in easy words, your game is truly good when you are playing and you “lose yourself”, that is, you forget about time and 2 minutes are actually 2 hours, or, you know you are you but still say things like “oh no, I’m gonna die!”, then you lost your “self”, and now you are thinking through the game character. This is the Flow Theory.
When telling a story, you may do anything you want, in any way you want. It is your creation only, and its purpose, is in your hands. Because of this creator-centered nature of games and game design, I want to talk about the importance of a specific category in game studies: serious games.
Serious Games is kind of a genre in the game world, but only for the makers, meaning that, usually, you won’t find a category named “serious game” when searching your online game shop as you would find “RPG”. It refers to the act of making a game with a purpose beyond just making a good experience. It is about the message.
Educational games, for instance, are serious games, for they have a purpose of teaching a specific subject, EG: Mario is Missing, the SNES game where you control Luigi and travel the world visiting various places and learning different facts about them. Of course, not all serious games are good games, but still, they are games. During your journey in playing and making games, you’ll come across games that have a hotline or something similar, unless those games talk about the subject, even if through a mist of allegories, those are not serious games, they’re games, or serious game wannabes.
Enough talking, let’s talk about the subject: the importance of serious games.
“Serious game” is the development genre that gives power to the maker. This power? Teaching about something, giving voice to the unheard. While studying Game Design in college, one of our semester games was one of those serious ones. First, I’ll talk briefly about the process.
Now, a little bit deeper on the subject.
A serious game is a difficult type of game to work on for the simple reason of teaching about the subject, while being fun. You’ll usually work with people from outside of your field(like Greenpeace, for instance), and they’ll have a different line of thought, for they may understand a lot about the subject in question, but they usually don’t know so much about game design and the other parts of the process, of course, maybe you find someone who just says “ok, do your thing”, but, as every designer knows, that is a rare case.
Then comes the target group, that is, who you want to play the game, and it will be the same as the target of the organization you’re working with, which is good, since it is one less thing to think about, but could bad, because sometimes it is a hard public, either on their taste for games, or how much they want to play your game, et cetera.
Games are usually made as a group, designed as a group, and sold as a group, but for serious games, it usually comes from the game designer and the art director, because the game has to be fun for the specific group and has to teach about the subject. Let’s say you’re working with some group that wants a game about oil spills, who’s this group target? How much time they spend playing games? Which games? With this information you begin to think about the game design and the art direction.
But, why would you do it? First of all, not all great games simply appear, you’ll need money, and advergames could go in the same basket, since it is a game, made for a group, with a single purpose: teach about something. “Expendabros”, for example, is a game by Free Lives, for a group(Warner), about the movie. I don’t follow this train of thought. In my vision, there are indie games, AAA games, advergames, and serious games, but some people will take advergames and serious games and put them under the same shade.
Second of all, serious games are a powerful way to move people. As I said before, I’ve made one of those back when college tasked us to. And… it was about a really hard theme. Abortion and underage pregnancy. We worked with some people who helped under aged girls(usually 14-16), but not helped them with the abortion, helped them with everything necessary to keep the baby and give it a good life. It is a hard theme, and harder to make a game about. After studying a lot of possibilities we came to the simple question “what people this age usually play?”, and, after thinking for days, we got our game. It was a Candy Crush-like game, which girls this age play a lot, and in the game, you had to connect good feelings, and destroy bad feelings. Each good feeling had a different shape, resembling union, joy, et cetera, while the bad feelings were black and had primitive shapes, like triangles, circles, and squares. In between those segments, there was another one, a story telling segment, were you would complete a puzzle that would then tell the story about a girl who discovers her pregnancy.
Of course, it was hard, and a simple game like this took us five whole months. This kind of games, fellas, is a hard kind, but trust me, they are important.
And there are games that you play all the way through and doesn’t even notice that is(or could be, in this case), a serious one. Spec OPS: The Line is a game where you control the commander of a trio of soldiers who are tasked with an extraction mission in Dubai. A sandstorm closed the city, and a group of soldiers was sent in to rescue the civilians, but they never returned, so now you and two other guys have to get in there, discover what happened to this group of soldiers, find the civilians, and extract or protect them. Ok, looks like your average shooting game, but it goes deeper.
Yeah, spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
As you play, you’ll be presented some events that seen normal at first sight, but you see them again by the end of the game, and things start to look weird. Also there are events that are simply weird, like teleporting soldiers, or your dead squadmate coming back to kill you. The events that seen normal are different, because you see them from the eyes of a simple shooter game. Right at the beginning, things start to go south and your squadmates keep saying that you should turn back. The thing is, yeah, you should. Your mission was more of a reckon, and when things turn sour, you should request extraction and give a report, so more soldiers would be sent. The character keeps going. You find a radio, and through the game, you keep having these conversations with the missing squad’s commander, and at some point, you are presented with a choice: there are two guys hanging from a rope, a soldier and a civilian, you have to shoot one of them. The commander, the soldier, the civilian, all dead. For months, it seems like.
The game, even though it is a shooter game about a trio of soldiers killing dudes in Dubai, is also about PTSD, and even though it never says “hey, this is PTSD” or “let’s talk about soldiers”, it helps you in the long pathway of understanding the horrors of war, and what it does to human mind.
Of course, maybe it isn’t a serious game, maybe the designers just thought it was cool to make it that way. If this is the case, yeah, it made the game way cooler. But in its core, even if it wasn’t their intention, to me, it is a serious game. And there are others like this, you just have to find them.