serious games

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Endgame: Syria and Serious Themes in Gaming

Endgame: Syria

In the last few days much talk on has centered around Apple’s recent rejection of of an app called Endgame: Syria. The event has many lamenting Apple’s policies regarding violence in games, which insists that enemies in in software “cannot solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity.” But the game itself deserves some attention for how it uses mechanics to inform the user about a complicated issue: the real-world Syrian civil war.

Endgame: Syria rests somewhat uncomfortably in the mainstream conception of a “game”.  The app places the player in the midst of the modern Syrian conflict, asking him or her make decisions for the rebels and guide them in their struggle to gain public support and inflict military damage upon the regime. Though it presents a complicated issue with a somewhat simple perspective, Endgame ia an interesting case study on how games  address serious issues.

Endgame doesn’t seek to be a simulator – to accurately reflect the complex interplay between politics, society, and war in Syria – but it does impart a basic understanding of the sort of challenges faced by the Syrian opposition. The player makes decisions during two “phases” of interaction: the Political stage, where the player strives to earn support from world leaders and enact various sanctions against the regime, and the Military stage, where rebels face off against powerful government forces.

Endgame: Syria

Through gameplay, Endgame emphasizes the relationship between the military and political achievements of the Syrian rebels. Support from Qatar, or Saudi Arabia, or France in one phase directly translate into support during another, supplying the rebels with resources necessary to employ fighters. By placing the user in the position of making these important decisions, the game instructs the player on how vital these international supply lines are. Quite apart from being told that politics are important to the rebel cause, the player experiences the reality of resource scarcity firsthand.

As the game progresses, the regime steadily brings greater and more powerful forces to bear, including tanks, helicopters, and jets. The opposition must work with smaller forces, typically infantry. The player is presented with an attack from the regime and must choose which among his or her (mostly inadequate) forces will be selected to repel the opposing fighters. Using more powerful engines of destruction – captured tanks, often – results in a greater fighting chance but endangers the lives of civilians, which directly translates to a loss of foreign and domestic support. Placing the player in the shoes of an opposition leader making these decisions makes the combat realities of the Syrian rebels a little more understandable.

Endgame falls into a series of games which force the player to make difficult decisions and come to understand the perspective of real-life decision makers. Like Impact Game’s Peacemaker, which places the player in the role of either an Israeli or Palestinian leader in the peace process, Endgame revolves around making difficult choices where short-term decisions have long-term consequences regarding public approval and support. Sitting down in front of either of these games, the player can experience the challenges faced by a Syrian opposition commander, who has to balance waging a war with protecting civilians, or an Israeli politician, for whom ordering the evacuation of a settlement may amount to political suicide.

Military Phase - Endgame: Syria

The experience is certainly an interesting way to encourage the average consumer, playing the game on an Android device or in a browser, to engage with the Syrian conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives to date.

Not everything about the game is perfect. Issue might be taken with Endgame: Syria’s somewhat simplified and smoothed take on a very messy war. The conflict is distilled down to monolithic representations of the regime and the rebels, leaving aside, for the most part, a wealth of sectarian and political subdivisions that exist on both sides. In having the player always responding to regime attacks, the rebels are presented as generally on the defensive, while real-life opposition forces have been on the offensive seizing land and making strategic gains across the country. Nowhere in the game is the player presented with the option of brutally executing captured regime soldiers, an act which has occurred after opposition victories and makes at least some of the rebels liable to be indicted for war crimes. For all its ambition to convey some of the challenges of a rebellion with legitimate grievances, the game runs into the classic problem of media surrounding conflict: how to tell a compelling story without wandering into the realm of propaganda?

Yet while the game may provide a simplified version of the regime and the rebels, it might be forgiven. Endgame: Syria provides a more serious take on war than most games on the market.  Each of the player’s choices are connected with the inevitable death of civilians, driving home the reality that the war he or she is waging has real-world consequences for innocents. The game has multiple end states, including a peace deal that fully satisfies none of the parties, and a violent breakup of the nation into chaos. Most often, the player will simply lose, succumbing to Assad forces and leaving the dictator to rule over a broken country. Far from being a power fantasy in the vein of the world’s Call of Duty franchise, Endgame: Syria conveys an ambiguous, inglorious image of war… uncommon enough, in the games market today.

The game’s designer, Tomas Rawlings, is well aware of the challenges associated with engaging with a serious topic through a medium most often associated with frivolous entertainment. The trailer above was released alongside Endgame, as a sort of introductory primer for audiences unfamiliar with viewing games in a serious style. In the video, Rawlings pays homage to the work of Joe Sacco, whose exploration of the Palestinian conflict through a comic is an example of what Rawlings considers to be a “pioneer” of a addressing serious topics in non-traditional mediums. Sacco’s work addresses the themes of death, loss, and suffering in a medium that until recently was considered only appropriate for less serious fare. Rawlings, the creators a game focusing on rebellion and warfare, seeks to have Endgame exist within a similar space.

The work of comic artists Joe Sacco (left) and Art Spiegelman (right).

The work of comic artists Joe Sacco (left) and Art Spiegelman (right).

Today, comics appear to have made the leap into cultural acceptance in a way that games have yet to accomplish. Yet one can see that the two mediums have undergone similar journeys. One of the most famous serious comic series, Maus by Art Spiegelman, tells the story of the author’s father’s experience of the Halocaust. Although he eventually received the Pulitzer prize for his work, Spiegelman often worried that the story might be too complicated for comics to convey. Games, it seems, are beginning to experience a similar trial. “It is not the medium that is the issue,” says Rawlings, “but what you do with it.” Endgame: Syria is an honest look at a complicated issue, and is what we should hope to see in the medium of games.

Very clever: Google’s Ingress masks Data-Collection in Gaming

Ingress

As a company Google has a reputation for being clever, but their latest Android app Ingress seems like a particularly intelligent method of gathering data from their ever expanding user base.

Developed in Google’s Niantic Labs division, the game makes use of mobile phones’ geolocation abilities and augmented reality for a unique gameplay experience. Users join one of two secret factions that are battling over what to do with an energy source that is entering into our world. The creators of the game urge players to “move through the real world using your Android device… to discover and tap sources of this mysterious energy. Acquire objects to aid in your quest, deploy tech to capture territory, and ally with other players to advance the cause of the Enlightened or the Resistance.”

Why is this clever? Ingress, as does Niantic Lab’s earlier project Field Trip, encourages players to walk around outside, travel from point to point around within their city. This data is invaluable for a company seeking to find the best possible walking routes in a crowded cosmopolitan environment. In addition to its normal complex algorithms, Google is cajoling its users to provide it with real-world-data on how best to get from point A to B on foot. This can help Google to further improve the quality of its Google Maps application, both on smart phones and for its Google Glass project, whenever that arrives.

Tech Crunch’s Darrell Etherington points out that the game follows in the footsteps of start-developers like Massive Damage, whose games Please Stay Calm and Shadow Cities use  location-based gameplay. But whereas those games are available to anyone with a smartphone, access to Ingress is limited to a closed-beta set of users… possibly to enhance the mystique surrounding the game.

The takeaway is that organizations like Google are using games to gather information in new and effective ways. By wrapping data collection in the trappings of an engaging interactive experience, Ingress is actually fueling a desire amongst its users to provide it with information (and giving the company positive coverage to boot.) NGOs and governments can find a lesson in this – by creating a games project that is worth engaging with, they can shape users’ behavior and thinking.

The webcomic XKCD pokes fun at the lengths some Ingress users will go to complete in-game challenges.

More than a Game: the Defense Department and the First Person Shooter

Earlier this month Take Five launched a series on serious games and the way that various organizations use games as a tool to communicate. This week, we take closer look at how the military has been using games to pursue its recruiting and public relations goals.

In some ways, the Department of Defense has an easy job relating to the American media. Americans seem to like action and violence. Soldiers and government spies consistently break records at the movies and games box office – the military shooter franchise Call of Duty, for example, is worth over $3 billion dollars and is one of the most profitable franchises in gaming history.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that DoD has some influence this scene, giving advice and support to many movies and games companies regarding how things are done in the military. The army even has a consultation bureau which will offer government support as long as the production in question adheres to some strict guidelines about the depiction of the military. Government consultation with a franchise lends it an air of legitimacy,  although viewers of last February’s film “Act of Valor”, in which the actors were active-duty Navy SEALs, can affirm that it is no guarantor of quality. While there are plenty of movies critical of the U.S. government and the intelligence or military branches, the Defense Department is at least able to operate and influence the military-oriented media scene, generating popular content that projects the U.S. military in a positive light.

Games, as well as movies, are starting to occupy the military’s attention in some interesting ways. As with other forms of media, DoD’s goal in gaming is to increase public understanding of the Armed Forces and the Department of Defense and to assist Armed Forces recruiting and retention programs. One of its more successful forays into the games world is the “America’s Army” franchise, a first-person shooter (FPS) series developed and published by the U.S. armed forces. The game places a heavy emphasis on realism; the models of weapons and their sound effects are accurate to real world weapons; the player’s aim is affected by whether he is running or standing. Considerable emphasis, too, is placed on encouraging teamwork among the player soldiers.

The Army strove for a realistic feel in “America’s Army” to drive recruitment and set reasonable expectations for the challenges of Army life.

There’s more at stake for the army than simply to boost gamer’s achievement scores. In 2011 U.S. Army were expected to recruit at least 64,000 new service members – an expensive proposition, considering the Army spends about $15,000 to recruit every soldier. So it doesn’t make many new enthusiastic signups to make “America’s Army” worthwhile, especially as the designers hope to discourage costly washouts by accurately demonstrating the rigors of military life. And while it seems that the age of the average gamer is around 35, the college-age player that is the prime demographic for recruitment is the most expensive to recruit – getting him or her to sign up on the basis a games purchase is a recruiter’s home run. Thus far, in terms of user engagement, the series has been a great success, ranked in the top 10 first-person shooter games played online between 2002 and 2008, with thousands of players online at any time according to Gamespy. Not bad for for $32 million investment over a decade.

Part of the reason for this success is that the mechanics of the series fall so neatly into existing frameworks for play. First-person shooter games have been around since the early 1990s and, in addition to having been huge earners for games consoles, spawned an entire generation of designers who know how to construct exactly how to create them. “America’s Army”, fitting neatly into this genre, is able to draw upon decades of game design; All that is required is to translate the Army’s field manual into a design document for gameplay. On the consumer end of the process, little effort is required to incorporate the game into the existing scene. The fact that American culture already regularly consumes entertainment media revolving around the military ensures that what the Defense Department has to say, people will pay to experience.

Published in 1993, Wolfenstein 3D is considered to be one of the forefathers of the FPS genre.

Games seem to fit well with the DoD’s ethos on a mechanical level. Games often revolve competition, cooperation, and the achievement of goals – not to mention the violence that so often fascinates a human audience. These concepts are the Defense Department’s very bread and butter, and what makes video games such an effective medium and tool for the military branch of the U.S. government. Games like “America’s Army” are important for internal consumption as well as external – since the army owns every asset that goes into the game, it can re-use the materials for other projects, such as training software.

When next week we look at State Department’s cautious foray’s into games, we’ll be asking a number of the same questions. What are State’s goals with games? What challenges does the organization face in using the medium as a tool? Stay tuned.

Serious Games: Playing to Communicate and Change

Those interested in using innovative methods to spread a message might take an interest in the Half the Sky Movement, an organization dedicated to promoting gender equality in developing nations.  This November, Half the Sky will release a game on Facebook. What makes this game interesting – and potentially, will allow it to stand out on a platform usually dedicated to lighter fare – is the way that it links in-game behavior to real-world events. From the organization’s website:

“…Helping in-game does not only reward the players online. Players’ actions and virtual items are tied to micro-donations and matching donations from sponsors that extend to the real world: building schools, donating livestock to farmers or supporting new micro-saving programs. Beyond monetary contributions, players will be invited to share their good deeds with friends and “recruit” them, volunteer their time, organize groups, as well as engage in movies and narratives presented in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”

Foldit has allowed scientists to crowdsource solutions to troubling medical problems.
(Source: phys.org)

Half the Sky’s venture is the latest in a burgeoning trend in the games world – the use of “serious games,” or games designed for a primary purpose other than entertainment, to impact real world events. Watchers of the tech world may remember last year when a players of the game Foldit managed in three weeks to create a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, a challenge that had stumped scientists in the field for more than a decade. The project, funded by DARPA, now seeks to develop a protein to help fight sepsis. In this way, scientists are hoping to employ every-day human intuitive and puzzle-solving abilities to resolve problems that typically require advanced degrees and the use of supercomputers.

One wonders whether the U.S. Government, which has been working to incorporate other modern innovations such as social media, would benefit from games as a communication tool.  Tech@State, the State Department’s body dedicated to applying technology to U.S. diplomacy, has shown a level of interest. Last May the organization hosted a conference on serious games featuring a variety of NGOs who use the medium. Doubtless someone at State is contemplating that if games can be employed to combat disease and promote gender equality, they might be used to present the U.S. favorably abroad. If not, someone should be.

I believe that games can be of use to for public diplomacy, but only if State realizes that it will be held to the same standard as the rest of the industry. For games to impact a player, they must be engaging – people will turn off a boring game as quickly as they switch from a boring broadcast. To date, the State Department hasn’t generated much by the way of interesting content – it has contracted out companies to produce a few basic apps on topics like U.S. trivia, or oceans. I’ve played several of these. Suffice it to say that they are not explosions of creativity and entertainment.

Those interested might find find Jane McGonigal’s lectures at TED conferences to be worth watching. McGonigal is focused on motivating people to contribute to causes, and not necessarily PR, but she’s a source worth hearing on how games can move people to think and act differently. Start from 16:31 for examples of “serious gameplay” – fascinating stuff.

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