Serious Games are Getting Serious

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I spent a bunch of this week at the Games 4 Change 2010 Festival and thinking about the potential for games, mostly digital, to effect change in the world.  Luminaries at the conference (uncited in case I've botched their eloquence) have called games the "art form of social discourse" and "unique as a medium that enacts formal discourse and cultural interpretation with the audience."  Certainly, games are a medium of interaction and engagement, and often model rules that we believe the world to work by.  Playing games can be a powerful way to consider alternative ways of looking at the world within the safe space "of just a game."

As I was preparing for the conference, a friend forwarded me this letter or comment from the Atlantic Monthly's site, and it couldn't have been more timely.  An excerpt (beyond the cut), though it's short and you really should take three minutes to read the whole thing:

I don't want to go back on this Obama piece again, but I think this is why when I hear people denigrate video games, it pisses me off. Something like Total War has greatly enhanced my understanding of the Civil War. I re-watched Glory the other day, and it changed how I looked at the battle scenes.  It's little stuff, like actually seeing someone marching at the quick-step or double time, as opposed to reading it. There's no other way to convey it without experiencing it. 

Which leads me to something else--politics almost certainly prevent it, and it would have to be done right, but I would love to see some knowledgeable people tackling the black experience through gaming. I know The Scramble For Africa is shameful to a lot of us, as is the slave trade, and much of the Diaspora experience.

Now that I see that the post is open to the public, I would like to respond within the (generally very articulate and respectful) comments.  Ta-Nehisi's post was unusual in that it was very positive and looking for good work on this front.  I think the good work is out there, at least the beginning of it, and more people should know about it.  This was my reply to the friend that sent it to me, edited for re-use here on my general site.

Thank you for sending this article (comment?)!  Ta-Nehisi raises some really good points, and ones that are being actively discussed in both the video gaming and tabletop gaming industries.  This week I've been attending, and presenting at, a conference called "Games For Change" which is all about Serious Games ... to the extent that some even apply the name Serious Games to the growing field.  Others prefer Social Issue Games or Games for Change.

Two really interesting projects that are specifically close to what Ta-Nehisi wants are out there now.  (My friend "Ogreteeth") recently linked me to a game called "Steal Away Jordan," a (non-digital) role-playing game about the American slave experience.  I haven't read up much on it, but it looks like the author feels the need that Ta-Nehisi feels.

Another is done by a luminary of the digital game industry who has taken a few years off from digital life to focus on non-digital games, and she's taken on a bunch of really provocative and difficult topics.  The whole process was prompted by her daughter coming home from school with a casual attitude toward their recent study focus on The Middle Passage.  Brenda Brathwaite, the game designer, was shocked that her daughter knew so much about the economics and history of the slave trade, but seemed to feel nothing.  She sat down with her daughter and improvised a game that brought the human side of the issue home.  She gave a talk on it that is freely available and worth a look.    To see it, go here and scroll right through the list near the top looking for "Train: or how I learned to dump electricity and love game design."

Neither of these is what Ta-Nehisi is really looking for, which is a AAA digital game with the tech and publicity to be part of pop cultural discourse.  But there are people --a lot of people-- who are working very hard on just what the article/comment calls for, and that's cause for some hope.  And some of them are doing great work.
There's some hope for your Memorial Day weekend.

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This page contains a single entry by Scott Price published on May 29, 2010 10:12 AM.

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