Friday, July 5, 2013

Earnest Games, Not Serious Games

Why is it that after ten years of Games for Change festivals guys like Ian Bogost are still making the same argument: games have the power to depict complexity in ways other media can't, and they have the potential to positively impact how we talk about and understand complex issues.  Why are so-called serious games not living up to this potential?

In his Games for Change Festival keynote this year, Bogost gave his take (along with a healthy dose of self-criticism).  I've done my best to summarize it here.

You see, there is a bit of a paradox that the serious games community faces.  Games involve systems thinking.  Systems thinking assumes that simple answers are always wrong.  But serious games are presented as "superficially transformative affairs."

A post mortum on Oiligarchy, a game about oil consumption and political participation through corporate sponsorship, was said to increase the game's transparency or allow the intentions of the creator to better shine through.  Does this mean the game is insufficient to talk about the issues? That additional words and images are required?

Fatworld, Bogost's own creation, did a good job of representing the rhetoric of nutrition, but wasn't a terribly good game (so he says).  Meanwhile, the Apps for Healthy Kids winners were apparently not very good either.  Yet these were much more successful than Fatworld - what excused them from mediocrity and propelled them to success?

Games' ability to do procedural rhetoric can be short-circuited by orthogonal media situations that resist the fundamentals of games.  In the case of Apps for Healthy Kids, the main purpose was not to change minds about healthy eating, though doing so would be a bonus.  Instead, a branch of the government wanted to demonstrate that they were hip enough to use cool technology.

Is the problem with serious games that they try to separate entertainment from seriousness, turning it into an either/or proposition? Do serious games seem to represent the goals of institutions rather than having a worthy goal on their own?

Maybe too many serious games aren't really that concerned about being games. They are hip.  They are concepts at worst, adornments at best.

We don't need 'serious games' or 'games for change.'  We need games that want to be games first and foremost.  Second, the creators of these games should really want to pursue the topics they claim to want to pursue (not just create the opportunity to talk about these topics outside of the game).

Maybe, what we need are not serious games, but earnest games.  Games that mean it, that do justice to their topics and to the medium of games themselves.

Now this is an idea I can stand behind.


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