Playing for Keeps

Playing for Keeps
A Slightly Serious Primer

Joe Blancato | 30 Jan 2007 11:00
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In the past year or so, I've been hearing things whispered about serious games at conferences and tossed around in emails. People are talking about games where you play suicide bombers, games where you're a border guard, games where you're a white supremacist. Unafraid of (and sometimes attracted to) the taboo, I figured it was time to see what this whole serious games thing was about, where the good parties were.

A few months later, the only real conclusion I've been able to draw is serious games are here to stay, and the messages they carry are as varied as the people creating them. Each time I get bored with one game, I stumble into another one with a completely different premise and point, and I shuffle further into the rabbit hole.

The good news is my investigations have been pretty cheap. A lot of serious games are released for free or as shareware; these folks are happier to change your outlook on life than they are to take your money. And as I've made my way around the internet, chasing the genre I used to ignore, I've managed to hang onto five games that serve as a great introduction to the genre. Here, in no particular order, are the games you need to check out if you want to get serious about serious games.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG
Elephant, meet the living room. Living room, this is the elephant. Super Columbine Massacre RPG is enjoying its 15 minutes of infamy by getting kicked out of game festivals and talked about by our friends in the middle, the mainstream media. But as a serious game, it conveys a powerful message about violent, emotionally unstable youth and the generation that ignored them.

SCMRPG is at its best in the early morning of April 20, 1999, before you get into the meat of the game. You assume the role of Eric Harris, one of the two teenagers responsible for the Columbine High School massacre. As you explore the boy's room and basement, you're offered a window into Harris' psyche, his disaffection and his inability to see beyond the insular world of Littleton, Colorado. As he reminisces over how he and Dylan Klebold (the other boy involved in the shooting) planned their rampage for months, learning how to manufacture bombs while quoting German nihilists, you can't help but wonder what the hell went wrong with these kids and whether or not the switch that got flipped inside them is inside you, too.

For that first 20 minutes, SCMRPG is the serious games genre. Then, for the next hour, you're muddling your way through an amateurish Final Fantasy clone made in RPG Maker. But hey, it's free, and if you're looking for a game to profoundly affect you, look no further.

3rd World Farmer
In mid-May of 2006, I'd been doing some research on African politics, and terms like "blood diamonds" and "death marches" were floating around in my head without many points of reference. I was trying to learn more about the people in sub-Saharan Africa who are constantly at the mercy of the elements, disease and roving bands of death soldiers. As luck would have it, 3rd World Farmer landed in my inbox and gave me as cohesive a picture of life in modern Africa as can be possibly conveyed via videogame.

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