A Slightly Serious Primer

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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3rd World Farmer puts you in the shoes of a subsistence farmer, in what’s presumably western Africa. You’re given a family of four to control, a plot of fertile land and $50 to build your very own agrarian paradise deep in the heart of the Dark Continent. Each year, you get a rundown on how the farm did, as well as a report of the “Yearly Event,” which usually has to do with a crop failing, poachers stealing your livestock or guerillas shaking you down for your excess cash.

The game reiterates the peril in which civilians in Africa live. It’s a world of Catch-22s; you can’t afford to gamble on your farm, but you have to in order to ensure its survival. All it takes is one bad year to sink you, and sooner or later, that year’s going to come.

Oh, and if you’re interested in playing, let me give you one piece of advice, a la The Graduate: I want to say one word, just one word. Chickens.

Real Lives
First, I was a girl in Burkina Faso. I grew up working odd jobs and died at 65 with enough of a nest egg to leave my surviving children relatively wealthy. Then, I was a boy in Germany. I grew up to be a military officer and keeled over at 45 of a heart attack. After that, I was a boy in New York who couldn’t land a job, despite going to college, until I was 26. You can be all this and more in Real Lives.

Real Lives is a semi-random, scenario-based RPG. Each instance of the game begins at your character’s birth, and as you age, you make choices about spending, investing, schooling and romance. Each year, you run a chance of coming across a life-changing event, like meeting your future spouse, getting pregnant, losing your job or coming down with syphilis.

While the chances are random, the stats you’re born with and alter by going to school and choosing how you spend your free time (for example, if you choose to spend your time playing sports, your Endurance, Strength and Attractiveness go up, but you might lose some points in your Intelligence by not focusing directly on your studies) affect how likely you are to cope with trauma. The calamities differ by the socioeconomic status of the country. And when you’re born, you’re able to get a quick rundown of the country’s financial, social and political welfare by reading popup information and checking out a few tabs built into the interface.

While Real Lives does a great job of exemplifying why it sucks to be a woman in the Third World, its randomizer is a bit heavy-handed. In my numerous run-throughs, I never once had a character who led a normal life, even my aforementioned American character. (He pulled a Gingrich and left his wife as she lay in the hospital, paralyzed. Then, he made a fortune on the stock market in his 50s, but a series of foul-ups left him on the government dole by the time he was 90.) No, the message you’ll take away from Real Lives is you are a statistic waiting to happen. Be wary.

Also, helpful tip for surviving in the third world: Don’t breed if you can avoid it.

Not all serious games deal with cultural phenomena or class warfare. Some deal with terminal diseases in children. Re-Mission, created by HopeLab, is designed to help educate kids with cancer about what exactly is going on in their bodies, as well as how various medications treat the problem.

Running on an impressive-looking 3-D shoot-em-up engine, you take on the persona of Roxxi, a personified “nanobot,” who, with the help of a holographic, R2D2-like helper, attacks different types of cancer cells within patients’ bodies. Roxxi also deals with the effects her weapons (chemotherapy, radiation and antibiotics) have on her patients, sending signals to them to help them deal with the nausea and pain brought on by real-life cancer treatments. As she battles her way through 20 different levels and multiple patients, Roxxi conveys the sense that there’s always a chance to beat the disease. And to a scared kid sitting in a hospital bed 24 hours a day, Roxxi is a friend who never stops thinking positively.

Hopelab distributes Re-Mission to hospitals for free.

America’s Army
Arguably the granddaddy of them all, at least from a publicity standpoint, America’s Army is both a shining example of how good serious games can be and a shining example of how dangerous they are in capable hands. While many aspects of the game are accurate, America’s Army is dripping with propaganda by omission.

For instance, the game takes you through basic arms and specialist training, and the combat engine is top-notch, but at no point in the gameplay are you ordered to scrub toilets because the skinny kid in your platoon fell out on a run. You’re a hero out killing terrorists and making the world safe, but you’re never the guy in Kansas dodging tornados while monitoring arms shipments. On top of that, the brutality of the combat scenes is glossed over, as cartoonish as Counter-Strike.

When you look at this as a recruitment tool (and it seems to be working – as part of an aggressive, $2.2 billion investment in changing recruitment methods, the Armed Forces are no longer missing their enlistment quotas, like they were before America’s Army released in 2002), you’re forced to wonder just what serious games can do when the wrong person is controlling the message. That alone makes America’s Army worth a play.

Oh, and it’s pretty fun, too.

But Seriously, Folks
While these games should jumpstart you into the power circle at game industry cocktail parties, they’re just jumping-off points. As development tools drop in cost, activists around the world (including the Third World) are turning to games to get their message out. They’re making points by inserting the audience into a reality they normally wouldn’t be a party to, and the effect is profound. It’s plain to see, big things are coming.

Just make sure you know who’s behind the curtain.

Joe Blancato is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He quotes Wayne’s World and Dr. Strangelove more often than what can be considered normal.

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