A robot spider with the head of Colonel Sanders has kidnapped Pamela Anderson, and only two chickens can save her. That’s the premise of a recent online game developed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to increase awareness for their Kentucky Fried Cruelty campaign. In the recent advergaming boom, businesses are enjoying great success using games to promote their products. Now, some activists are hoping they will be just as good at bringing attention to their causes. PETA’s game, called Super Chick Sisters, is at the forefront of this new politically charged genre, which has been coined “anti-advergaming.”
Super Chick Sisters isn’t PETA’s first venture into web-based gaming, but it has been their most ambitious and successful one. PETA’s Marketing Manager, Joel Bartlett, says almost 500,000 people have played it through PETA’s KentuckyFriedCruelty.com website. There, visitors can get more information about fast food chain KFC’s treatment of chickens, discover ways to protest against KFC and view a list of celebrities who have signed a PETA petition.
“People come for the game and stay for the shocking videos and information about KFC’s cruelty to chickens,” Bartlett says in an email interview. “It is always a challenge to promote a serious message to our tabloid-filled and entertainment-focused society. People don’t want serious news conferences – they want to be entertained. While we do it all – using both hard-hitting and softer approaches – PETA often wraps our serious messages within eye-catching, light-hearted stunts. The most famous example of this is our ‘I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur‘ campaign. Super Chick Sisters follows this strategy. We’re pulling people in with humor and a good time, but we’ve ensured that the message is still strong and will reach all players.”
Super Chick Sisters is an homage to the Super Mario Bros. games, looking and playing a lot like Super Mario World. Players control either Nugget or Chickette, two plumber’s-cap-wearing chicks that embark on a quest to save a missing Pamela Anderson, a vocal PETA supporter in real life. If you finish the game, Anderson becomes a playable character, in a full Princess Toadstool costume no less.
In true Mario style, Nugget and Chickette leap and dodge their way through five levels of platform jumping, enemy stomping and pipe traversing. Levels take the heroic hens through settings like a KFC restaurant, where huge red-and-white-striped buckets ooze dark red blood and menus offer “Tortured Beakless Baby Bird” and a “Cruelty Value Meal.” Bashing question-mark blocks sometimes brings up chunks of tofu that make the chicks double in size. Instead of coins, the duo collects little, winged chick heads for points and extra lives. The aforementioned robotic spiders are the game’s only enemies. And regardless of your feelings about KFC, their giant Colonel Sanders heads are extremely creepy.
Cut-scenes between levels show the trials and tribulations of the real Mario brothers, who were late to respond to Pamela Anderson’s disappearance due to a severe case of Wii-itis (eventually treated by Dr. Mario). The PETA designers take some pointed but loving digs at the way Mario and Luigi treat animals in their own games. At one point, a rebellious Yoshi refuses to work with the pair and eventually joins a group of People for the Ethical Treatment of Turtles protesters fighting for the rights of Koopa Troopas.
Bartlett says using the Mario series as the game’s basis made sense as a way to get people’s attention and create a game people will like to play. “We believe that Super Chick Sisters has an extremely broad appeal. By parodying a series with such universal appeal like Super Mario Bros., we think we’ve created a game that will resonate across all demographics of people who are online, particularly the young people that KFC so clearly targets with its advertising.”
“We certainly hope that the game has crossed [Mario creator] Shigeru Miyamoto’s desk and that he enjoyed playing our tribute to his masterpiece,” adds Bartlett, a Wii owner whose first gaming loves included Mario Kart 64 and GoldenEye 007. “That would be a dream come true for me.”
The PETA team found inspiration in other Mario parodies found on YouTube and Flash games like those on Newgrounds.com. After some research on casual gaming, and the realization that an anti-advergame would stand out from the crowd, they moved forward. “As a non-profit, we have an extremely tight budget for this type of project,” Bartlett says. “Fortunately we have an amazing Flash developer in-house, or else this game might never have been made.”
That developer is 27-year-old Karen Nilsen, a web designer who says she forced herself to stop playing games for about 15 years, to keep herself from becoming addicted to them. “I must admit the research [for Super Chick Sisters] was fun,” she says, also by email. “I had – and still have – strong urges to rush out and buy a Nintendo DS system to play the New Super Mario Bros. Nintendo really created a masterpiece there.”
As her first experience with game design, Nilsen says Super Chick Sisters took four months of three-days-a-week work to create, not counting evenings spent reading about basic trigonometry, ActionScript animation and using Flash for game design. After hearing about KFC’s chicken-raising practices, Nilsen’s two sound engineer housemates volunteered to create the sound effects and Mario-esque music found in the game.
Programming, drawing graphics and recording sounds are parts of the creation of most videogames, but Super Chick Sisters had an additional requirement: The PETA team wanted to make the game fun enough that people would want to play, but serious enough that it still relayed their often grim message.
“There’s no doubt that painfully cutting off the sensitive beaks of baby birds and then scalding them to death is inherently uncool,” Nilsen says. “To build a game – one that people would actually want to play – around these ghastly facts was an enormous challenge. To be successful in the world of net-based games we had to give it an edge, and that meant we had to polish the graphics, sound and gameplay until it all gleamed. If we wanted gamers to hear the message, we had to respect them and deliver a decent game.”
For Super Chick Sisters, PETA chose a kind of negative product placement approach to make their point. Enemies have the face of Colonel Sanders, and the famous Kentucky businessman himself is the final boss, disguised as Mario nemesis Bowser. Blood-smeared KFC logos adorn the walls of some levels. And if players stop to read, various human protesters or horrified animals give information from PETA on how they say KFC treats its chickens. One protester tells you, “KFC is scalding chickens to death! Many birds are still awake when their feathers are scalded off in ‘defeathering tanks.’ Can you imagine THAT?! Yuck!”
Bartlett says he’s happy with the result: “Based on the feedback we’ve read on gaming blogs, we feel that we did hit the right balance. The game has been praised for its humor and playability, but no one has skipped over the point that it does have a strong message.”
Super Chick Sisters received a 9/10 rating from Tom Fulp, the founder of Newgrounds.com and a co-founder of game company The Behemoth. Responding to some negative user comments, Fulp wrote, “It looks like a lot of people are giving this game a hard time because they don’t agree with the message. It’s a solid platformer and plays better than a majority of the web-based platformers out there.”
Rather than relying on players to read messages for information, other anti-advergames put the player in a simulation of an event or situation to make the player learn by doing. Disaffected!, an early anti-advergame by serious game developer Persuasive Games, parodies copy stores by forcing players to control workers in a Kinko’s location where orders are constantly mixed up and employees don’t always respond to your commands. Another anti-advergame by Italian activist group Molleindustria lets players run the McDonald’s fast food chain from boardroom to farm to restaurant. Players must maximize profits by making decisions like whether to bribe health inspectors or raze rainforests to make room for more cattle.
These are the kinds of questions with which early anti-advergame developers must struggle. And while Bogost’s critique may have merit, it’s hard to picture anybody wanting to play a chicken-slaughtering simulator. Nilsen says attracting a large audience with her game and raising awareness for PETA’s message was her priority.
“I believe videogames are like humor,” she says. “When you get it right, you’ll get your audience to like you before they even realize what you’re saying. It’s a valuable rapport to build, so that when you communicate a message as serious as how KFC tortures animals, it’s more likely to not only be heard but also acted upon. Of course, developing a successful videogame also allowed us to send our message to a vast cross-section of people in gaming communities and the internet at large, who otherwise might have never known that the primary ingredient in a bucket of KFC is cruelty.”
Bartlett says PETA will continue to use videogames to attract and inform the public. “What other vehicle can one use to communicate a message that will keep users engaged for 30 minutes?” he asks. “Videogames allow for an immersive experience that can inform players about an issue – in this case, KFC’s cruel treatment of chickens – over a period of time. This is perfect for people who are interested but may be turned off by more direct appeals.”
PETA’s success will likely draw imitators and the number of anti-advergames will start to grow. Tactics will vary. Methods will differ. But that’s what makes being present during the rise of a new genre so exciting. The field is wide open, and the art of using videogames to change the world is just beginning.