[-empyre-] "alternative, diverse forms of gaming aimed at cultural change"
writerguy at writerguy.com
Mon Mar 18 15:41:15 EST 2013
Hello everyone, Ken Eklund here, thanks for the intro, Claudia.
Been following the conversations with much interest. My own pathway here is very different: I worked in the game industry for many years as a freelance game writer and designer. So my experience with the constraints on what a game is and what it does have been very different from what has been discussed here, coming as they do from the inside.
The thing (most) games speak loudly about is their creators. Building a game is a series of choices about what to include and what to leave out, and each decision reflects a potential communication between the game maker and his/her audience. I remember playing Conquistador, a board game about the conquest of the Americas, and pausing when my turn came to the Native Subjugation phase. By the rules, there wasn't even an option not to enslave the natives. You automatically tried to do so when you met them, and you automatically continued to try enslaving them until you were (inevitably) successful. Every rule written into a game has a whiff of this, the scent of the game maker's worldview.
The thing I wrestled with the most was the abstraction problem, i.e., the way in which games required a player to abstract their action to the game's interface. On early computer games, this was less of a consideration, because the computer itself delivered non-representational experiences, as understandable as board games were. As the games developed, however, the experiences became more representational and the games slid into the Uncanny Valley. A game has more dimensions to its Valley than a movie does, however, and every shortfall communicates to the player that he or she is not the avatar.
So in the end I gave up on any sort of representational game and also on games with rules. I looked at the emerging thing called the Internet and pondered how to use it as a game platform. I began to work on game ideas along these lines and soon stumbled on other people operating in a similar space, creating experiences they called alternate reality games (ARGs). Unlike them, I wanted to create a socially relevant game. In 2005 I pitched a project called WORLD WITHOUT OIL to ITVS, a public media non-profit in San Francisco, and it ran in 2007 to great effect.
WORLD WITHOUT OIL had a simple device: on its website (worldwithoutoil.org) it pretended that an oil crisis had started. It presented itself as the "citizen nerve center" for the crisis and asked people to send in reports describing their lives in the oil shortage. It immersed itself in its own fiction, i.e., the metadata about the project was made unobtrusive; once you acquainted yourself with what the project really was you need never be reminded again.
In WORLD WITHOUT OIL, then, there was no separate representation of yourself, and there were no rules. Because the gamemakers set examples with themselves in the game, people understood they were to try to imagine their lives realistically in an oil shortage. This proved to be a very fun experience for a lot of people and a very powerful experience for some.
I think the discussions about "do games actually create change?" are phrasing the question incorrectly. There's an assumption in there that perhaps they cannot. I think it's more productive to look at games such as DYING IN DARFUR and discuss if they perhaps fell short and if so, reasons why. Each game contains so many decisions and potential compromises in it. But I know that games can change people, because some players wrote to me after playing WORLD WITHOUT OIL and described the changes they had undergone. I recently hung out on Google with game friends and a group of them compared notes on how their life changes were going, five years later. So that's settled in my mind and now I work these gameplay tools in a storymaking genre I call "authentic fiction." My most recent authentic fiction was an effort in fall 2012 called ED ZED OMEGA, about education reform.
Respect goes out to our participants here, as many of the works cited here have been or will be an inspiration. OILIGARCHY was a sort of perfect foil to WORLD WITHOUT OIL, and UNMANNED worked brilliantly I thought with the limits I talk about above, subverting them into aspects of the game scenario. I pay a lot of attention myself to how the "game platform" of the Internet is changing, as every day new storymaking ideas and tools appear. - Ken
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