Sign up for news

Suzanne Seggerman (of Games for Change) gave a great microtalk at GDC, with one of my favorite quotes of the conference: “You can’t find Bob Dylan in the serious music section of iTunes.” She was encouraging developers to explore real world themes though personal messages in their games.

People often asked me, at GDC and SXSW, if The Unconcerned was a “serious game”. Lump it in the same category as shooters developed for military training? Games developed for exer-bikes? Huh?

Billy Cain, one of the judges in the SXSW Screenburn Casual Game Design Competition, asked me another question after my presentation in the competition¬†(the game was one of four finalists – I lost but that’s another, perhaps not unrelated, story). He wanted to know what actions I expected people to take after playing the game.

My practicality refuses my imagination from envisioning people actively going out and doing something about the Iranian election crisis just because of playing the game. (That’s part of the reason I plan to give a portion of the game’s profits to charity, because it would be silly to expect people to do something afterwards if you can do it for them first).

Yet the question conveys a similar, but more subtle, bias. It’s the notion that the entire purpose of such games is to advocate for a particular solution.

I’m reminded of a TV interview with Henry Rollins (he expresses a similar point in this web interview in the¬†second to last question). The TV interviewer asked him if he still thought music could change the world, if it could stop war. His response was basically if Bob Dylan couldn’t do it, no.

This is disconcerting, but true. The point of any serious entertainment is not directly solve those problems, but to make people want it and aid those that do. If it has any institutional purpose it’s to serve as the emotional support for change, not to idealistically alter the world through the pushing of bits. It can never to be considered as a cause for change – to do so devalues the effort and perseverance of those who work hard towards that change.

I was also reminded of the backlash on twitter of people criticising those who changed their profile pics to green to support the Iranian protesters – people asserted that changing your picture to green wasn’t going to do anything, and derided your intelligence if you did it.

It was never about that. Even just making a game is difficult enough that I can’t imagine it without the encouragement of friends and family. Trying to change an entire country’s flawed political system through civil disobedience? Is it such a stretch to grasp the profound impact of finding people who empathize with you?

Beyond emotional support, ultimately it’s information that is required for change. An Inconvenient Truth has increased awareness of global warming by combining information about the issues and entertainment. It champions people to become aware of, and possibly act on, the problem. It obviously hasn’t solved them, but does that mean it wasn’t worth making?

The reality is that any individual in the US can do very little to help people in Iran, especially given the limitations our government places on that interaction. Yet the fact is, were we to elect the wrong person to any number of public offices here in the US, our relationship with Iran and the fate of its people could drastically be harmed. When most politicians, not to mention newscasters, portray a profound ignorance of Iran, let’s not underestimate the indirect power of a little information.

These classifications applied to serious games strip them of the neccesary emotion required to succeed at this. They are a ghetto, a limited area where these minority of games can dwell. They are not allowed to break out of their box, and their makers reinforce that victimization on each other.

Brenda Brathwaite’s talk on Train, in contrast, was easily the most moving thing I’d ever attended at any function where powerpoint was involved. While I’d like to blame my overly emotional state and watery eyes on four hours of sleep and a hangover, I know better. Inspiring beyond words.

Unlike Train, though, a work fit to put in an art gallery anywhere, any day, what I want to do with The Unconcerned is to make a piece of entertainment that informs. The stereotyping of serious games that I came across was thankfully offset by the resounding feedback from friends, developers and other bloggers, to make the game. When I started I was convinced the only way to make such a goal desirable and understandable to others was to complete the game. I was very appreciative get emotional support from folks with a more refined opinion on the matter, reinforcing the point that change is more complex than any label or categorization can convey.