Take Action Games
Take Action Games (TAG) specializes in casual games for change. It uses games to address topics of social and political significance, employing design and content that traverses computational art, narrative, documentary, activism, and ethics. Susana Ruiz, Huy Truong, and Ashley York co-founded TAG in 2006 and launched their first game that year, Darfur is Dying, an activist game they developed at the University of Southern California with the support of a number of students and colleagues. Its development was sponsored by mtvU in partnership with The Reebok Human Rights Foundation, The International Crisis Group, and interFUEL.
They designed Darfur is Dying as an informational entryway to the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of western Sudan and the initial development resulted from a call by mtvU to mobilize university communities to raise awareness about genocide through digital games. Stephen Friedman, general manager of MTV, explains that they wanted to extend awareness of the crisis beyond a relatively closed circle of experts, activists, and non-governmental organizations. Says Friedman,
Responding to the request, Ruiz and York sought to use “uncomplicated, immediate mechanisms” in Darfur is Dying’s gameplay. They wanted to inspire players to effect real world change by taking part in letter-writing campaigns and learning how to initiate divestment strategies in their college campuses. More than 700,000 people played it in the first month after the game’s release on April 30th, 2006—the day of the Save Darfur Rally in Washington, D.C. That number grew to more than two million. Tens of thousands of players utilized “activist tools” that TAG wove into the game’s reward structure. This includes the ability to write letters to the President and petition Congress to enact legislation to support the people of Darfur. Says Ruiz,
It was an attempt to expand a campaign that already existed and to create a game that would spark a conversation and raise awareness beyond what our other programming was doing. We went in not knowing what we would get and with the goal to create something that would linger and would have more of an impact than a PSA or TV show. (2010)
Ruiz presented the game to members of the U.S. Congress and Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (2006), who has worked extensively in the region, says it is “one of the best presentations of life in Darfur” (p. 12). In contrast, immediately after mtvU posted an early prototype of Darfur is Dying, Julian Dibbell wrote an article for the Village Voice entitled, “Game From Hell.” Dibbell writes,
We were guided by a three-step design methodology. First, we wanted to construct an experience in which the player could become emotionally invested via personal narratives and testimonials. Secondly, we wanted to pull back and be able to offer her a broader context of the extremely complicated issue. Thirdly, we wanted to ensure that she had an immediate and simple means to make a difference in the real world in some small way, especially given the government and media’s stark silence on the genocide in Darfur at the time. In this case, playing through a portrayal of genocide would be entirely disheartening were it not for a chance to spread awareness about the crisis, learn about divestment, sign a petition, or write a letter with the goal of evoking decision-makers to respond. (2010)
Ruiz and York were mindful of their position in addressing issues in Darfur and anticipated the potential for negative reactions. They noted that Dibbell’s response was to a work-in-progress version of the game that was put online with little context. “We were leading a group of privileged college students from a private university to develop a game about something so far from our own daily realities. It’s understandable that people would react viscerally to that,” says Ruiz (2010).
Folks, I’ve seen some sick and twisted video games in my day, but I hereby award the cake to a dark little perversion of the human imagination entitled Fetching Water, a finalist in the MTV/Reebok Darfur Digital Activist contest… Currently playable in demo form at MTV’s new college-targeted broadband site, mtvU, Fetching Water casts the player as a cute Darfuri child dodging heavily armed militia gangs through the five kilometers of desert between home and the nearest well. Fail to outrun the militiamen and the game ends, with “kidnap, rape, and murder” listed as your likeliest fates; make it to the well and back, and maybe your family survives another day of drought. Is there even a rating for something this fucked-up. (2006)
The team consulted with various individuals and groups, including those with expertise on the genocide and those who spent time in the region. Paul Freedman, a Peabody Award Winning documentary filmmaker who was directing Sand and Sorrow, a film on Darfur at the time, provided invaluable consultation about the logistics of the camps inside Darfur, as well as imagery for the game’s aesthetic modeling. Ruiz and York also consulted with activists and scholars such as Donald Miller, Executive Director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture; and Brian Steidle, a former U.S. Marine, unarmed military observer and U.S. representative to the African Union. Additionally, the International Crisis Group and International Rescue Committee provided the team with information, perspective and imagery that proved critical to an understanding of the situation. Ruiz says,
Following the production of Darfur is Dying, TAG co-produced RePlay: Finding Zoe/ReJouer: Où est Zoé? along with the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC), a Canadian non-profit organization that prevents violence against diverse women, youth, and children. METRAC approached TAG to develop an online game on healthy relationships amongst children and youth aged eight to fourteen with the goal of challenging gender stereotypes and gender-based violence. Ruiz says that the partnership with METRAC was TAG’s first opportunity to work so closely with those engaged in community development work on the issues, and that METRAC brought invaluable knowledge about the topic and the target audience that the design team would not have had on its own as game developers (2010). RePlay/ReJourer tells the story of two friends searching for their friend, Zoe. After hearing sexist and stereotyping rumors about her, they conclude she is caught in an abusive relationship. During their search for Zoe, her friends navigate through their neighborhood and are challenged by situations that encourage them to work together and be respectful, confident communicators. Success in these situations equips them to find Zoe and cheer for her. The game includes information on the warning signs of violence and community services relevant to Ontario youth.
These were incredibly helpful to game development but we didn’t get the opportunity to speak with Sudanese experts who may have witnessed what was happening. It was an element that didn’t quite match up with our understandings of equity in game design. More people from outside of the situation were contributing to content than those internal to it. There’s no doubt that the game would have benefited greatly from the perspective of Sudanese experts who were much closer to the politics and history of the region. (2010)
Funded by the Government of Ontario, METRAC assembled an Interdisciplinary Advisory Committee for the project that included educators and school board members, experts in technology and communications, violence prevention organizations, and people who work with youth. The committee provided guidance for all stages of the project. METRAC also completed a literature review on best practices for video game design and conducted focus groups with more than 250 diverse young people in the province of Ontario. Youth were asked about their game playing behaviors, ideas and preferences, information directly utilized in the game’s design. Wendy Komiotis, METRAC’s Executive Director, comments on the importance of focus groups:
Komiotis explains that METRAC discovered new things about the way young people play games:
As an organization that operates from an anti-oppressive framework and values equity so much, we knew we needed to find out what youth wanted in this game. Instead of settling on the advice of literature and adult experts, we thought it was important to listen to youth themselves. Not just the ones who could afford their own game consoles at homes. We made sure to ask what they liked in a game, digital or not, whether played at home or a friend’s house, whether played every day or not. (2010)
The ideas and preferences of the youth who participated in focus groups directly informed RePlay/ReJourer’s design. For example, a feature was included where players choose their character, and conscious effort was dedicated to representing characters in non-normative ways. Ruiz says that METRAC and TAG worked hard to reflect the youth they had met in their focus groups, their “many skin and hair colors and types, their different physical abilities and body shapes, their dress and styles… The game does not place gendered limitations on characters, which was important in creating a game that challenges mainstream gender roles and stereotypes.” (2010) In addition, a feature was included where players answer questions about issues of abuse and gender before and after they play the game and through a graphic representation, they can view how other players answered as well. Komiotis explains the significance of this feature:
They told us that it was action, not violence so much, that they looked for in a good game. This was interesting because we were totally new to the world of social issue games and had heard all the hype about how games promote and teach violence. The youth also shared that they wanted a lot of control, even in the process of playing a simple online Flash game like RePlay/ReJourer. They wanted to control the look of their characters. They wanted to play with characters that looked like them and looked nothing like them. Choice is important. In contrast to all the research on media violence we had read, these youth were not playing like mindless sponges. They applied a lot of their own agency in the process. (2010)
Since its release in 2007, more than 10,000 people have played RePlay/ReJourer. It won three awards for its design, two from Ashoka Changemakers and one from Adobe. Of the 353 players who chose to answer the post-game survey, 45 percent identified learning “something new.” Additionally, RePlay/ReJourer was translated into French and updated for Francophone cultural competency in 2008 through a partnership with Centre ontarien de prévention des agressions (COPA), given the bilingual nature of Ontario. Komiotis explains,
It helps us collect data about players’ opinions. But, perhaps more importantly, it helps players contextualize themselves with other players. They get the opportunity to see that, for example, most players answer the question of whether or not girls can do anything boys can do in the affirmative. They understand that most people do have some positive ideas about gender and ending abuse. Even if it doesn’t always translate to peoples’ actions in relationships, seeing that most of us don’t believe abuse is okay is a start to support positive attitudes in youth and help them form healthier behaviors in their relationships. (2010)
Komiotis says that the incorporation of youth voices in the game’s content and its diverse imagery are two of its greatest strengths. “If youth were the ones who developed the game” Komiotis notes, “if they had learned the skills to make the games and actually did it, equity in the design process would have been even stronger” (2010).
It was important for us not to do a word-for-word French translation, because it would not be culturally competent. We partnered with COPA, who used their peer networks across the province to connect with Francophone youth and make sure the game’s language reflected how they communicate. (2010)
TAG’s follow-up project, So Help You God (formerly titled In The Balance), consists of a documentary film and a game. So Help You God explores the story of six Kentucky teenagers who were incarcerated for murder more than a decade ago. The game began as an experiment in computational documentary and evolved into an investigation of broader dynamics and personal stories embedded in America’s criminal justice system and prison industrial complex. Some of the questions So Help You God provokes relate to the issue of ethics and documentary filmmaking and to one of the form’s longstanding ethical concerns – the burden of responsibility documentarians have as they seek to represent, model and simulate real lives and situations.
So Help You God's core team engaged in five years of research. They visited prisons in Tennessee and immersed themselves in research on issues such as capital punishment, life sentencing of juveniles and the over-incarceration of America’s poorest citizens. York, a trained journalist, notes that “objectivity is always a constant struggle” in the process of developing the documentary and game and “the range of opinions on it is something we were cognizant of and were always negotiating” (2010). In referencing Brian Winston’s essay, “The Documentary Film as Scientific Inscription,” York notes documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s assertion:
In contrast, documentary scholar Bill Nichols’ believes that a subjective approach can help an audience examine their preconceived notions and assumptions. “Subjectivity itself compels belief: instead of an aura of detached truthfulness we have the honest admission of a partial but highly significant, situated and impassioned view.” (2001, p. 51)
[Films] have a point of view that allows you - or, hopefully, asks you - to think, to figure out what you think about what’s happening. I don’t know how to make an objective film. I think my films are a fair reflection of the experience of making them. My subjective view is that they are fair films. (as cited in Winston, 1993, p. 49)
Adopting Nichols’ “documentary modes,” York says,
Values at Play
Our discomfort with calling So Help You God's ‘objective’ will be reflected in the game’s rules and the game’s design. It mirrors the idea that there is no one ‘true’ perspective and the fabrication inherent to a documentary is purposefully and self-conscientiously exposed. One of the most challenging and problematic aspects of the project is discerning what the goals for the player should be. James P. Gee’s (2007) concept of projective identity requires that we think clearly through the structure of identification for the player. This is challenging because ultimately, we don’t feel we’re making a project about either one “truth” or about what other outcomes may have been possible. Rather, it’s about how multiple voices tell their versions of the story—from individuals directly involved and affected, to scholars that speak of broader systemic elements. (2010)
Values at Play (VAP) is a National Science Foundation research project whose principle investigator Mary Flanagan believes that technology has the power to transform human behavior, shift culture, and shape institutions. Flanagan directs the Tiltfactor game research lab founded at Hunter College and currently established at Dartmouth College. Tiltfactor harnesses video games in the service of humanistic principles, with the recognition that games hold great potential to educate and inspire. VAP investigates how designers can be more intentional about integrating human values into game systems. VAP seeks to assist designers to create games that further the understanding and appreciation of equality and diversity.
In the 1990s, VAP’s principle investigator Mary Flanagan focused on gender equity, creating software for female players and initiating afterschool programs to build the technology skills of girls. She says that equity and inclusion have been essential to her work as a woman designer. The work of her game laboratory, Tiltfactor, emphasizes how white, male, and heterosexual participants dominate the world of software development and game design. Flanagan explains:
VAP develops games as well as game creation tools. For example, the Grow-A-Game Cards is a simple and engaging tool that broadens access to game design by helping people brainstorm game ideas on social issues and societal values. Non-designers can also use the cards to create powerful, expressive ideas. More importantly, Flanagan notes, Grow-A-Game Cards help non-developers view game design as an interesting, accessible and fun medium for personal, political, and artistic expression. She believes that increasing contributions of non-programmers and other non-experts will ultimately contribute to a more inclusive game development community. Says Flanagan,
As a consequence, those who are not white/ male/ heterosexual often feel like they have to conform to the mores of the dominant culture. A core principle in the laboratory is to create a space that celebrates and legitimates difference and diversity, rather than conformity. A corollary of this approach is that our games tend to fall outside of the mainstream (which is where we like them to be!)—they spotlight voices and perspectives that are usually found only at the margins. (2010)
It is relatively easy to see the benefits to a given design when enhanced by new ways of thinking due to the diverse voices of the design team and the player group. These arguments for innovation are often stronger to those in the industry than arguing for diversity’s sake, just to be inclusive. In the end, the principle is served, and hopefully, new ideas, perspectives, technologies, rewards, points of view, and the like are actively developed. (2010)
Molleindustria, founded by Paolo Pedercini, aims to “reappropriate” video games as a popular form of mass communication. It investigates the persuasive potentials of the medium by subverting mainstream video gaming cliché. Mollindustria produced a number of online games that explore issues such as abuse perpetrated by clergy, corporate food production and sexual and gender fluidity. With respect to incorporating equity in games, Pedercini says there is a risk in viewing it as a mere implementation issue, which can lead developers to creating little more than a series of guidelines for “politically-correct design practice” (2010).
For instance, he notes that The Sims allows players to design characters from every conceivable race and allows characters to form same-sex relationships with each other. However, gender, skin color, and sexual orientation are cosmetic options as the “family” portrayed in the game always conforms to the same parameters and is always contextualized into a North American suburban environment. He says that the game reinforces the “narrative of the American Dream” by depicting equal career and opportunities despite race and gender differences in characters. In this way, Pedercini questions if The Sims actually reflects progressive design or just cultural mystification:
Pedercini refers to the “posturing of equity” in games when power and access to resources is so skewed (2010). Pedercini cites the recent alternate reality game, EVOKE, and how many of the problems the game purports to solve are directly or indirectly created by two decades of Washington consensus. Says Pedercini,
Certainly I prefer the highly politically incorrect world of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to the utopian suburbia of The Sims … at least it provides a complex representation of the urban environment. The city of San Andreas, modeled after Los Angeles, is a space characterized by inequalities. Social and racial tensions inform the overarching plot, the player is continuously confronted with moral dilemmas that arise from being disempowered as citizen. (2010)
While the developers of EVOKE may be well-intentioned and there may be positive outcomes to the game, Pedercini warns about the “photoshopped diversity” found in the marketing of universities and corporations (2010). He notes that, when there is a large disconnection between the object of inquiry and the subject producing the text, misrepresentations and mystifications are difficult to avoid.
At first sight it appears a great initiative, the comic that introduces the online game is full of empowered men and women from developing countries and the promoters are actively trying to recruit a diverse player population. Except you notice that the game is sponsored by the World Bank, the infamous super-national institution controlled by the richest countries. The same institution that, together with the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund, imposed free-market policies to a number of developing countries with catastrophic consequences. (2010)
Pedercini explains that Molleindustria’s Oiligarchy game exemplifies radical game design by allowing players to be the “protagonist of the petroleum era,” where they fuel the world’s oil addiction with the goal of successfully exploring, drilling, bribing and halting green energies as they run their oil company with limited resources. As an “oiligarch,” the player manages the extraction business in the homeland and overseas and lobbies the government to keep the carbon-fossil based economy as profitable as possible. Oiligarchy illustrates what Pedercini believes to be the main potential of game systems. Pedercini says,
Their main potential lays in their ability to easily represent complex systems such as the economic and the political ones. Observing and interacting with a system “from above” allows the player to abstract from her everyday experience and think about the invisible threads that connect our globalized economy. In order to create an “ethical” game you just have to set up a system of rewards and punishments that force the player to be “good.” I wish it was that easy! I believe players are smarter than lab rats in a Skinner box. If we dismiss the simplistic relation violent games = violent behavior, we also have to acknowledge that we need more than good scout simulations to foster critical thinking. (2010)
Global Kids in New York City reaches out to marginalized youth, primarily young people of color, in low-income neighborhoods. Barry Joseph, director of the organization’s Online Leadership Program, stresses that Global Kids identifies the potential of young people to learn and view themselves as global citizens and community leaders. The Online Leadership Program builds on youths’ existing strengths and assets, at the same time that it does not underestimate the impact of internalized oppressions they may face. “We look to the youth whenever we can to shape the content of the games—they pick the issues, they work out the core mechanics … but we never leave them to do so on their own and provide more guidance with some groups than others” (2010).
Educators and professional game designers partner with youth throughout the game design process. While Global Kids cannot expect youth to have design skills that take experts years to develop, Joseph notes that youth bring unique and valuable assets and insights. For instance, a team of first and second-generation youth Caribbean immigrants developed Ayiti: The Cost of Life. The partnering gaming company, GameLab, wanted to locate the game in China, but the youth team wanted the game to reflect issues with which they were more familiar. Joseph explains that the youth were not shy in contributing their ideas, opinions and knowledge at key points in Ayiti’s development. For example, during the first play test, the youth team noticed how game characters that fell into debt immediately died. They pointed out that positive elements should be worked into Ayiti to more accurately reflect real life in Haiti, that it was not as stark as the game suggested. The team advocated for changes to game play, including an opportunity for players to build things in their communities. When the question arose about including cheat codes in the game to get out of debt, a team member aptly noted: “In Haiti, they don’t have a cheat code” (2010).
Joseph speaks to challenges Global Kids faces as they seek to incorporate equity in collaborative digital media and game projects. He notes that time is often a limiting factor, which hinders the depth of game design skills they are able to develop. “This pressure means at times we need to move forward on the project and get youth buy-in after the fact,” he says, a less-than-ideal process for equitable game development (2010). Time constraints can also limit learning opportunities for the young people as well. He offers an example from the design process of another Global Kids’ game, Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City, noting that the majority of youth on the design team originally shied away from giving the game’s main character a name that they felt would be “too black” (2010). Joseph felt that the team did not get to explore or dissect this issue fully due to scheduling concerns in the development process.