Gaming, and missing the point…

This post on Kotaku has me thinking. There’s a few others on lately that do the same, more on that in a second. Basically the poster suggests that the Darfur is Dying game (go check it out) could be a more immersive, survival horror type game, with the player either as a hero trying to help or as a victim trying to escape. Proceeds to fund the relief efforts, such as they are.
My basic problem: The Darfur is Dying game isn’t meant to be ‘fun’ like that. It’s horrifying to play, basically hopeless (as a game, to win) and meant to trigger a completely different experience than, say, Resident Evil. Instead of goading our emotions like ‘fun’ and ‘excitement’, instead of allowing us to live in fantasy role, it forces us, through the medium of gaming, to empathize and as much as a fairly ‘simple’ Flash game can, inhabit the life of people who, as a society in general, we are ignoring.

But my beef isn’t really that they missed the point on this one as much as they seem to miss the bigger point, and frequently. If games want to be taken seriously as a valid cultural experience, they have to allow for experiences outside the stereotypical “I’m having fun”. Somewhere along the line we assume games are all about fun, and they aren’t. Game Theory is not about fun… unless you really enjoy working out if strategies are Nash equilibria or not… which you may, and that’s fair. It’s like saying movies are an escape. They aren’t. Some are, Spider-Man 3 is not, on the whole, going to raise social awareness about, say, underwear perverts. But An Inconvenient Truth is meant to achieve something other than give me lines to quote at work when waiting for my coffee to brew… it’s meant to instigate change. And that’s what the Darfur is Dying game, the Food Force game, and others like them, are meant to do. These are, truly, SERIOUS games.

It’s not surprising that the editor at Kotaku missed them and is surprised by the numbers — clearly they’re just looking in a different space than the one these games inhabit. “Gamers” may be driving part of the ‘game revolution’, but the truth is games and gaming are increasingly NOT simply the purview of Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and the publishers. They are becoming a larger part of the public experience. Evidence is everywhere – we vote for American Idol, ARGs are being used to advertise products that have nothing to do with computers, indeed, even the next post in Kotaku is about the myth of “casual gaming”.
So in the end, the question “Why isn’t this game (Darfur is Dying) more like my existing gaming experience” is best answered with “Why would you want it to be?”.

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