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Virtual Witnessing Through Video Games

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A still from the urban survival game This War of Mine
A still from the urban survival game This War of Mine

A few weeks ago, I posted about Mass Effect: Andromeda and in the comments we started talking about a piece published in The Atlantic that bemoaned the popularity of narrative structures in video games. This seems like a good opportunity to talk about the rise of story heavy games that are meant to tell us about real-life events. And also to question whether some of them really deserve the label “game” at all.

One thing I have noticed over the last few years is a rise in games about the Syrian Civil War and the refugee crisis. Mostly made by Western developers with significant reliance on Syrian testimony, these games make you a virtual witness to war and grief with a clear goal of both raising awareness and generating an empathy that will lead to humanitarian action.

As a media anthropologist, what I really want us to pay attention to is that it is not just visuals that humanitarians are using to inspire action, but making the user a character within a visual world. This is completely new field for everyone, and it could only be made possible with the ease of developing through the internet and sophisticated personal devices (not just smart phones, but tablets too).

Endgame: Syria (2012)

British based Auroch Digital produced a mobile trading card type of game where players can act as rebels and deploy different assets and strategies in the Syrian Civil War. Wired’s Game The News blog pitches it like this:

Will you choose to accept peace at any cost? What if the war goes badly and the only options left mean more extreme actions; would you agree to follow this path? Can you win the war and the peace that follows? Find out in Endgame Syria.

In case you were wondering, no it did not really go over that well. Apple rejected it. Reviewer Lucy Draper panned the creators for saying that they wanted to raise awareness while creating a game that did nothing to make anyone think about the reality of the war. I’m inclined to agree.

1000 Days Of Syria (2014)

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American journalist, Mitch Swenson, received a decent amount of press when he developed the  1000 Days of Syria for the web. In the introduction, Swenson describes it as “Part electric literature; part newscast; and part choose-your-own-adventure”, but also seems to shy away from the “game” label:

Sometimes the word “game” can be misconstrued into something that seems removed and reductive in the context of real life danger and death. In that way some might say that 1000 Days of Syria should not be considered a game at all, but rather an interactive education. That is for you to decide.

Its a creative venture to be sure, but in checking it out I don’t see the “gaming” aspect that people are talking about. Categorizing it as a “game”, i.e. a piece of entertainment, is a marketing ploy. What I see is simply an interactive story. There’s no goal, there’s no prize, nothing to make anyone feel good about completion of a task and ready for the next one.

This War Of Mine (2014)

warchild.0This survival PC game is not explicitly about Syria. In fact, its based on the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996 but set in a fictional city. With Syria making headlines at the time of its release, the connection to the real life war and a group of civilians trying to survive an urban landscape was easy to make.

11 bit studios created downloadable content (or DLC) for This War Of Mine that added the perspective of children into the mix. Proceeds for this DLC went to the UK charity War Child specifically to help Syrian refugees.

What makes this venture stand apart from the others I’ve mentioned is its financial success. The Polish produced game sold so well that the company is planning on making a triple A title that will keep with their serious themes.

Like the next game I’m going to talk about, this one makes a great success out of its illustrative visuals. Perhaps the subject matter is not “fun” or “enjoyable” to look at, but it is beautiful. It is art.

Bury Me, My Love (2017)

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This one came to my attention through a Muftah article. Another journalist, this time from France, Florent Maurin and his company Pixel Hunt created a mobile game with graphic-novel like illustrations to put people in the role of a Syrian refugee. Like 1000 Days Of Syria, I also don’t feel like the “game” label is accurate. However, it is much better at offering visuals that make it feel like a game.

A Vice interview with Maurin uses the term “interactive project” to describe some of Pixel Hunt’s other products based on real-life crises. You go through and make decisions that impact what you can do next, but you’re still stuck in a linear progression of tasks that offer no reward or achievement upon completion.

Maurin insists that it is a game, but what he describes is something more in line with journalism and graphic novels:

“Games do not necessarily have to be fun and trivial,” said The Pixel Hunt’s Florent Maurin, in an email interview with Polygon. “On the contrary, I took examples such as documentaries and graphic novels to explain that, like every medium, games can tackle any topic. It’s all about finding the good distance, with an honest methodology.”

The Future of Media Activism?

Even though I’m skeptical of the gaming label, it is there and its probably not going to go away any time soon. So what will this mean for activist story-tellers of the future looking to explain complex situations to large audiences? It can certainly cost a lot less and be produced in less time than films or documentaries. Perfect for small companies, individual artists, or large NGOs to contract for campaigns.

Can they be expected to generate a profit? Will mainstream gaming companies try their hand at it? I am reluctant to pick up games like this, because I want the escapism, but if there’s an effort to tie a fictional story line to a real-world crisis and send money from the game to relief efforts I would certainly be interested.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve come across any games like this, not just those related to Syria.

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