Ian Bogost takes some of the fun out of video games — and replaces it with opinion.
The Georgia Institute of Technology professor creates games — or “playable editorial cartoons,” as he calls them — that are packed with political messages.
One he created just after liquids were banned from carry-on baggage pits players as a frustrated airport screener faced with an ever-changing set of rules. Another challenges gamers to double the price of crude oil by afflicting a fantasy land with a series of natural disasters.
Just as the documentary developed as a potent force within the film industry, Mr. Bogost is among a growing number of designers who develop video games that focus and comment on the world’s social and political ills.
“I’m not against fun,” he says. “I like to play the same video games everyone else does, but I don’t believe that video games have to be fun. I think they need to be given the opportunity to bother and disturb us.”
The games don’t quite carry the same weight as opinion pieces in traditional media, but their creators say they can still carry a punch as they force players to consider serious issues, such as security or the volatile price of gasoline.
The genre’s financial potential is no joke, advocates say. The Serious Games Initiative, a group formed to encourage more substantive games, estimates players and developers spend more than $60 million on the games each year and that developers will be doling out at least $300 million to create and market the games within five years.
Mr. Bogost’s focus — Web-based Flash games that users can play online — has become a $5 million a year business, by the group’s estimates.
“Games as a media form allow people to have political discourse,” says Ben Sawyer, the initiative’s co-founder. “Will you see more of this? Of course you will.”
Developers have pumped out a stream of titles that let gamers relive classic battles or pit heroes against terrorists and other evils. Although there’s always been a political element to traditional games, many developers have been reluctant to express overt political or social messages for fear they would alienate potential customers.
One of the most notable exceptions is “Balance of Power,” a popular Cold War strategy game published in 1985. It refused to delight players with a graphical nuclear explosion when they failed. Instead, it showed a black screen that read: “You have ignited a nuclear war … We do not reward failure.”
Other efforts were more accidental than revolutionary. Jacques Servin, a programmer who helped create the “SimCopter” computer game, was fired in 1996 after its publisher, Maxis, discovered he had sneaked in some code that made certain swimming suit-clad male characters kiss other men.
With the rise of the Internet, more developers began to take video gaming more seriously, creating short and punchy games readily available for free on the Web.
Developers typically make money by contracting with a corporation or a nonprofit organization. Some take a share of the revenue from ads that run before each game is loaded. Others, of course, are made purely as works of art.
One of the more scathing offerings is “McDonald’s Video Game,” the creation of an Italian firm called Molleindustria that batters the burger chain by allowing gamers to raze villages, manipulate public opinion and bribe health officials and politicians.
(The restaurant chain said the game “has no association with McDonald’s and is therefore a complete misrepresentation of our people and our values.”)
Others hope to give gamers a better feel for the plight of the poor. New York-based gameLab created “Ayiti: The Cost of Life,” which challenges players to guide a family of five as they struggle to survive poverty in rural Haiti.
“Poverty is an obstacle to global human rights,” says Peter Lee, gameLab’s co-founder. “We made a game where you have to go through a very rough life, and we made the game hard on purpose.”
Developers also may play a greater role in the next election cycle, hoping for a greater share of the more than $2.6 billion that was spent reaching out to voters during the midterm election.
Mr. Bogost is among the few to have already ventured into the niche with his company, Persuasive Games.
The company’s first creation, “Howard Dean for Iowa,” was released in December 2003 as the Vermont Democrat’s presidential campaign reached its peak. Roughly 100,000 gamers logged on to play political strategists who had to choose where to send volunteers and how many voters to pester before the election. The game does not decide winners and losers, instead it deploys the number of potential voters reached at the end.
After the 2004 election, Mr. Bogost delved into the niche of “news games” — shorter games that play off current events. He says the company turns a profit by taking a cut of the 20-second advertisements that run before the games, as well as taking on an occasional corporate client — the company recently designed a game to teach Cold Stone Creamery’s new hires the art of scooping ice cream.
Mr. Bogost and other serious games advocates say they have little doubt that the genre will continue to grow, but some question why it hasn’t played a bigger role in American life.
The answer may lie, in part, in the industry’s past. Because it developed along with a generation that was bombarded from every direction with the latest news, there may be a reason why video gaming focuses on fantasy.
“Other media have at times decided the way to address all those things is to delve into them,” Mr. Sawyer says. “And maybe gaming, at least right now, is meant to be escapist.”
On the Net:
Serious Games Initiative: https://www.seriousgames.org/
Persuasive Games: https://www.persuasivegames.com/