Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Reaction: Game Design Methodology to Incorporate Social Activist Themes

Submitted by Mark Galik for COMM-6480 Theory and Research in HCI

October 6, 2009


The authors propose a best practice methodology (VAP, or Values at Play) for the incorporation of social activist themes in a gaming environment. The approach is not geared towards measuring and critiquing existing games; rather they hope to offer these guidelines for incorporation in future entertainment and educational games.


The authors frame their research through an experiment utilizing a game named RAPUNSEL where children learn basic computer programming while creating a character. Their primary focus in creating RAPUNSEL was to promote social and gender equity (the game was created for underprivileged girls), it also demonstrated other activist themes.

I’ll look at how some of the VAP concepts may exist in current entertainment games. I’ll also explore how some players may intentionally react counter to accepted social values as a means of escape in a gaming environment. Finally, I’ll offer a suggestion on how VAP can be marketed through a ratings system.

VAP themes in current games

What the authors propose is interesting, but I’m not sure to what degree the themes could be applied in a viable consumer product. The authors admit as much, but see many opportunities to incorporate VAP in entertainment games. I believe some already incorporate VAP, without being overtly obvious about it.


In Infiniti Ward’s first person, military shooter, Call of Duty, a player will lose their life if they kill one of their allies. A message is displayed: “Friendly fire will not be tolerated.” (the Russian campaign, it even says “You are a traitor to the Motherland”). Given the main plot of the games in this series is a battle against the “evil” enemy, having targets that are deemed off-limits seems reasonable. Like other games in the military genre, teamwork, cooperation toward a common goal is a predominant theme.

If we evaluate Call of Duty against the author’s “values checklist”, it actually manages to address diversity in putting the player in the role of a Russian, Polish, French or British soldier. Gender equity is addressed in casting female characters as soldiers (a French Resistance fighter). Liberty and justice are common themes in most military campaigns and they translate into the plot of most games in the series. Defeating a common enemy – Nazi, Imperial Japan, middle-east terrorists – requires cooperation and inclusion with other computer controlled characters – if you don’t listen, it may get you killed. The online, multi-player mode of most of these games adds another dimension in bringing players from diverse age groups, skill sets and socio-economic backgrounds together in a common goal.

So, while Call of Duty is violent, it can also teach many of the VAP themes while it entertains and does so without spoon-feeding it in an obvious manner.

The shooter genre doesn’t typically embody the VAP principles by its very nature – though most put the shooter in the role of a person out for justice. The Grand Theft Auto franchise is rife with gender and ethnic stereotyping where running down pedestrians and carjacking is encouraged. Yet it is one of the most profitable entertainment games in history. Another game, “Saints Row 2”, develops its own set of skewed value system:

Respect can only be earned in Stilwater, and that requires a lifestyle that reflects your unique personality. Your crib, your crew, and your character define who you are on the streets and how you are perceived. The image you portray is as important as the decisions you make in a city ruled by false bravado and impulsive behavior. The only constant is the need for an identity that reflects your individuality and is backed up by your 12 gauge. (SaintsRow.com)

So what the authors of Saints Row are trying to say is that you may run a gang and have prostitutes, but you’re in charge of your criminality and you have to own it, make it your own – does this address the creativity and expression goal? Along the way, pick the right “crew” because that brotherhood is most important, to hell with the rest: “Sometimes sending a message to your enemies requires heavy lifting, like that of a rival gang member into oncoming traffic.” So I suppose cooperation and inclusion is addressed here as well? Unless the underlying plot of a game meets some altruistic goal, any social message you hope to convey will be lost.


Most sports simulations also carry over themes of good sportsmanship from the playing field to the game console. For example, in the Madden football series’ Superstar mode, a player develops a custom football star that hires an agent, talks to the press and develops a playing style. Superstars are penalized and labeled as selfish players if they hire the wrong type of agent, speak arrogantly to the press or play selfishly on the field. The game promotes the idea that along with being a superstar comes the role of being a “team leader”.

As the authors state, VAP themes should be a goal for any game. While it may be easy to incorporate some of the themes from the VAP toolbox in game play, such as privacy, creative expression and cooperation, other themes may prove difficult if they run contrary to the plot of the game. Developing games that are focused on social activism would allow a game designer to go deeper into the toolbox to explore multiple themes in greater detail.

Alter egos in a gaming environment

Something the authors may have not considered is idea that those who play games for entertainment may want to explore actions that run contrary to their on belief system. That’s not to say that you have to exhibit homicidal tendencies to play a game where you kill people, but a person’s decision making in other, less criminal, aspects of the game may be out of character with how they would respond in a similar real life situation. For example, in a sports game where an individual understands the benefit of team play, they may want to explore would it would be like to act like a lone wolf – attempting to make all the plays for themselves.

Without a system in place (in these games as in real life) to penalize this type of behavior, a player may run unchecked and any social value message the game creator hopes to convey may be lost.

VAP Rubric?

Games carry a rating system developed by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to assist parents in determining what themes are present in games (e.g.: intense violence, drugs, sexual content, nudity etc.) Both Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are rated M for Mature, but as discussed earlier, both have very contrary social themes. A rubric should be developed to measure new and existing games against the VAP principles. The rating system would assist parents in deciding whether the game would be appropriate for their children that are mature enough to handle the violence.

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