One of the things I try to do, as a game designer, is to play lots of games for reference and inspiration. I came across this game on racism, Hate Comes Home, which seems to address some of the issues we’re interested in from a different perspective. I’d like to get hold of the full game and play it, obviously, but I was able to play a brief demo on their site. The basic approach seems to be choose-your-own-adventure; you get to watch a video clip, then make a decision about how to behave and see the outcome.
Their demo was pretty frustrating, though, because the choice was boneheadedly clear-cut. Are you going to stand up to your friend who just made a homophobic remark, or let it pass? Gee, folks, what do you think is the right thing to do? I’m curious how many choices the player gets to make during the course of the game (three? five? twenty?) and how much impact each choice has on the outcome. More importantly, do the choices make the player think critically about the impact of their behavior, or is it just a matter of choosing the choice that seems most virtuous on the surface?
This issue has come up in games that aren’t explicitly educational, too. Most recently I noticed it in Mass Effect. I really enjoyed the game overall, but I thought it was far too easy to tell which dialogue choices were the “paragon” choices and which were the “renegade” choices. (For those who haven’t played, they appeared in different positions on the screen.) I understand why the designers did it that way; playing as a paragon or a renegade has a direct impact on gameplay and narrative outcomes. At the same time, it pulls the teeth of the moral dilemmas the game creates. Mass Effect did a terrific job of putting you in situations where it is genuinely unclear what the moral course of action is – yet then it makes it really obvious what moral value the game places on the various options. The result, at least for me, was to incorporate the game’s own value system into my personal judgment about what my character would do and what I as a player thought was right. It meant that instead of having to think critically about the situation as if it were real, I was able to game the outcome.
I’d like to play Hate Comes Home and see whether it has the same problem – and whether, for a game of this sort, it actually is a problem. I suspect it might be, for two reasons. First, the game’s design short-circuits one of the hardest things about bias: noticing it in the first place. I think it’s valuable to scaffold people into learning how to see bias in everyday interactions, but I wonder how the game asks players to then deploy those skills in practice. Second, if the game makes it too obvious which is the “virtuous” choice, players don’t have to engage at the level of the fiction. They can game the system instead of playing the game. I’d be curious to watch players in the target demographic play, and see whether they experience identification with the characters or not.
That said, the game’s won a bunch of awards (neat!) and takes on some really tough problems. I certainly think it’s worth playing, and I’d like to figure out what implications its narrative design has for Advance.