Game design is a craft people have studied for a long time. Games have often been examined for their entertainment value and psychological effects, as well as their technical finesse and storytelling abilities.
However, it’s only in recent years that research and dialogue has emerged about video games as a positive tool for behavioural and cultural change. From disease prevention to energy conservation, games are used by developers and organisations to influence mindsets and create real understanding of issues and challenges in society.
Inspiring social change through games is an art, but it is one that requires a delicate brush to create an exact depiction. For developers, designing a social impact game involves many decisions – one of the most important being the consideration of censorship.
Social impact games and censorship
Games that are designed to create social impact often deal with sensitive or controversial ideas (for example, drugs or violence) and need to communicate strong messages. Naturally, the question of censorship often emerges for developers: what can we show or do? How can we present ideas in an effective way without alienating audiences or preaching opinions? And should we rely on shock value for visual impact, or present a more subtle message?
While AAA+ releases are subject to external guidelines and censorship, often as game designers and developers it’s up to us to modify our content as we see fit in order to create a game with an effective message. However, games are often collaborative projects and censorship issues can be raised by both peers and/or clients, which can create some interesting situations and challenges. After all, how powerful should the messaging be? And who has final say on what is appropriate and inappropriate?
These are just some of the questions we encountered when making our game, Pure Rush.
Case study: Pure Rush
Pure Rush, a game we are producing with the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Australia, is designed to motivate teenagers to avoid drugs. The game features a boy or girl running to a music festival, and will be played by students in high schools around the country.
As the target audience is high school students, an interesting array of challenges arose throughout the game development process both about how the messaging was presented and how strong the messaging was.
- Writing style: Initially, we considered an informal writing style in the game that teenagers would connect to. Clients and stakeholders, however, had their reservations which is understandable, as the use of certain words could offend teachers or parents. There was very little dialogue in the game, but the dialogue we did include was more formal than initially suggested to accommodate for these concerns.
- Assumptions on what is acceptable: In Pure Rush, we wanted the player’s character to explode into pieces upon his or her death but left this animation out, assuming the client would say no to any depiction of violence. In the end, nobody was troubled by the display and we chose to leave it in – a perfect example of how our pre-conceived notions can affect gameplay and visual design in a collaborative process.
- Gameplay mechanic: Traditionally, a game should be fun to play but with games made to invoke change, every mechanic should be linked to your statement without preaching (more on that later). Naturally, when it comes to designing a game about drugs, a literal interpretation of the subject could turn some away or be too confronting. In Pure Rush, the sole action players perform is jumping over obstacles and platforms, and one of these obstacles is drugs. If they hit a drug, their vision or ability to control the character becomes impaired and this often results in death. This repeated action of avoiding drugs will encourage players to make the same choice when they encounter drugs in real life. Interactivity is one of the medium’s strong points, and it is natural to take advantage of that to create effective literal and figural messages.
Preaching vs. educating: the balancing act
One of the biggest challenges we faced in developing Pure Rush was how we communicated the game’s key message and this involves self-censorship: namely, the balance of message with gameplay. Pure Rush aims to teach teenagers to avoid drugs; however, if the message was enforced too strongly or ineffectively, we’d lose our audience’s interest.
Whenever a player you dies in Pure Rush after hitting a drug on the screen, a relevant infographic will be displayed, such as the one below:
At first, we considered showing similar graphics when a player passes a stage, but decided against it in the end. Force-feeding the message too frequently would make the game feel like propaganda, and push us away from the desired end result.
The length of time this infographic stays on screen plays a role as well in the balancing act of message with gameplay. When players die, they want to retry the stage as soon as possible. Forcing them to sit through an infographic would encourage them to close the game, which would be counter-productive to the purpose of a social impact game.
Initially, we allowed players to skip the infographics immediately. Our client, on the other hand, wanted the message to remain on screen for two seconds before enabling progress. We ended up settling on a middle ground and locked the infographics for one second each time they are shown. This way, the audience has time to read the message but doesn’t feel frustrated or bored with the game. An extra second may seem unimportant, but it makes a big difference in game feel and how the message is communicated.
How should censorship in social impact games work?
From this, it’s clear that we chose to go down a route which delivered clear and effective messaging while still keeping the game fun – all in line with our target demographic. However, some developers choose to go down a more serious path while other social impact games deliver change through shock value.
Ultimately, censorship in social impact games is often self- and/or peer-regulated, and relies on judgment and an understanding of the goals of the game. Censoring content is sometimes desirable, but when that’s the situation there are plenty of ways to communicate the message as we discovered when developing Pure Rush.
This post originally appeared in the IGDA Perspectives Newsletter.