Right Now Specials 1: Video Games and Human Rights

By Right Now | 20 Apr 13

Video games are a massive part of Australian and international popular culture. In 2012, the industry recorded more than $1 billion in sales in Australia. According to a 2011 study of gamers between 18 and 40 years of age, around 2 years of a person’s life can be spent on gaming. Discussion of the impact of video games on people and society generally tends to focus on the themes of violence and political apathy.

Right Now, however, has taken a different approach. In this three part series, we look at video games as both art and a vehicle for creative human rights advocacy.

In “Not Just a Lecture: How Gamers Create their own Human Rights Meaning“, Benjamin Riley explores the unique capacity for video games to actively engage the audience in storytelling. For human rights activists, it’s an opportunity not only to push a message, but to allow gamers to create their own meaning.

In “The Art of Video Game Violence“, Brendan Keogh presents the case for and against video game depictions of violence.

Finally, James Petty examines a range of areas where human rights and video games come together in Military Training vs. “‘Serious Games’: Human Rights & Video Games” – including surprising areas like mental health, natural disasters and fighting cancer.


Not Just a Lecture: How Gamers Create their Own Human Rights Meaning

By Benjamin Riley

Like any artistic medium, video games have the capacity to engage us with the concerns of marginalised and persecuted people in the world. Of course, literature, visual art and theatre have been doing this for a long time. While Orwell was writing about the dangers of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brecht was dealing with Nazism in Mother Courage and Her Children and Picasso was painting Guernica after the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Even film, with its relatively brief history, has an established tradition as a place to explore the complexity of contemporary human rights issues.

Video games haven’t been around all that long – early examples date back to the fifties, but the commercial market only began in the seventies. Today, the medium is still finding its feet in terms of technical development, let alone artistic traditions. Despite this, the massive success of the commercial video game industry has seen a deluge of games with production costs in the tens of millions (so-called “AAA games”) most of which appear to have very little to say. While alarmist calls to ban violent video games every time someone is shot in the US are an exercise in blame-shifting, it is important to be critical of and concerned by a medium whose overwhelming thematic focus is violence, and gun violence specifically.

It isn’t all bad news. As it becomes cheaper and easier to produce video games and distribute them independently online, the medium has seen something of an “indie renaissance” in the last few years – games from small developers create a buzz online and sometimes even achieve commercial success. Like independent movements in other media, indie game developers have traditionally been less shy of political engagement than their mainstream counterparts.

An early attempt to engage with human rights issues came from a small team of Australian developers in 2003. Their project, Escape from Woomera, became the subject of controversy when then-Attorney General Phillip Ruddock learned it had received government funding as part of an arts grant scheme. A modification of the acclaimed shooter Half-Life, the game’s protagonist is a nameless refugee interred in the notorious immigration detention centre formerly located near Woomera in South Australia.

Press at the time focusing on the game’s status as a first person shooter (or FPS), but despite its connection to Half-LifeWoomera is really an adventure game – a genre about solving narrative-based puzzles – requiring the player to talk to guards and other detainees, find and use specific items around the camp and figure out a way to escape. As such, most of the game’s information is delivered through textual exposition, as narrative boxes and lengthy dialogue give the player some insight into life in a detention centre. Although commendable in its engagement with such weighty subject matter, nothing about Escape from Woomera necessitates it being a video game. The player has a superficial level of control over the game’s protagonist (you could walk around, talk to people and interact with objects) but the interactivity of the experience has little bearing on what the game is trying to say. The game comes off as overly didactic, telling the player what to think about life as a refugee in Australia rather than allowing them to experience it for themselves.

The game comes off as overly didactic, telling the player what to think about life as a refugee in Australia rather than allowing them to experience it for themselves.

Darfur is Dying , another game attempting to engage with human rights issues, runs into similar problems. Created by American designer Susana Ruiz in 2006, the game focused on the experiences of refugees of the War in Darfur living in Sudanese refugee camps. As a Flash-based browser game, Darfur presents a much less visually realistic world than Escape from Woomera, but gained international recognition and modest popular success. The game is split into two gameplay modes. In one, the player runs to collect water from a well outside the camp, periodically needing to hide from militia patrolling the area. In the other, the player can distribute water to gardens in the camp to grow food for its inhabitants, emphasising effective management of the camp’s limited resources.

While running and hiding from the militia is suitably stressful (particularly as you can play as a 12-year-old girl) most of the information about Darfur and realities of refugee camps is delivered through popup text between sections of gameplay. Clicking on a location in the camp results in a text box containing anything from information on diseases afflicting the refugees to their horrific personal stories. These stories are certainly affecting, but the game feels like an interactive UNICEF leaflet, providing information on an important issue, but failing to utilise the relationship between game and player unique to video games in order to go beyond didactic exposition.

A more recent example of video game activism can be found in Molleindustria , an Italy-based culture jamming collective developing small, browser games on topics as diverse as the role of McDonalds in food production industries, the harms of copyright law and how to fake an orgasm. The group can boast international notoriety, with Operation: Pedopriest , a game about child sex abuse cover ups by the Catholic Church, briefly banned by the Italian government. Phone Story , a game about “the dark side of smartphone manufacturing”, was removed from Apple’s app store days after release.

One game, Queer Power , is a pseudo-fighting game pitting the player avatar, a naked silhouette, against an identical opponent. The player can freely switch their character’s sex from male to female at any time and assume a variety of sexual positions – when the two “fighters” meet, their current sex and position will result in a corresponding sex act. At first bewildering, the game settles into a place of experimentation, encouraging the player to try out different combinations to see the results. Queer Power‘s lack of explicit instruction or clear purpose is its strength. The player learns by engaging with the game itself, coming away with an experience of queer identities rooted in exploration and fun.

As could be expected, Molleindustria’s games vary in effectiveness, but the element of humour present in many of them is a welcome change from the extreme seriousness of games like Escape from Woomera and Darfur is Dying. Although existing in the same activism-driven space as the first two games, Molleindustria’s output succeeds in its inherent ambiguity – even at their most pointed, the games rarely feel didactic. By allowing players to engage with human rights issues and form their own opinions, these games are truly interactive experiences. The “message” is a collaboration between game and player, and inherently more powerful – the player is less able to dismiss an opinion they were complicit in creating.

The “message” is a collaboration between game and player, and inherently more powerful – the player is less able to dismiss an opinion they were complicit in creating.

One of the most effective games in the collection is Every Day the Same Dream, in which the player controls a white-collar worker repeating a daily routine: wake up, get dressed, drive to work and sit in a cubicle. At first it appears the player can do little but walk the protagonist through their day, providing minimal input to progress to the next activity. However, as the routine is repeated it becomes apparent there are choices the player could be making. You could leave your apartment and walk in the opposite direction to your work. You could get out of your car while stuck in morning traffic. You could even refuse to get dressed. These discoveries are at once liberating and deeply disturbing. The player comes to realise they have been complicit in perpetuating the endless routine, and could have done something differently at almost every point in the day, refusing the assumed inevitability of workforce participation. Brief and minimalist, Every Day the Same Dream is a perfect example of what video games can do that other media cannot.

While Molleindustria’s games are largely devoid of Escape from Woomera and Darfur is Dying‘s cumbersome, didactic exposition, other games have managed an approach to serious issues that skillfully integrates game systems with textual information. Real Lives 2010 is one such game, the only creation of California-based software company Educational Simulations. Awkwardly marketed as an educational product, the program is nonetheless gaining a positive reputation in video game communities. The game begins with the birth of a character, randomly selected out of every possible country on the planet, weighted on the basis of extensive demographic and population statistics. So while your character could theoretically be born anywhere, you are more likely to be born in a populous country like India or China.

From there, the player can progress their character one year at a time, and watch as statistically generated events impact the character’s life and their family’s lives. The character may contract diseases, become the victim of crime or suffer a serious accident. The likelihood of any given event is modelled on the likelihood of a real person living in the same conditions experiencing the same. For example, a character born without access to basic healthcare will be much more likely to contract a potentially fatal childhood illness. In effect, Real Lives 2010 simulates philosopher John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”, a thought experiment asking how one would design the world if one had no idea how or where they would be born into it. The game isn’t entirely deterministic – the player has some choices to make. Once you reach a certain age you can decide how you will spend your leisure time, and later, choose your occupation, manage your household budget and even emigrate, whether legally or illegally. However, at every step these choices are constrained by the circumstances of the character’s life. If you’re born a woman, in certain countries you won’t be able to go to school or work in certain jobs. In other countries, the decision to engage in political activism in your spare time risks landing you in prison or worse.

While every randomly generated event is accompanied by a text box providing the statistical information determining that event, it is never as intrusive or didactic as in a game like Darfur is Dying. The meat of the game is in the way it allows the player to explore how decision-making is often constrained by circumstances beyond a person’s control – the statistics simply explain what those constraints are and why they may exist. Despite offering much more explicit information than Molleindustria’s games ever do, Real Lives 2010 offers a surprising level of pathos, ultimately leaving the player to reach their own conclusions. Hopefully, through playing the game those conclusions will be more informed.

Another game exploring complex issues by integrating explicit textual information with game systems is Cart Life , by American developer Richard Hofmeier. Confusingly subtitled “A retail simulation”, the game offers the choice of two protagonists: Andrus, a newly-arrived immigrant who knows no-one in the city (he runs a newspaper stand) or Melanie, a single mother working for custody of her teenage daughter (she runs a coffee cart). The mechanical crux of the game is the solvent financial management of a small business, but the experience is much, much more than that. Each character is the focus of a detailed, realistic and uncomfortably intimate narrative. As Melanie, for example, the player has to start a business from scratch and make enough money to prove to a judge she is fit to care for her daughter. All this has to fit around picking Melanie’s daughter up from school every day and attending custody appointments with her ex-husband, not to mention remembering to eat and sleep. In walks home from school, in conversations with strangers and even in dreams, the player experiences Melanie struggling with her divorce, her insecurities about being a responsible parent and her ability to become self-sufficient.

The game’s power to engage the player with the experience of someone else lies in the knowledge that Melanie’s and Andrus’ futures may hinge on the player’s ability to manage competing responsibilities and run a profitable business. The “retail simulation” at Cart Life’s core is fundamental to its success – whether the businesses succeed or fail will profoundly impact these characters’ lives. Where Real Lives 2010 allows the player to create meaning through the inherent ambiguity of its randomness, Cart Life succeeds by integrating a highly authored narrative and a player-controlled system. The player understands that by engaging with the game they are not merely consuming meaning, they are helping to create it.

The player understands that by engaging with the game they are not merely consuming meaning, they are helping to create it.

Video games can engage people with the experiences of marginalised and persecuted people in a way no other medium can – by allowing players to actively construct meaning through play. While mashing serious issues together with incongruous gameplay may miss the mark, by implicating the player in a process of understanding, games have the unique potential to elicit intense empathy. Molleindustria has shown that even at on a very small scale, games are capable of exploring some diverse and complex issues by offering a morally challenging and intellectually ambiguous experience. Even on a larger scale, Real Lives 2010 and Cart Life show that video games can make a player care about people, engendering empathy through active engagement with a character’s life. Unfortunately, for now, games like these are relegated to the independent scene, while mainstream games are at best superficial and at worst mindlessly violent and harmful. It seems inevitable that as understanding of the medium’s potential grows, we will see more developers using video games to explore and engage with the experiences of marginalised people throughout the world.

Video games can engage people with the experiences of marginalised and persecuted people in a way no other medium can – by allowing players to actively construct meaning through play.



The Art of Video Game Violence

By Brendan Keogh

Videogames are art. Anyone who says otherwise either doesn’t know what videogames are or they don’t know what art is. Videogames are creative works produced by creative people trying to express something. It’s that simple.

Just like all forms of art, videogames feed into contemporary culture just as much as they reflect it. This means that videogames deserve the same respect afforded to all other forms of art and, crucially, they demand the same scrutiny. It’s vital that videogame creators are afforded the same creative freedoms as other artists.

If we are going to insist that videogames are culturally significant works of art, we need to lay them bare to all the scrutiny that artworks deserve

This is something Australia is still trying to figure out, but we are finally taking steps in the right direction with this year’s introduction of an R18+ rating for games, bringing them in line with films. It has taken many years for the R18+ rating to eventuate as both politicians and lobby groups blocked its introduction to parliament for many years. Before this, the highest a game could be rated was MA15+, meaning that every game was either deemed appropriate for anyone over the age of fifteen, or banned outright.

This meant consenting Australian adults were banned from accessing media deemed appropriate by other countries. At the same time, some media that was rated “adults-only” in other countries was released here with a MA15+ rating. The introduction of the R18+ rating brings Australia up to speed with other nations. The rating protects younger audiences from unsuitable content while also allowing access for consenting adults.

But an adults-only rating – and legislation generally – isn’t the be all and end all of how we should talk about videogame violence. It’s crucial that we are able to understand and scrutinise how videogames might be perpetuating negative and harmful aspects of our society. Violence against women, homophobia, stereotyping of non-Caucasian ethnicities – these all occur regularly in videogames and need to be called out. Over the past year, there have been several criticisms of these issues coming from within the maturing videogame industry. But, by and large, videogames have able to continue perpetuating homophobic, sexist and racist stereotypes, as public discussions on videogames focus on non-arguments – like how videogames teach children to use firearms.

The way that videogames normalise a range of violent behaviour demands more scrutiny. But “scrutiny” is not what we see in the public conversations surrounding videogame violence. Instead, we usually get simplistic scaremongering and calls for stricter censorship and content bans. There is no shortage of people lamenting the supposedly corrupting effect of videogame violence on young children and broader society – whether it is the National Rifle Association in North America (who use videogames as a distraction from the fact you can legally buy military hardware at Walmart), or groups closer to home like the Australian Christian Lobby.

It’s ridiculous to think that videogame violence is directly responsible for real acts of violence any more than violent films, literature, theatre or music. People – typically those who have never played a videogame – like to refer to the “interactivity” of games as something that makes them more dangerous. To be sure, there is something unique in the way that videogames require the player to use their body to engage in the text – be it waving arms or just pressing buttons—and this is worth understanding. But “interactivity” is not something unique to videogames. All media, in some way or another, requires an active engagement from the audience.

In its most absurd form, the interactivity argument says that shooting games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor literally teach players how to use a firearm. Anders Breivik himself claimed to have spent time “training” on Call of Duty. But the truth is, on the purely practical level, you can’t learn to fire a gun from playing Call of Duty or any other videogame. There is no widely popular videogame that is interested in teaching people how to actually use a firearm beyond the simple idea of “pull the trigger and bullets come out”. Reloading is reduced to a single button press. Every gun is always perfectly accurate with very little recoil. You just point it where you want to fire, and pull the trigger.

The first time I fired a real rifle, I was actually shocked at how unlike a videogame it was. This leads to a valid criticism of shooting videogames that has been made before: they often fail to teach respect for guns and for violence. If anything, videogames are not violent enough. Shots are fired and faceless enemies are forgotten about before their virtual corpses even disappear. Perhaps games normalise violence far too much; they make it too inconsequential. This is a valid concern, and one that applies to the depiction of violence in all media.

Some recent videogames have tried to counter this ambivalence by helping the player confront what they are doing. Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line, for instance, sets itself up as gaming’s Apocalypse Now, and is centrally concerned with the ways in which we have become desensitised to violence in military-themed shooting games. Similarly, Dennaton’s Hotline Miami wants players to feel uncomfortable about what they are doing. These games are still very violent, but they are using that violence in interesting and provocative ways.

Videogame violence isn’t the problem, but maybe uncritical videogame violence is. Games that don’t think about what they are depicting and normalising can be harmful. Call of Duty and Medal of Honor are never really going to teach players how to fire a gun, but they do glorify Middle-Eastern military occupations, drone warfare and US gun culture. There are also games like Hitman Absolution that unashamedly exalt violence against women. None of these games are problematic simply because they are violent, but because of the ideas that particular violence perpetuates. We need to remember that videogame violence is often used as a scapegoat to divert from real issues.

It is worth remembering that there are countless videogames out there that don’t ask the player to be violent, even in the first-person genre. Portal, for instance, is one of the most critically-acclaimed games of all time. The player has a gun, to be sure, but it doesn’t fire bullets. Instead, it shoots entrance points to space-twisting wormholes. Fire one at that wall and one at this wall and you’ve created a new way to move the space. Alternatively, there is The Unfinished Swan on Playstation 3, which asks the player to throw balls of black paint to bring a pure white world to life. Both of these games offer breathless experiences that are only possible within videogame art.

Videogames are a diverse and rich art form capable of countless new expressions we could never have achieved in previous art. But they are also capable of propagating the same problems. At the end of the day, we simply need to talk about violence in videogames the way we talk about the violence in all art.

I say “simply”, but there is of course resistance to this from both sides. On the one hand, the lobby groups and the older politicians refuse to consider the artistic merits of videogames at all. On the other, those most invested in videogames refuse to acknowledge they might have any negative impact. It’s not unheard of to see someone within the industry champion the positive contributions games can make to society, but then make the defense “it’s just a game” when someone brings up the possible negative effects of videogames.

For the conversation to move forward, each side has to move closer to the middle. Those that are anti-videogame violence need to actually learn something about how videogames work. They need to understand that “interactivity” isn’t going to teach people how to use guns, and that the representation of violence in games is no more or less problematic than in other media. Likewise, videogame enthusiasts must be less defensive. If we are going to insist that videogames are culturally significant works of art, we need to lay them bare to all the scrutiny that artworks deserve. There is, after all, such a thing as bad art.


Military Training vs. “Serious Games”: Human Rights & Video Games

By James Petty

In most reviews and critical examinations of video games, analysis tends to focus on a few specific elements of gaming: violence (how much and what kind), narrative (its quality and how it is delivered) and player experience (what it is like to play a game – whether the game is enjoyable or not). These have obvious ramifications for human rights dialogues as violence, even that depicted in a game, should be critiqued. Other aspects that still get a mention are the innovative ways that the technology that supports gaming is utilised – advances in graphics and motion capture, new gaming engines, new points of interaction between the game and the player (e.g. controllers, touch screens and tilt sensors). However there are other, less spoken about aspects of gaming: the way gaming or its hardware is utilised in areas not traditionally associated with the culture or industry of gaming. For example, gamer-tech will often be touched on in reviews but usually only to comment upon a game’s aesthetics or mechanics. But the technologies associated with games have many different applications and are often used in unexpected ways: some good, some not so.

There is a wealth of criticism levelled at games regarding their violent content and the impact it may have upon gamers. This is a contentious, and above all complex, point – one that I won’t take up here. Some of the concerns expressed that attend this issue are valid, others are definitely not. Some critics in this vein claim that games realistically simulate the use of firearms, knives, explosives and warfare tactics. The reality is that most don’t – even games that utilise “light guns” (plastic controllers shaped like a gun, traditionally found in arcades) do not accurately simulate what it is like to carry, aim, fire or reload a real gun. A light gun is to a real gun what a postcard of Everest is to the real thing. In recent years, however, the military (especially in the U.S.) has sought to bridge this gap. They have begun utilising game tech for recruiting and training purposes. This goes far beyond using flight simulators to train fighter pilots – the U.S. Army and Navy have both awarded multi-million dollar contracts to game technology developer Havok to develop new virtual training curricula, with programs that include combat simulations, helicopter docking, ship maintenance and anti-submarine warfare. By “gamifying” aspects of their training programs, the military can engage (and arguably exploit) a community already primed to see such activities as enjoyable. In reality, if combat in games is becoming more “real”, it is due to the vested interests of the military and their investment in the industry.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is what is often referred to as “serious games”. The most well-known are medical games designed to assist with or enhance recovery and convalescence. Re-Mission is a third-person shooter developed by game studio Realtime Associates for teens and young adults undergoing treatment for certain types of cancer. The player controls the character “Roxxi”, a nano-robot injected into a body (symbolising the player/patient’s own body) who uses a variety of weapons to fight cancer at a cellular level. The game isn’t just about getting patients to engage with their treatment by giving them a tangible sense of active participation, it is designed to produce specific psychological and behavioural outcomes strongly associated with successful cancer treatment.  The game not only provides comfort and a sense of optimism (with benefits akin to those associated with placebos), but produces measurable outcomes known to assist with recovery. While Re-Mission is the most well-known of these games, they are not limited to cancer or post-treatment recovery. There are other titles designed to help rehabilitate stroke victims, assist with mental health issues such as depression and autism (especially in children and teens), as well as helping people with serious addiction problems understand their behaviour. Now there is even a MSc in Serious Game Development offered at several universities and institutes of technology.

The issue of mental health occasionally arises in relation to video games, though rarely in a positive way. A lot of research is conducted in the hope of finding some direct causal link between video games and poor mental health, especially in youth. Of course there are correlates (as there are with many social phenomena), but none have been proven to be directly causal. In fact, we know very little about the potential effects of gaming on mental health. It is no surprise though given the popularity of gaming, especially in young men (a group notorious for poor mental health and resistance to treatment), that mental health is something often addressed via video games. There are many games that are either designed specifically to address mental illness, or that have been found to be beneficial when included in therapy regimes.  SPARX is an example of the former: it was designed specifically to address depression in teens by teaching them therapeutic techniques and coping skills, and was shown to effect better outcomes for those participating in standard therapy alone.  Bejewelled, a downloadable app puzzle game available on smartphones has been proposed as a clinical treatment for depression and anxiety with encouraging results so far. Where this trend ends can get blurry; some recent indie titles are so poignant , affecting and beautiful that one could hypothesise (without having done anything resembling actual research) that such games have positive outcomes for the mental health of the gamers. The main purpose of games is to engage the player, and games like Braid (a game where mind-and-time bending puzzles symbolise the difficulties of relationship dynamics) or Journey (a game so full of existential jouissance that some players reporting crying with happiness) elicit powerful reactions from the player. It would be a difficult argument to mount that such a thing was bad for you.

When your average gamer hears the words “educational games” most would roll their eyes (including myself). However, not all educational games are just about learning your times tables or spelling. Some are far more exciting; for example, games that teach people how to respond to dangerous situations. The genre “disaster survival” sounds as though it may include some big budget, blockbuster titles, but it doesn’t. These games focus on teaching communities how to respond to disastrous events, such as earthquakes, tidal waves and nuclear meltdowns. These games mostly have niche markets and are designed for specific communities or groups – one is aimed Italian high school students to teach them what to do if an earthquake hits their school. Others focus on things like monitoring forest fires and developing action plans, while others address social issues, like one designed to help British teenagers recognise sexual coercion.

Another in this genre is a game developed for the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division. The game, unimaginatively titled The Tsunami Survival Challenge Game is an “all ages” game (though aimed predominantly at children), designed to instil in the player the proper protocols and procedures to follow in the event of a tsunami. It is a simple Flash game played over the internet and so doesn’t come close to the advanced gameplay and technology of Re-Mission, but it doesn’t need them. The game’s purpose isn’t to effect therapeutic outcomes for seriously ill patients, it is simply to provide a simple and easily remembered mental checklist in a non-intimidating way. The beneficial effects of such games can be hard to measure as the kinds of events they are designed for are rare. Further, after such an event, the efficacy of a children’s game is not likely to be at the top of anyone’s priorities. But the game isn’t designed to save lives in the same way Re-Mission is – its focus is broad and mimetic, its purpose social, rather than biological.

And finally, a more abstract example. In 2009 the Council of Europe released a set of guidelines for the human rights of gamers. That is, they drew up guidelines that game developers and their products should adhere to so as not to undermine or interdict upon the human rights of those who play their games. The guidelines spell out the ways that games could impact or impinge upon those playing them and provides guidance on how to avoid this. These include freedom of expression, to bodily and mental integrity and the freedom to exercise their own free will. This may seem silly, but given the engrossing nature and increasing capacity of video games for realistic and life-like depictions, this may become an important issue.   Some lines that previously seemed impenetrable are becoming increasingly permeable. Much like Facebook and Twitter have done for privacy laws, gaming is going to push the boundaries of previously distinct legal concepts and categories, such as bodily and psychological integrity, manipulation, duress and exploitation.   As games and the way we play them evolve, these issues will need to be updated and reworked to keep up with an industry that in 30 short years, has gone from an unheard of niche pastime to one of the main driving forces behind so many technological developments and the fastest growing entertainment industry in the world.