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

By Benjamin Riley

By Benjamin Riley. This article is part of a series on human rights and video games.

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-Life, Woomera 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.