At last year’s Meaningful Play conference, held biannually at Michigan State University, several hundred attendees from across the globe convened to explore the computer game as a catalyst for change. Whether this change was raising social awareness, educating, or spurring recovery from neurological trauma, the assumption was that the interactive nature of gameplay was capable of producing transformation within the player.
My recent research examines prosocial games as rhetorical texts that attempt to inform the player about a particular event of social, economic, or cultural impact. These projects typically simulate a social justice issue in hopes that the player will better comprehend the subject. Furthermore, these projects attempt to persuade the player to empathize with the injustice that is being rendered interactively. There exist several inhibitors that prevent this latter priority from succeeding but the one that concerns me most lately is that the ludic nature of gameplay itself prevents the player from perceiving the seriousness of the issue being presented. Possessing an unparalleled measure of interactivity, computer games of any kind prompt the player to develop power over the physical hardware (controller, keyboard, and mouse), the software (operating system, browser, GUI), and ultimately the game being played. If we consider how much of our day-to-day resembles this gamespace (or is it that our days reflect our gaming nature?), we may recognize this negotiation of power as a tribal quality ingrained in our social behavior
This pursuit for power may be too big an obstacle for such admirable prosocial games like Phone Story, Endgame:Syria or SPENT. Is it our very nature that prevents us from empathizing with the digitally-rendered plight of the homeless or the survival of the refugee? How can players overcome this feeling that the problem solved once we “beat” the game (even if that entails simply turning it off)? My fear is that, despite the sincere motivations of the developers, these prosocial games and their persuasive strategies are smothered underneath strata of these struggles for power. Prosocial game creators might span this divide by taking advantage of games’ narrative qualities, using interaction with the environment and the characters to immerse the player within the context. Could multiplayer functionality and cooperative play reduce the competitive instinct enough so that a viable solution be recognized? These possibilities might seem a long way off but we have already witnessed the potential of collaborative gameplay and real-world problem solving. Perhaps by distracting players from the fact that they are engaging in gameplay, developers might better foreground the environment, the issue, and, ultimately, their empathetic responses.