iBeg and the Challenges Facing Activist Games

Patricia Hernandez has an in-depth article on Kotaku today examining iBeg, a game that seeks to raise awareness about homelessness, and the broader challenges facing games for change in general. She begins by looking at iBeg‘s Kickstarter campaign and describing how there’s something about it that makes her uncomfortable:

The name alone is wince-inducing, yes—why can’t we let the whole “i__” die? But beyond this, I began thinking about other possible issues: does the game’s cute pixel art detract from the bleak reality of the issue? “There is a balance that we have to maintain between keeping the game engaging enough for players to want to keep playing it, but also introduce them to all of the negative things that homeless people have to go through,” Worboys explained. Then I began wondering: maybe such a concession was necessary, because it helped make the game more palatable for people who may not want to deal with the full weight of the issue. Games like to function as escapism and feel-goodery, after all.

Feel-goodery is often antithesis to spreading awareness. Actually understanding difficult, systemic issues like homelessness is not comfortable, and a game that seeks to have the player experience what it is like to be in such a situation simply cannot be “fun.”

Hernandez goes on to interview Ari Burak, co-president of Games For Change, as well as the supervisor of a homeless shelter, who speaks about how the Kickstarter money for something like iBeg would help if it went directly to a homeless shelter instead. She also examines some of the more practical considerations for these types of games, such as publisher hesitancy when it comes to backing games that are about a message.

The article is a thorough and thoughtful examination of an area of games that is often either dismissed or blown out of proportion. If you have time for one long read today, make it this one.

The Complicated Truth Behind Games That Want To Change The World — Patricia Hernandez, Kotaku

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Alex posts some of her sewing projects and cosplays on her Tumblr; you can also find her babbling about sewing and games and Parks and Recreation on Twitter.
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4 Responses to iBeg and the Challenges Facing Activist Games

  1. Ari says:

    A good way for a game to be engaging without being “fun”, per se, is for it to possess something of extremely high quality, whether that be narrative or visuals or characterization or anything else. People will be drawn to the art and the craftsmanship, even if the gameplay mechanics are lackluster.

    This is true for both Silent Hill 2 (great atmosphere, strong characterization) and Spec Ops: The Line (brilliant narrative). Fantastic, engaging games with a message, but the mechanics themselves are clunky, unwieldy, and unpolished. Both manage to work the message into the “unfun” nature of the gameplay, too – SH2 is intentionally frustrating, and Spec Op’s uninspired, repetitive gameplay is a form of genre satire directed at the player. Both messages would have been lost, or at least glossed over, had the games themselves been fun to play.

  2. Angel H says:

    I’ve been homeless for about 3 years now…and I hate the idea of this game. I’m just furious right now, that I’ve been trying 3 times to come up with a coherent response as to how much this disgusts me. My life isn’t a fucking game. I don’t earn EXP for sleeping in my car. The homeless mothers don’t level up for sending their children to school in clean clothes. And when you’re living in a shelter getting coughed on by every other person who has God-knows-what contagious illness, your “health bar” barely raises over half.

    Seeing red…I’m through.

  3. Lupus753 says:

    I disagree with the idea that a video game would necessarily trivialize homelessness. I think video games can be very useful for adressing social issues. Just not this game, I think.

    A work of fiction can never adress the entire reality of being homeless. There are people who work for decades without moving above the poverty line. There are people who instantly gain fame or money by being in the right place at the right time with the right people. There are many other factors to make this more complex. And yet, I can’t say why, but this game still feels a bit …ughh. I can’t describe why because I’m not entirely sure myself.

    • Alex says:

      Patricia’s reaction to the game is very similar, and she examines that in the article. I agree that, theoretically, games can tackle serious issues just like novels and films can and have. But even if a game avoids the problem of being too fun to be effective, as I mentioned briefly above, there’s still the problem that a player can always put down a game and walk away from the issue. So there’s still a fine line to tread there.

      I think one thing that can help avoid trivialization is if a person makes a game about their own experience (see: Dys4ia, Lim), rather than people making a game about something they don’t actually have experience with, like iBeg.

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