Game competition about domestic violence

// 2 July 2009

Regular readers will know I’m a disgruntled game-player. I love games. I just wish less of them sucked – both in the sense I wish more were playable and actually fun and in the sense that they didn’t FAIL quite so hard to not just pointlessly, boringly repeat and reinforce kyriarchy.

Ludum Dare is a competition for game designers to quickly turn around mini games in 48 hours, on a theme. Via Offworld I happened to see the latest theme for this tri-annual game was domestic violence.

The idea of using games in an interesting way to make political points is very appealing – and some people have done this successfully by “social game” developers – for example ICED is meant to raise awareness about unfair immigration polcies in the US.

Let’s look at the game which Offworld highlighted as “the best of the entries I’ve played thus far”:

Queens, a short (and, in keeping with the theme, appropriately brutal) treatise on patriarchal indifference, and, as auntiepixelante aptly puts it, “the expendability of women”.

queens is the best of the ones I played, certainly (warning: I didn’t have time to play any of these games to the end, so ultimately that might have changed my perspective). In basic platform games, it is taken as read that the character you’re playing will ‘die’ multiple times – that’s the point, to get through the level without dying.

In queens, a small white pixalated figure, pushes a small pixilated queen off a ledge, and you are then meant to navigate her through the game without her dying. There are multiple queens, so if you die your character doesn’t just jump magically back to life, you’re replaced with a different queen. Or, as autie pixelante says:

In queens, these lives are characters and the repeating cycle of their deaths and replacement is the narrative, suggesting the expendability of women (who are neither faceless nor nameless) to a henry viii-style patriarch.

What about the other entries though? After School, a text game in which you play a boy and you have to choose the right thing to say out of a list, to stop his mother from hitting him.

One of the most basic points about domestic violence is: it’s not the victim’s fault, and it’s not up to the victim to ‘be good’ in some way in order to avoid abuse. And as the game progresses, it makes clear that there is no magic combination of things that someone can do to avoid abuse in this situation, as every option ends up with the mother hitting the son. Domestic violence is “not a game”, as it says.

Then there’s Punch the Red Ones Only – you are a penguin. If you punch the red penguins, you score points. If you accidentally punch a yellow penguin, the game zooms in and ends, zero-sum, don’t hit the ones like you. This one doesn’t work at all for me and seems pretty problematic – after all, it just seems to segregate the penguin world into “enemies” it is OK to hit and friends it’s not OK to hit, and based, no less, on colour.

This one sounds terrible, but I couldn’t confirm by playing it ‘unfortunately’:

Domestic Abuse: The Fighting game!

Arrows is woman, needs to get to gun. Z and X is man, Z punches, X grabs. Punches only count if the woman isn’t moving backwards, grabs only work if woman is moving.

In all seriousness, someone thought that was a good idea – because equating domestic violence and a fighting game is appropriate!

I also didn’t like this one called “the domestic” – in which you have to balance going to work and staying home – because it seems to be justifying/saying that work stress causes people to be violent to their partner, and that is an unavoidable reaction.

So, ultimately, there’s some potential here. It wasn’t as FAIL-ridden as I expected when I read about the competition, and maybe stimulates some thoughts about what games are for and their potential.

But another game designer, who ultimately pulled out, sums it up best:

Lesson learned: some themes just aren’t meant to be fun.

Comments From You

Anne Onne // Posted 2 July 2009 at 3:24 pm

Queens and After School seem really interesting, as far as you described them. I’m surprised but pleased that some entries really thought around the subject. It’s interesting that themes can be used to hammer in really hard hitting points and make us ask questions about what games are about (mindless entertainment vs educational) and what violence in video games means to us.

However, as always, it reminds us that to be thought provoking, one has to work really hard with a topic like domestic violence. It reminds me of rape as a plot point. Most often executed badly, to the point that feminists roll their eyes automatically when the topic is approached, there is the potential to make people see things in a different way, from the idea of replacing each character that dies with a new one, to hint that real lives are not like a game, to the fact that an abuse victim can do nothing to stop abuse.

But I’d be wary of themes that need that much nuance and thought for general competitions. It’s just so easy to not think it out enough and end up with something that supports the status quo (think most of the media) rather than points out oppression.

Even the fighting game domestic abuse idea might have been thought provoking if done well enough, with some underlying message about abuse, in which the odds are always stacked against you, and in which the object may have been simply to get away.

But I think I agree with the summary. Sometimes the risk of being part of the problem, not the solution is too great to take lightly.

Pacian // Posted 2 July 2009 at 7:17 pm

Try playing Punch the Red Ones Only again. The more ‘red ones’ you punch, the redder everyone becomes.

“some themes just aren’t meant to be fun.”

Out of interest, would you feel it summed it up if someone pulled out of a competition for short stories or movies on domestive violence for the same reason? Just because a narrative is interactive, does it have to be pure entertainment, where static narratives can be harrowing or bleak?

I guess I just think that interactive media has great potential for showing people what prejudices they have and what assumptions they make. And also as a way to argue against those who use ‘choice’ and ‘personal responsibility’ as ways to blame people for things that aren’t their fault.

Jess McCabe // Posted 3 July 2009 at 12:04 am

@Pacian I think it’s pretty clear from my post I agree that “interactive media” has a lot of potential. Games are just another form of media.

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