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Coming Out: Serious Gaming

I’ve not really dealt with serious games before, on this blog or elsewhere, but an idea has struck me and I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it. Many such games deal with political ideas through education or simulation. There are very few which deal with social issues, possibly because they are a complex matter. Some such issues do appear in more generalised games, however:

Half-Life 2 deals with repression, both in its cyberpunk storyline and a thoroughly disadvantageous few minutes of play at its start. I’m sure most people will remember the City 17 station ‘metro cop’ who knocks a can to Freeman’s feet. In the mocking tone of one holding the high ground, he orders Freeman to pick it up. The player has the option to throw it back in his face, but Freeman is unarmed and easily bludgeoned with a cattle prod for his insolence. This short encounter sets the tone for a whole game about overcoming dictatorial power.

Beyond Good & Evil has a more political angle, exposing the perils of state-controlled media in a fantastical setting. Protagonist and freelance photojournalist Jade falls foul of the military during a vicious alien attack and winds up with a rebel network, out to expose far more than the government is letting on. Who’s really behind the Domz attacks, and why are innocents being abducted from the streets?

Of course, this is no less than what film is capable of dealing with, and film has the power to highlight more personal issues. What if games were tackle ideas like betrayal, love and social injustice head-on?

Coming Out: the Game

Imagine if you will, a game which tackles one of the most disruptive and fulfilling things a person can do with their life: accepting who they are, and asking others to do so too. It could be about being gay, bisexual, transgender or something other – in short, a process through which you must bare yourself to the world and hope people accept the self you may otherwise have hidden.

This would be a lofty challenge for a medium often accused of emotional immaturity. Despite games’ unique ability to focus on participation and immersion in the character’s own story, be that an emergent or scripted one, games have a way to go before touching people in the way a film or book might. I believe one reason is simply because games are a self-led exploration – it is the player’s responsibility to put their skills and deductive powers into clearing obstacles, while a slip from the ‘flow’ factored into the game’s design might very easily take them out of the moment.

One type of game has managed to transcend these concerns by giving the characters a presence outside the game – MMOs. Though their characters don’t usually achieve much when the game is not being played, they remain a part of its world through web profiles and lasting accomplishments in-game. If your character was among the first to defeat Archavon the Watcher or conquer some other obstacle, your glory is communicated to other players through commemorative plaques and articles on the community website. Your conduct leaves an impression too, as the world is populated with other people just like you, seeing your character either as a generous newbie tutor or an arrogant show-off. This sort of presence lends players a degree of social responsibility, and bridges the gap between stand-alone games and online worlds, in which your avatar is all.

Second Lives

This is where we find the concept of a ‘second life’: users or players whose avatar takes on certain responsibilities and a presence of their own, either in parallel to or conjunction with their everyday, ‘real’ life. I realise that I’m now piling niches upon niches, but it’s still fair to say a large number of people have very real investment in the characters they embody, and in their actions online. Their avatars become real to those around them, and the user too may recognise a degree of independence in their own creation.

A second life is usually made most real by being tested – often on privacy grounds, such as having your avatar name exchanged for that on your credit card, or with the threat of being deleted altogether – thereby ‘killing’ that persona. The more positive spin is the formation of lasting relationships, and these can take many forms, but it is often in the threat to anonymity that second lives have their boundaries defined most clearly.

The Gameplay

Herein lays the key mechanic of Coming Out: the Game. Privacy, social exclusion and the inability to act as we see fit all form the foundation of sexual or gender dysphoria, and the anxieties people face as a result of that. After one accepts one’s own personality and state of being, they are faced with the choice to keep this closetted, or let themselves embrace public life in a new way.

Complex games, and MMOs in particular, put us through this obstacle course all the time. The mere act of investing in an MMO is analogous to social transition – do you continue to live a second life you are not happy with, or take a stand and risk alienating your online social group?

When I left it, Second Life commentary was still rife with petitions for polyamorous partnerships and updates to the basic character model – people expressing their desire to live how they wish, against technical and cultural limitations. World of Warcraft has seen the same phenomenon, with many players uncomfortable using certain character bodies or rebelling against the new Real ID system; exposing someone who might be a respected and outgoing LGBT character to the wider world against their wishes – or such has been the fear.

Imagine if software included these challenges as part of its gameplay. We could teach some very real consequence in simulations of this sort, as characters like those crusading in Azeroth must risk all they’ve earned in-game, just to become the character they wish to be. Games currently lack the emotional depth and package of consequences to make these choices anything but trivial – the cost of losing reputation with the Steamwheedle Cartel, for example, can be measured in mere hours. The strength of serious games lays in their ability to present real-world scenarios however, and the right combination of rich narrative and heavy-handed game mechanics may just do the trick.

I fancy leaving the article open at this high-concept point, as I’d love to know what you think. If we can find ways of testing players as LGBT people are in real life, just how far you believe a game could really go? Are there other ways in which this could be made to work?