CHAPTER VII: THE VIDEOGAMES OF THE OPPRESSED
(This chapter is part of Gonzalo Frasca's Thesis. Get the full text here).
What follows are two different examples on how Boal’s techniques could be applied on videogames in order to foster critical thinking among players. Basically, both are design documents that describe how these games could be created, along with descriptions and sample scenarios. It is important to stress that both systems are hypothetical: there is currently no working prototype of any of them. When I first started thinking about combining Boal’s theater and videogames, my first intention was to start working on a prototype. However, I realized that, since theater and videogames are very different media, I would first need to make a detailed analysis of both Boal techniques and the particularities of videogames as a representational medium. This was the main reason that lead me to write this thesis. My next step will be to start working on a working prototype, in order to get funding to create at least one of these projects.
It is essential to stress the fact that while the intention of these projects is to foster critical thinking, their implementation will carry the bias of the designer of the system. This is also true for Boal’s TO. The mechanics of the different techniques carry an ideological message, even if their intention is to be open-ended. For example, the fact that the joker decides the level of verisimilitude of a proposed solution will clearly influence the outcome of a FT session depending on the particular joker’s ideas and opinions. During his career, Boal has always considered TO as a work-in-progress and had a critical attitude towards its techniques, which he modified several times. While it would be cumbersome to have a FT that encourages the spect-actors not only to be critical towards the anti-model, but also towards FT rules themselves, it is important that they realize that TO techniques are not ideologically neutral. In the case of the “Videogames of the Oppressed”, the previous remark is also true. Both its design decisions and the performance of moderators will influence the participants performance and lead them towards certain paths of action. The choice of videogames as a medium is carrying an ideological baggage that includes both videogames conventions and the personal and social perception of computer-based entertainment. Probably the best way to make this bias explicit would be to create different versions of the “Videogames of the Oppressed”, developed by people of different age, culture and/or gender. Of course, this would go beyond my current goal of analyzing the basis for a first prototype.
My personal experience as a producer in both traditional media (television, advertising and press) and new media (internet publishing, multimedia and videogame design) made me aware that there is always a very significant difference between design documents and finished projects. This is why the following ideas should not be taken as definitive. The reader must keep in mind the techniques of the “videogames of the oppressed” as a work in progress that are described here mainly as an example of what could be done on this medium.
1. The Sims of the Oppressed: Modifying the System
The technique that I will describe is based on The Sims and takes the “mod” concept to its extreme, allowing players to modify the game itself. It is based on FT and it would probably be situated closer to the FT “show”, which is open to heterogeneous public rather than the traditional that works with homogenous groups of participants. The target audience for “The Sims of the Oppressed” is quite large. With this particular example I am trying to reach videogame players in general. I think that the modifications that I will suggest will not change its status of videogames. In other words, I do not expect people to say “this is the consciousness-raising simulation that also happens to be a game”. Even if some of the programming skills required by “The Sims of the Oppressed” may be high, as we will later see, it is not imperative to be a programmer to participate.
If you play The Sims you are able to select or modify different “skins”. “Skin” is a word that describes the graphical appearance of your character and it allows you to dress them with different clothes, faces, and hair and skin colors. Unlike what usually happens in reality the other characters will show no difference in their behavior if you are wearing dirty or clean clothes or depending on the color of your skin. The Sims represents the suburban idea of heaven: every trace of class, gender or racial struggle was either erased from the original design or transformed in a decoration with no actual influence on the game. Its idea of diversity is merely cosmetic. As the author, Will Wright, explained, decisions where taken to exclude certain cases of deviant behavior: “Basically, we wanted to stay as morally or ethically neutral as possible. But there were some things we didn't want to touch, like pedophilia” (Wright, 2000b).
Since simulations are representations of the world, they cannot model it without conveying the author’s idea about how the world works. In his study about Sim City 2000, Julian Bleeker (1995) analyses how the racial factor is excluded from the simulated model. While riots are possible in Sim City 2000, they are always triggered by causes such as heat or high unemployment. No room here for the “Rodney King factor”.
Personally, I have been playing Sim City for several years now and never thought about how it dealt with racial issues. I did notice, though, that the FIFA series of soccer videogames does not include Uruguay as a team, even if it is one of the countries that won more international titles in the twentieth century, including the World Cup twice. Thankfully, this was easy to fix. A player used one of the features of the game that allows you to create teams. He included the list of current Uruguayan soccer players, along with their uniforms. Adding a team in FIFA is really just writing down some names and adding some colors. However, to expand Sim City in order to please Bleeker would be a much more complex task. We should first say that Sim City does not allow you to modify its inner rules. And, even if it had such a feature, it would require a good deal of programming. Still, I think that the possibility is compelling since it would not be just a makeover change, but rather a radical change that would modify the simulation’s ideological assumptions.
Since The Sims deals directly with humans, its ideological assumptions can be even more evident. What I proposed to do in “The Sims of the Oppressed” is a modified version of The Sims that would allow players to modify, add and discuss the simulation’s model chore rules, particularly the ones that affect character behaviors. Think of it as FT with games instead of scenes.
1.1 The Dynamics of “The Sims of the Oppressed”
The basic gameplay would be similar to The Sims’. The main difference would be that, in addition to downloading objects and skins, it would also be possible to get user-designed characters with different personalities and particular sets of actions. These characters would be created with a special design tool. Players would be able to rate the different characters and even create their own versions of them, based on behavioral details that they think need improvement in order to have a higher degree of verisimilitude.
1.2 Sample Scenario
Agnes has been playing with The Sims for a while now. She knows the basic dynamics of the simulation and enjoys it. Nevertheless, she feels that it would be great if family relationships were more realistic. So, she goes to the “Character Exchange” website and browses through different characters. She finds one that looks interesting. It is called “Dave’s Alcoholic Mother version 0.9” and it is described by its author as
“This mother spends a lot of time working and she is very tired when she gets back home. Still, every night she will have to fix dinner and do some cleaning. In order to escape from her terrible life, the mother drinks a lot of bourbon. She can get very annoyed by children and pets and may become violent”.
Agnes considers to give it a try and downloads it into one of the houses that she has been previously playing with. The household is integrated by a couple, three children and a cat. After the download, the mother is replaced by “Dave’s Alcoholic Mother version 0.9”. The character is interesting. After playing with it for a while, she realized that when she reaches a certain degree of fatigue, she would start drinking. The more she drinks the less she will care about her family. She would remain calm unless her husband insists on cuddling or giving her a back rub.
While Agnes thinks that the character is pretty well depicted, there are details that she does not agree with. For example, the character’s background is set as having low educational level. In addition to this, the character has a lousy job. And, to make things worse, the “Alcoholic Mother” will always get her drinks from the little bar in the living room. In Agnes’ opinion, the alcoholic should not be described as having a poor education and a lousy job. Agnes also knows that in general alcoholics hide their bottles around the house and try not to drink in public. So, she goes back to the “Character Exchange” and looks for another alcoholic mother. She finds one that seems promising “Dorothy’s Alcoholic Methodist Mother version 3.2”. After trying it, she realizes that the behavior of this character is much more accurate to the idea that she has about it. She is really intrigued on why the designer insisted on the fact that the mother would be a Methodist, since that fact does not seem to affect her alcoholism. She checks back on the character designer’s web page and she founds a short narrative that explains that the character is actually based on a real person who happened to be a Methodist. Even if Agnes founds the story interesting, she thinks that the alcoholic part of the behavior is superb, but the Methodist part does not make any sense. So, she uses an editor to modify the character’s code and removes the religious references. She also adds some small details, like the fact that the mother loves a certain brand of whisky. Then, she posts it online as “Agnes’ Alcoholic Mother 1.0 – Based on Dorothy’s Alcoholic Methodist Mother version 3.2”, along with a short description of the main behavioral rules. A couple of weeks later, she finds out that her behavior has become quite popular. Actually, some players have posted some modified versions. Some of them have even e-mailed her with some remarks and criticisms. She downloads some of these new versions and finds a couple that she likes a lot.
Some weeks later, Agnes gets a little tired of playing with the alcoholic mother and wants to give her some more personality. So, she decides that it would be great if the mother became an ecologist. Agnes downloads a character described as “Peter’s Radical Greenpeace activist version 9.1”. She edits its code, copy it and paste it, along with some minor modifications, on her alcoholic mother. Now the mother takes more care of the plants and does not kick the cat anymore when she is drunk.
1.3 Rule-building as criticism
Programming simulated behaviors like the ones that were previously described on the scenario is not an easy task. Even if the design tool involved templates or some kind of visual object-oriented programming, it is likely that the average player would consider the task overwhelming. However, creating an environment where players do program simulations is not impossible, as Amy Bruckman’s work (1997) on Moose Croosing suggest. That being said, we can start to analyze the characteristics of this technique.
The mechanics of “The Sims of the oppressed” are inspired on FT’s characteristic of allowing participants to create alternative simulation models. Nevertheless, it is much less ambitious on a participatory level because of the fact that it does not expect all the players to actively participate in the discussion and/or the design process. While it is possible that certain players, such as Agnes, could deal with the programming of new behaviors, it is likely that most players would be “lurkers". Would this fact be necessarily go against the participatory principles of TO? After all, it is not common that every spect-actor take the protagonist’s role in FT. Even if somebody does not participate on stage, the fact of witnessing the changes and listening to the opinions that are exchanged involves every spect-actor and renders them anything but passive. As Boal states it:
In a Forum Theatre session no one can remain a ‘spectator’ in the negative sense of the word. It’s impossible. In Forum Theatre, all the spect-actors know that they can stop the show whenever the want. They know that they can shout “Stop!” and voice their opinion in a democratic, theatrical, concrete way, on stage. Even if they stay on the sidelines, even if they watch from a distance, even if they choose to say nothing, that choice is already a form of participation. (Boal, 1992)
Still, “The Sims of the Oppressed” is not FT and it is not enough to simply shout “Stop!” to participate on the behavioral design. However, I argue that both the multiplicity of behaviors and the fact that amateur designers create most of the experience would foster a critical attitude even in those players who do not create behaviors.
The most radical idea behind “The Sims of the Oppressed” is the fact that it is a meta-simulation: a system that affords the creation of multiple simulations. Of course, it does not let players to change every rule in the system – otherwise it could not be considered a product at all. Like any computer program, “The Sims of the Oppressed” has a model, with its own rules, that define the main characteristics of the software. This includes, for example, a “design your own behavior” programming tool, the user’s ability to share behaviors and the way these are integrated into the program. These rules cannot be changed by the player. Still, there are many rules that can be modified, such as the incorporation of new behaviors. These rules could have a radical impact on how the simulation works, both in its mechanics and at its ideological level. While the original designers of the software remain their authors, in this case it is harder to make them accountable for what people play with, since there is a lot of freedom to create.
The fact that several design strategies coexist in the game – and that the player knows that other players designed most of the behaviors – enhances the perception of the simulation as a constructed artifact. If a player likes to download behavior created by, say, Peter, she might be able to find certain patterns that keep repeating in his designs – for example the fact that all his characters, for example, do not fight back oppressive situations. This would make the player think about Peter as a designer and about the things that he takes for granted. In addition to this, since the player knows that behaviors were by non-professional designers could make her more attentive to details and possible flaws. And, finally, since there could be dozens of different versions for a same behavioral trait –like alcoholism- states the idea that the perception of a same behavior varies depending on the observer and that it is necessary to have a critical attitude in order to be able to distinguish the nuances between them.
The situation would be different if the original authors offered a fixed set of different characters and behaviors. What it is important in the participatory technique that I am suggesting is that the postings will offer a broad spectrum of views. It is equally important to stress that players can not only create their own, but also modify others’. By being allowed to change Peter’s code, a player is taking a look into the way Peter structures his perception of the world and exercising a critique about it.
I think that even if a player does not participate in the active discussion by rating or commenting on other people’s creations by posting a message online, the fact of experimenting with alternative ideological constructions and selecting the more satisfying ones still keeps the main characteristics of the dialogical process.
Nevertheless, a simulation like “The Sims of the Oppressed” would carry several design issues. The most obvious one is that such an open-ended system would make easy for players to create certain characters and behaviors that may be problematic, such as “Benny’s Pedophile Clown version 1.2”, or even illegal in some countries, where the “Adolph’s Holocaust-denier Neo-nazi version 6.66” would be prohibited by law. Personally, I think that since the goal of this technique is to encourage critical thinking, I would not censor any opinion.
Still, this would be a major problem for the company that produces the software package. No matter how much you stress the fact that the content is created by the users, I do not think that there is any company on Earth that wants to be known as the “one that provided a platform for creating a simulator where you force young children to work as prostitutes and sell drugs”. The only way that I can think of overcoming this problem would be to release the whole package as a collaborative, open-source project that would be distributed online.
“The Sims of the Oppressed” is just an example of how current simulations could be enhanced to allow more room to discussion and critical thinking. In this particular case, since the model videogame is a best-seller, it is not probable that such modifications could ever be done. My main intention was to give an example on how TO’s philosophy could be applied to existing software to enhance its potential to serve as a consciousness raising medium. The next example is not a modification of an existing game, but rather a system for allowing players to create their own simulations by using classic videogames from the eighties.
2. “Play My Oppression”: Simulating Personal Problems
My second example of a “Videogame of the Oppressed”, which I will call “Play my Oppression” (PMO) draws on many TO techniques, including “the projected image" (Boal, 1992), which is part of a broader category that Boal calls “Image Theater” (Boal, 1992). These techniques always involve the creation of images –some still, other animated- that represent or symbolize particular situations.
2.1. Image Theater
Boal describes an example of “Image Theater” based on the subject of the family. During many years, he had asked different groups to use people, chairs and a table to create an image that represents their idea of what a family is. Interestingly, Boal claims that is common that different groups of the same culture create the same image. For example, an image in Sicily shows the men playing cards at the table, while women are sitting on the background. The American family is usually represented with a man, surrounded by his family, all chewing gum. An image of an Argentinean family shows an empty seat where everybody is looking at: it is the placed of the “disappeared”, the one who was tortured and killed during the seventies’ dictatorship.
“The projected image” is a particular technique that combines elements FT and “Image Theater”. Since Boal gives a very compact and clear description of it, I have decided to use his own words:
The model: the protagonist constructs an image of her oppressions without worrying about making it comprehensible. It can be symbolic, it can be whatever the protagonist wants. This dynamic image is played a number of times. Each time, each participant has the right to replace the oppressed character and, within the dynamic of the image, try to break the oppression she has seen […] (Boal, 1992)
Both “Image Theater” and “The projected image” use the body as a model to be sculpted and integrated with others. “Image theater” is usually preceded by “warm-up” exercises that help the participants to explore their bodies as a mean of expression –remember that most of them are not professional actors. If “Image Theater” is basically a body theater, how are we going to deal with it in videogames? There is an extensive bibliography about the role of the body in the virtual and online world but it is not my objective to make a literal computer-based translation of Boal’s work. Still, it is clear that trying to build a bodily theater in a virtual bodiless environment controlled by mice, keys and joysticks may prove to be a difficult task. By dropping the body out of my videogame design, I am losing one of the key characteristics of Boal’s work: the ideological body. According to Philip Auslander, Boalian techniques reveal
how ideology […] is expressed at the most basic material level through everyday, habitual routines and regimens of the body and, therefore, how non-hegemonic ideologies might be expressed through bodily counter-routines exploring physical alternatives to the oppressive regimen (Auslander, 1999).
I believe that it is possible to explore the same subjects that “Image Theater” does by using the particular characteristics of videogames as a medium. If Boalian theater’s main asset is the body, I suggest to use instead videogames biggest potential: simulation. Instead of creating images, I propose that the participants create small simulations (or videogames) that could be experienced and discussed by others.
2.2 The Family Album
The Sims has a feature that sometimes works like a very basic PMO, but producing images rather than models. Instead of allowing players to build simulations, it just allows to build linear narration. Interestingly, this feature has been used –to the amazement of the game developers- in order to tell personal stories, some of them quite interesting. I will explain its mechanics, because it is the only feature that gets somehow close to the idea that I have for PMO.
The Sims’ “photo album” allows players to take snapshots of different moments of their play and build a commented “family album” that can be accessed through the Internet. Actually, many people use this feature as a storyboarding tool. They play the game just to create certain situations that will be captured as still images and then edited with the addition of textual comments. While most stories are trivial or melodramatic, some are particularly interesting. One of them, showcased by The Sims author, Will Wright, was created by a girl whose sister had an abusive husband. The story, which is available onlin, explains the relationship of both sisters, and how the older got married to a man who beat her up. The story describes how the marriage fell down as the husband becomes more aggressive. While the story could be a work of fiction, it is presented with great verisimilitude. I was personally impressed by how touching the story was and how different was from most of the other, more trivial narrations available on The Sims’ site. Wright, who admitted he was surprised by this unexpected use of the “family album” feature, announced that he plans to expand the storytelling feature in the next release of the program. While I think that The Sims’ family album is an interesting feature, it is not fully exploiting the particular characteristics of the medium. Using a simulation for creating comics is like using a movie camera to take still pictures. Imagine that the author of the “abusive husband” story would not tell you the fixed sequence of events as they happened, but would rather simulate the situation so other players could experience it through multiple perspectives and by experimenting with different models of behavio. Some players would use it as a way to deal with real problems that they are facing, while others might just play with it in order to expand their understanding on both human and marital relationships. In other words, PMO would be similar to the “photo album” feature, but instead of producing static narrative sequences, it would create small simulations or games that could be experienced by other players.
2.3. The Problem of Building Simulations
What follows is a short explanation on how PMO would work. One participant would isolate a particular situation that he is having trouble dealing with. Then he could design a simulation that models that situation. Other participants would be able to play with it and some might even design modified versions that would show their own personal views on the problem. All the participants would be able to play with these different versions and discuss the different models.
However, the difference between crafting comics (as in the Sim’s “family album”) and simulations is enormous. While both require a high degree of proficiency, players are already familiar with visual syntax through television, film and comics. The mechanics of simulation are certainly much less familiar to consumers. Modeling a simulation requires a certain proficiency in logic and programming. Still, thanks to videogames and other computer-based activities like the use of Internet, the “simulation literacy” level might be on increase. In addition to this, we should not forget that, as we have previously shown, traditional games are also simulations and that knowledge can certainly be applied to its design. Videogame design is a very time-consuming activity. As an example, it took children three months to create their own videogames in Yasmin Kafai’s research (1995). Since my plan is to allow participants to design not one, but many videogames, it seems obvious that the design time frame should be much shorter. In addition to this, if the game needs to be programmed in a particular programming language, this requirement would certainly put off many potential participants. My purpose is to allow anybody interested in videogames to use them in order to discuss other issues, not to transform them into programmers.
Unlike “The Sims of the Oppressed”, PMO was not conceived as a project targeted at a massive audience. While it would be interesting to see what would happen if such an online community would be open to the public, I envision PMO as mainly targeted, just like FT, to small groups such as high school classes, design, performance or art groups and even for people going through therapy. Since currently older adults may not be very familiar with videogame aesthetics and conventions, along with certain notions of programming, it is likely that for the next decades PMO should mainly focus on children, young adults and, in certain cases, adults.
2.4. Videogame Primitives for Simulation Building
The solution that I propose is to use well-known videogames as templates for creating simulations. The basic “programming” would be done through a set of multiple-choice decisions, a method usually known in interface design as “wizards”. In addition to this, the designer may use pre-existing graphics and sounds, or create her own through sliders or a drag and drop interface.
Because of my job as an online videogame designer and producer at the Cartoon Network’s web site, it is common that I have to describe a game idea to a production company. Sometimes these companies are located in other states and the process has to be done through the phone and the Internet. This it is not an easy task. There are many ways that a particular set of actions can be represented. This is why I developed a strategy that has proven to be very effective: to create similes using “classics” from the golden age of videogames. For example, I would say that the character “moves rotating, like the starship in Asteroids” and that you have to deal with the objects “using the same process that Tapper was based on”. While it is hard to say that everything has already been invented in videogames, I believe that most of the basis can be easily found in early videogames. The reason is simple: these games were so technologically constrained that they had to focus on the essence of the action. Games like Pac-man, Space Invaders, Centipede, Adventure, Tetris or Street Fighter hold the ABC of videogame design. Just like in literature, a good knowledge of the classics can be really helpful for the designer.
So, I propose to offer about a dozen different videogame design templates based on classic games. For example, if a player wants to create a game involving fighting, she could use the Street Fighter template. If the simulation involves somebody running away, a racing car template might do it, as long as she replaces the car graphics with images of persons.
Table 2 shows some examples of videogame “primitives”, along with a short description of the main action that they are representing, which may serve as a design guide for creating different simulations.
Running away from a problem
Trying to run away within a labyrinth that has no exit
Fighting between two antagonists
A never ending task, like in Sisyphus’ myth
A single player is attacked by a group
A game where the enemy is destroyed gradually
The player tries to imitate somebody else
Table 2. A set of videogame “primitives” based on classical videogames
2.5 PMO Dynamics
PMO would work as a feature available inside a bigger “Videogames of the Oppressed” online community and it is designed to be used through a computer connection, asynchronously. However, this does not mean that the players should not know each other: PMO would probably benefit from working with a homogenous group, such as a high school class or a bigger community integrated by smaller youth groups. Any participant –who will be referred as the “protagonist”-, at any time, would be able to start a “forum” and many forums could be held, asynchronously, at the same time. Each forum will have a short description and any member would be able to join it if she is interested in the topic. In order for a forum to start, a minimum number of participants should be reached - the actual number may vary and it will be up to the moderator to decide.
The protagonist will design one or a series of videogames where she would try to simulate the situation that she is trying to deal with. While these games will be based on ludus templates, they should be treated as paidea since the point is that the designer does not know how to solve the problem situation. In other words, she does not know what the ludus rule is, if any.
Once the game(s) is ready, it will be posted online and all the participants who previously enrolled in the forum will be able to play with it. The participants will then post their comments on a discussion forum, telling the group their opinions about how the design reflects the problem based on their personal experiences. They can also post modified versions of the original game to convey their interpretation of the problematic situation. Each one of these versions could be tested and commented by the group. The goal is not to find a “correct” simulation of the problem, but to achieve a good discussion about the problem. This discussion is mainly done through the process design. However, it could be complemented by textual postings or discussion in chat rooms. The whole process should take, depending on the amount of participants, about a week.
2.6. Sample Scenario
Basically, anybody can start a forum. However, the moderator will first review and approve the proposed topic. This has nothing to do with censorship. The reason is that certain topics are better suited to be analyzed through this technique. This is a problem that Boal has stressed a lot, particularly in Forum Theater techniques: certain situations reflect oppression, while others are simply aggression and there is nothing that these techniques can do.
It is also important that whoever submits a topic is really committed to go through the whole process. In addition to this, the topic must be clearly defined and must focus on just one problem rather than many. An example of a poor topic choice: "The problems of a teenager with her parents". An example of a more focused choice: "My parents do not want me to stay overnight at my boyfriend's house".
While some participants might be able to choose a clear topic from the beginning, others might need some help. For example, a participant might send a private email to the moderator, writing a narrative of her problem. Then, through email communication, the moderator might help her to clearly define the topic. Another solution would be to create a moderated chat room where the possible topics may be discussed among peers. In this situation, more experienced participants will help the newbies.
Once the topic is approved, the moderator will post it on the "New Topics" section for a fixed amount of time (for example, a week). During that time, anybody who is interested in participating can click on the JOIN button. After a week, the session will start. Every session is asynchronous, which means that it is not in real time. The session can be developed during many days, and participant will be able to post their opinions without needing to be logged at the same time. When the session starts, everybody who previously applied will receive an email notification.
The person who proposed the topic will play a leading role in the session. For the sake of this scenario, let's pretend that the "protagonist" is a teenager named Peter. He submits the following topic: "I have trouble telling my parents that I am gay".
Once the topic is approved (and before the session starts), Peter will have to create games where we would try to explain his problem. For explanatory purposes, I will call them “op-games” (which stands for “oppressive games”). These op-games are created using templates from classic arcade games that are available at the site. The idea is that the op-games represent the particular problems that he has to overcome in order to solve his major problem (sometimes, the protagonist will design just one game or, as in this example, he will create a series of games).
While current videogames are based on a win/lose paradigm, classic arcade games usually do not have a winning situation. For example, it is impossible to win in Space Invaders or Tetris: the game keeps getting harder.
The goal of op-games is not to be able to represent a concrete solution to the participant’s problem, but rather to simulate (usually metaphorically or metonymically) it and use it as an "object to think and discuss with".
In this particular example, Peter selected three different problems that he has to deal with. According to him, they increase the difficulty of talking with his parents about his sexual orientation. Each one of these problems will become a particular videogame and has a particular name. In this case, they are called: "Insults", "Who am I?" and "Society". Let's now see the process of creating to create these games.
2.6.1. Game 1 – Insults
The first game deals with how Peter is insulted by other people, particularly schoolmates. Peter will have to choose a videogame genre that he thinks will represent this problem. The selection of which template to use is personal and will depend on the user's creativity and experience. At any time, he will be able to discuss his choices with the moderator.
The templates will allow Peter to customize his game. For example, he will be able to upload his own graphics and replace the original ones. He will also be able to tweak some characteristics, for example if it would include a score, time constraints or which kinds of messages will appear during the game. It might be wise to create different levels of customizations. The most basic one will be based on simple multiple choices. However, for advanced users, it might be helpful to introduce some programming tools that will allow more complex changes.
Figure 10 – A mock-up of Peter’s first game
The illustration is a mockup of how Peter's first game may look like. He used the Space Invaders template and replaced the alien spaceship graphic for a sketch of a schoolmate. He also changed the graphic of the laser bean and replaced it with insults.
Unlike the original game, the player is not able to fire back. Peter disabled that option because he thinks that one of the main problems is that he does not know how to reply ("fire back") to these insults. Actually, this will appear as a "design note" and will be accessible to everybody that plays the game. Based on those notes, other users might suggest possible changes or solutions. Some of them will even create a modified version of Peter's game, introducing features that, in their opinion, represent other ways to deal with the problem.
Figure 11 – A modified version of Peter’s game
For example, a participant could modify Peter’s game by replacing the solitary protagonist by a group of people, as shown in Figure 11. The change may be done just by replacing the graphic of one stick figure by one with three, or may include some functional modifications such as allowing the player to “fire-back” with triple power.
Figure 12 – “Firing-back” with art
Figure 12 shows a particular way of “firing-back” or responding to the problem. It was designed by a player who argued that the situation could be solved by creating and sharing art works that would help foster communication on the subject.
Figure 13 – One suggested solution: do not listen
However, not all the participants may have such strategies. Figure 13 shows another modified version of the game where the designer opted for not listening to the insults (notice that the stick figures are covering their ears).
Figure 14 – Modify the template
Figure 14 shows a mock-up of the mechanics of the design – or modification- of a game. The designer is able to edit all the graphical elements and even upload her own graphics, including photographs. The control of the action can be done through multiple-choice menus. This method would be ideal for beginners. However, its possibilities are limited and the choices will clearly reflect the bias of the original programmer. This is why the designer may have the option to modify the programming code through a specific language (such as BASIC or LOGO). While programming languages also reflect the bias of their creators, they give much more freedom to modify the game than the multiple-choice method.
2.6.2 Game II – Who am I?
Figure 15 – A mock-up of “Who am I?”
The second game shows Peter's own reflection in a mirror. When he looks at his reflection, he sees a monster. The game is based on a fighting game (for example, Street Fighter). In the design notes, Peter explains that this only happens to him sometimes. Some days he feels like "I am two different people". In the videogame, there is no way to win: the two keep fighting all the time.
2.6.3. Game III - Society
Figure 16 – A mock-up of “Society”
The third game is based on Tetris and Peter calls it "Society". The player has to match gay couples: boy-boy, girl-girl. If he matches girl-boy, that couple will reproduce over time, creating another couple.
Figure 17 – A mock-up of the discussion forum
Once the designs are ready, they are published online and can be accessed by the participants. After this, the participants can post their opinions and suggestions. Participants are encouraged to modify Peter's games and create their own versions. Figure 17 shows the messages on the forum. Those that have a little Pac-Man icon would include a different version of a videogame. While the discussion may be centered on Peter's games, many sub discussion may emerge based on criticism of other participant's games.
For example, Cathy creates a different version of the Monster game. Instead of using a fighting genre as a template, she used a "Simon says" game, where the player has to mimic the monster's movements. If the player does it correctly, their images slowly swap. In her design notes, she mention that she faced the same problem and used to want to fight against her image, but with time and the support of a friend she was able to learn to deal with it.
2.7. Issues and Future Work
One of the main consequences of an asynchronous design is the possibility that the forum dilutes through time, without reaching a high level of participation. A synchronous forum, where the moderator would be able to foster participation, would solve this problem. However, since the design of simulations is a time consuming activity –even through templates- it is likely that a synchronous forum would take several hours to let participants to create their designs and, therefore, would diminish the group’s interest.
Amy Jo Kim (2000) identifies five different roles of participants in an online community: visitor, novice, regular, leader and elder. A way to balance the level of participation in each forum would be that the moderator tries to incorporate different kinds of participants: mainly integrating novices with regular, leaders and elders, so they can learn the dynamics from the most experienced ones. Still, since the goal of the forums is to reach multiple views of the problems, nobody should be banned a priori from joining. If all the participants are novices, it is up to the moderator(s) to support and advice them. Some regulars may gain enough experience to become moderators and expand the reach of the community.
While the community should be open to people of all ages, it is probable that it will particularly appeal, as I mentioned before, to children, teenagers and young adults. There are no reasons to believe that as time goes on and videogame players grow older – and the medium gains wider social acceptance – the age of the participants who could be reached will expand. The difference between gender play preferences, both in traditional games and videogames, plus the digital gender gap, may affect how “videogames of the oppressed” work. This could be a potentially fruitful topic for future research.
Since the whole idea behind “videogames of the oppressed” is to provide a means of communication by using projects that are relevant to the participants, the final design may also include some space for general videogame design discussion. In addition to this, since the technique is based on videogames designed a couple of decades ago, it may be possible that some or many of the participants are not familiar with them. Nevertheless, even if I think that the characteristic that makes these games “classics” is that their basic mechanism is still present in current videogames, it may be useful to include a “training facility” where players who unfamiliar with videogame could experiment with the games that are being used as templates.
(This chapter is part of Gonzalo Frasca's Thesis. Get the full text here).