Category: Socially Conscious Games


Overview

Flower is an award-winning console game from indie developers at thatgamecompany and provides a wonderful alternative to the standard FPS fare usually available for the PS3 and PS4.  This is a very easy game to learn to play.  There are very few instructions at the beginning, and the game does a good job of introducing new challenges with just in time hints on how to proceed next.  Players do not need to remember complicated combinations of buttons, and even people with limited dexterity will be able to enjoy Flower to its fullest.

Screenshot of Flower opening screen

The game allows the player to control the wind through a number of short episodes as you move through beautiful landscapes, encouraging flowers to open.  As you move through the beautiful landscapes, you collect petals from the flowers you have nudged open, all accompanied by soothing music and the tinkling of gentle bells as each flower is contacted.  Players can control the speed of the wind.  You can rush through grasses and turn valleys into speedways.  Or you can meander gently through meadows filled with flowers.  It’s up to you to decide what level of challenge or relaxation you need while playing the game.

There is an aspect of puzzle to the game in finding all of the flowers and the most optimal path through the landscape.  But the rewards are clear, and early episodes are very forgiving of players who simply want to fly all over the beautiful regions to enjoy them.  This is a type of gameplay that is particularly inviting during long winters, and I find myself playing this game repeatedly just for the beautiful artwork.

For all the game is generally nice, easy, and relaxing, it does progress from easy to more difficult game play.  And there is an unexpected narrative underlying this simple little game.  Early episodes are simply relaxing, beautiful, and fun as the player floats or rushes across the world.  Later episodes become more difficult.  Flower petals can become damaged when they contact certain objects, and maneuvering the wind around these obstacles while minimizing damage becomes challenging.

Later episodes in the game also take the storyline in a direction I had not anticipated.  The game changes from a light and easy run through flowering meadows to a persuasive game (see Ian Bogost’s work) about the value of using wind power to save dying cities.  While I had not been anticipating the shift, it was sufficiently subtle to keep me engaged and enjoying using the wind to break down barriers, start up wind farms, and restore the flow of electricity.

In a only a few hours, I had finished the game and was left wishing for more of this magical experience, which is perhaps my only real criticism of this delightful game.  After waiting hours for it to download from the PS3 shop — admittedly during the Christmas rush — I had hoped to spend more time enjoying the fabulous art and music.

Anyone who follows serious games, games for social improvement, or gamification should recognize inspirational speaker, visionary author, and game developer Jane McGonigal.  She’s like the Tony Stark of the social impact gaming world (but a much better role model than Iron Man!).  She champions the idea that games can not only be used for good, but can change the world for the better.  If you don’t know Jane’s work, pop over to her blog and start getting inspired!!  She’s that good.

One of the things I respect most about McGonigal is that she has put in the effort to not only write and speak about the potential of games for change, but she’s managed to create several successful titles.  Most recently, I checked out her most recent release:  SuperBetter.

What It Is

SuperBetter casts each of us as the hero in our own lives … in fact, a SUPERhero … who must overcome a variety of challenges and complete quests in order to overcome the bad guys in our lives – illnesses and injuries, bad habits, temptations, and even addictions.  Players determine their own goals and motivations, define the steps to get there, and are rewarded with increasing levels of resilience in four major life areas: mental, emotional, social, and physical.  Players are also invited to identify the barriers (framed as bad guys) that they need to deal along the way to a healthy, ideal life.

Along the way, the player-hero also can identify other players who will become allies.  Think Avengers of Health and Vitality.  Each player can encourage others, cheer efforts and successes, and suggest new challenges as quests.  Hopefully no one will Hulk-out on you.

The Good

One of the best things about this game is its open structure.  Each player defines his or her own goals, the steps to take along the way, and the challenges unique to the the individual situation.  You might battle an injury (such as McGonigal’s concussion) or be trying to lose weight.  Any health or lifestyle issue can fit into this game smoothly.

If the player has a desire but no idea what steps might be appropriate, advice is available in the form of Power Packs – which are sets of quests and informative science cards designed by SuperBetter and partner organizations.  Pick one up and get a quick boost toward achieving your goals – they can all be customized to meet a player’s needs.

Additionally, SuperBetter is designed to include social support through Allies – fellow players that you can invite to your team to give encouragement or to challenge you to cowboy up to meet your own goals.  The interface lets each player switch between roles – working on your own hero’s journey or being someone’s ally – so that you can avoid getting overwhelmed if you have a lot of people on your self-improvement team.  It’s a nice feature that you have to pick your team-mates for this game.  Depending upon your health and improvement goals, you might not want everyone knowing what the monkey on your back is … or how often you fall prey to the ice cream monster in the freezer.

SuperBetter really is a great health and wellness game, played by approximately 120,000 people in the first few months of its release.  With an easy to use interface, customizable goals, and easy to follow advice, it really shines as one of the best titles available — on the web or on the smartphone.

Like Mindbloom, however, it seemed too easy, although its difficulty level may be appropriate for the target player.  When you’re really struggling with a real life health issue, no one needs to add to that load with game mechanics.  The game gives a playful way to record a player’s challenges and successes …. and give some much needed encouragement and channels for support.

OK, educators in history, social studies, Middle-East culture, and political science, here is a game for you! You’ll need to do some work to fit it into your curriculum, but this game has all the marks of a useful educational game that remains challengingly engaging while fitting in both content and episodic/experiential learning.
The game is PeaceMaker by Impact Games. It is a single-player, stand alone turn-based-strategy game available for both the PC and the Macintosh computer platforms. With 3-D graphics and stereo soundtrack, this serious game competes effectively with current commercial entertainment games in look and feel, which adds its appeal among current and new gamers.
Like most turn-based video games, PeaceMaker differs from the stereotypical video game in that it does not sport a lot of blood, shooting, or explosions. The only violence seen comes on the news footage used to illustrate the results of poorly-timed moves. These increase the level of tension and violence in the game, which also generally decreases the player’s score and lessens the likelihood of winning. In short, violence is not overtly or covertly rewarded.
There is a lot to like about this award-winning game. The player takes on the role of leader of either the Israeli or Palestinian leader, but the goal of the game is really to find an solution acceptable to not only the player but the opposite faction as well. This is a win/win or lose all game. Neither side can decimate the other if the player wishes to win. While one side or the other can be unhappy about the status, the dissatisfaction of either side cannot dip beyond a certain level before the game is declared lost.
The game itself educates the player about the history and the various competing factions in the Middle East without being didactic, embodying procedural rhetoric effectively. The game’s introduction is brief but ends with an interactive time line of the major events that lead up to the status, in 2007, of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. More in-depth information can be requested by the player as he or she weighs options, and the game’s feedback system provides additional information about the current situation and probable outcomes as the game progresses. One of the most interesting aspects of this game is the number of factions (local and international) whose opinions must be heeded (to varying degrees) and whose needs must be met in order to achieve peace in the region. The complex interplay between these groups illustrates beautifully how processes can be used to make a point. In this case, the point is that balancing these competing needs over the long term is an extremely difficult task. While it is easy to write that, it is difficult to play it, and I repeatedly lost while trying to find a way to manage the opinions of local and international organizations. That is the difference between rote and episodic learning – and I will never read the paper in the same way again.
Content-wise, players quickly learn where the major cities and regions are located, who are the major factions involved, where holy sites are located, and what barriers hinder a peaceful co-existence. They also must learn – and remember! – historical facts in order to progress in the game. There are too many choices and configurations to allow random guessing, so students will be motivated to learn and quickly recall information.
There is also no one right path through the game, and some random elements will prevent any two gaming sessions from working out the same way. Hence, your students can’t use each other’s solutions, although they might be able to share strategies to see how well they generalize to different game sessions. From this, educators can make use of game debriefing time to see if students can form theories about conflict and conflict resolution – or turn it around and see if specific theories about what should be done in the Middle East would work under the game assumptions and rules.
Further, the game can be played from either the Israeli or Palestinian perspective, and the game designers encourage everyone to try the game both ways since each leader has different challenges to meet. Even if you do not have time to let everyone play both sides, the competing faction in the conflict is not demonized. In this game world, your opponent is someone with whom you need to cooperate and with whom you share some goals. This is a refreshing look at conflict that is worth bringing into the classroom for its own sake.
You can try it out for yourself for free, although you can only make a limited number of moves before you need to buy a license. At under $20, it is not particularly expensive, and a good deal cheaper than most commercial titles these days. With a promise of lesson plans under development, this game is worth considering as an addition to your spring semester.

Food Force is a single-player game about global hunger and the complex multi-stage process of getting food relief to needy areas.
Developed by the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) for a relatively modest price of $350,000, Food Force had been downloaded and played by an estimated 4 million players by 2006. An impressive 1 million players had played it within the first 6 weeks of its release. Through this game, the WFP hoped to generate interest among children in the so-called developed countries about global hunger.
This non-violent video game, specifically designed for children aged 8 to 13, has been so highly successful, in part, because it incorporates key features of successful, commercial video games. Six action-packed missions must be completed in a specified amount of time and are scored – with room on the game’s web site for players to post their top scores. The quality of the game itself is a major factor in its popularity. With full-motion video cutaways, 3-D graphics, and a narrative story in which the player is cast as the hero figure, this game looks like many modern commercial games.
Despite the adoption of features common to the action game genre, Food Force still is a game with a message. Through the game, the player is introduced to the various aspects – and difficulties – of food aid operations. The player must pilot air craft, negotiate with rebels, rebuild food production infrastructure, design optimum ration packets, and decide what assistance offered by various countries will actually help in the effort. Through playing the various missions, players come to understand that food aid is a complex, multi-stage process.
Sections of the supporting web site can aid educators who want to integrate the game into their curriculum, with links to related educational sites. The game is a free download from the associated web site and is available for both PC and Macintosh computers.