Are Video Games the New Docs?

Far from mere escapism, video games might be an ideal medium for exploring social issues

20 mins read

VIDEO GAMES AND DOCUMENTARIES may seem to occupy different ends of the media spectrum. For many, games are strictly forms of entertainment often involving scoring, racing or shooting. Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find indie game makers exploring activist themes traditionally covered in non-fiction film. But as the Toronto creators of the game Pipe Trouble learned, there are some who need to warm up to the idea.

Pipe Trouble is an offshoot of the documentary Trouble in the Peace, directed by Julian T. Pinder and airing on Ontario public broadcaster TVO. The cinematic doc follows a farming community in northern B.C.’s Peace River region divided over the encroachment of the gas industry. While some residents favour the revenue from pipelines running across their property, Karl Mattson believes flaring and gas leaks are to blame for the birth of a two-headed calf on his farm. Since then, he has feared for his daughter’s future.

As required by the Canada Media Fund, which supported the doc, TV projects must also provide “rich, interactive content” in the digital space, citing games, on-demand material, podcasts, webisodes and mobisodes. Trouble in the Peace producer Paul Scherzer of Toronto’s Six Island Productions envisioned a complementary web series that would shed light on the similar plight of farmers around the world, inspired by the National Film Board’s multimedia experiment Highrise. Then Pop Sandbox Productions’ Alex Jansen suggested a video game instead.

“What sold me on the video game is that I knew the film would have a typical documentary demographic, skewing towards pro-environment people 30 to 35-plus. So we’d be missing out on a huge potential audience,” Scherzer says. A large portion of that missing demographic is playing games. According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC), 58 per cent of all Canadians and 90 per cent of Canadian kids and teens are gamers.

So Jansen designed Pipe Trouble, inspired by Pipe Mania, an old game in which the player must connect pieces of pipe to facilitate the flow of sewage. In Pipe Trouble, the player is a contractor tasked with assembling a natural gas pipeline against the clock. Profits are accrued by using the most efficient path possible, but if the line gets too close to farmland, it could leak and endanger residents and livestock. As it nears more densely populated areas, the player can encounter protesters. These transgressions can even lead to bombings by eco-terrorists, which actually happened near B.C.’s Dawson Creek and Tomslake in 2008-’09 and is covered in the film.

“In Trouble in the Peace you see the whole community and how the pros and cons of industry are transforming this region, and the whole backdrop of the bombings.” Jansen says. “We tried to integrate as much of that as we could into the game. You have different obstacles: protests, fines and injunctions, and acts of vandalism that early on will be graffiti on the line, then tampering with the line and then bombing. Depending on the path you take, you start to see these cause-effect relationships.”

A game prototype was developed through DOC Toronto’s docSHIFT initiative. TVO contributed $10,000 toward production of the game, while the OMDC, which also supported the film, came in with $45,770 and the Bell Fund with $44,000, while tax credits provided a further boost. TVO commissioning editor Jane Jankovic green-lit the project and monitored its execution. TVO made suggestions that the producers incorporated, and each agency signed off on Jansen’s game.

In its complete form, the game consists of 24 levels, each punctuated by audio clips providing facts about pipelines and the environment. The game launched on February 27 and was made available for iPad for $0.99 through the iTunes App Store, while eight levels could be played free on TVO’s website. The producers announced they would donate a percentage of profits from the game to the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), an environmental advocacy group.

In keeping with the graphics’ retro 8-bit look, the producers installed the game in four modified old arcade cabinets adorned with Trouble in the Peace branding. The cabinets accompanied the game to theatrical screenings and visited other high-traffic Toronto venues, including Yonge-Dundas Square, University of Toronto and the Ontario Science Centre as well as New York’s Games for Change summit, San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference and the Cannes film festival.

“As you play the game, at first you’re just having fun, and then the radio segments connect you back to the real world,” Jansen says. “The endpoint is getting people to tune into the film or just to become more media savvy. We were trying to take an audience that’s not currently engaged in these issues and help make them aware.”

Adds Scherzer: “We knew people who were playing the game ultimately were not necessarily going to watch the film, and vice versa, but we wanted to have that connection point between the two. When we were doing our publicity campaign for the film, we also pushed the game, and because of the novelty of that convergence, we got more than our share of media reporting.”

Media frenzy
Actually, they got far more than they ever expected. Despite the producers’ efforts to represent all sides of the issue, on March 21—eight days after the film premiered on TVO—the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, assuming the doc took an anti-industry stance, stated its disappointment “that TVOntario has supported the development of a game that is clearly one-sided” and the Toronto Sun questioned funding the DSF through a TVO project. The producers subsequently cancelled its plans with the DSF, which, according to Jansen, received no portion of revenues.

A media frenzy ensued. The Sun went on to characterize the story as one of the West versus “smug public-sector cultural elitists in Ontario,” while Dawson Creek mayor Mike Bernier and Alberta premier Alison Redford denounced the game for including bombings. Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne told The Canadian Press the game sounded “disturbing” and that she would seek more information. In response to the backlash, TVO removed the game from its website and commissioned an independent review headed by broadcast veterans Trina McQueen and Rita Cugini.

The ensuing report, dated April 29, concludes TVO should have more clearly informed its audience of the game’s relation to “the documentary’s real life events” and going forward should “ensure control over use of their projects to raise funds for outside organizations.”

TVO CEO Lisa de Wilde says she intends to act upon these recommendations. “[McQueen and Cugini] point out that this is an emerging genre and that serious broadcasters are trying to figure out how to deploy it,” she says. “They helped us by pointing out that our programming standards had been set out in 2009 and a lot has changed. So it is a really good opportunity for us to revise those programming standards in a way that reflects today.”

The report is neutral about whether TVO should restore the game on its website, but it does suggest the pubcaster keep its logo on the project, which is available at a dedicated URL. However, as de Wilde explains, “We looked at all the options in front of us and decided what’s really best for TVO is to just walk away from the game, because I concluded that the way it made light of bombing was crossing a line I believe is not appropriate for TVO.”

She refutes any suggestion that the public broadcaster caved to political pressure in this, and insists TVO will not be dissuaded going forward. “This experience doesn’t change the fact that we want to use digital media to help people understand the world,” she says.

While the producers feel the game has been widely misrepresented, any publicity is good publicity. “We had 8,000 online plays within seven hours of Fox News picking up the Toronto Sun story. That same day, there were 500 views of the movie trailer,” Scherzer says. And while he won’t divulge sales numbers on iTunes and Google Play, he says they increased by several hundred per cent that day.

Had the project existed only as a documentary, media outlets likely would not have batted an eyelash about the thematic inclusion of ecoterrorism, but videogames seem to be perceived differently. “There’s an assumption that games are for kids—not for that 18-to-35 audience we were trying to hit,” Jansen says. In fact, according to the ESAC, the average Canadian gamer is 31.

Making Apple sweat
It’s not only the displeasure of politicians and lobby groups that can lead to a game’s being pulled. Run afoul of a major distributor and your game can lose valuable accessibility. Such is the case with Sweatshop, a standalone project commissioned by U.K. public broadcaster Channel 4 and developed by Brighton, U.K.’s Littleloud.

As with Pipe Trouble, Sweatshop’s cartoon characters indicate its makers’ satirical intent. In this case, the player is a clothing factory operator, responsible for hiring and firing workers, getting out orders promptly, and balancing clients’ needs against worker welfare. Littleloud worked with garment workers’ rights organization Labour Behind the Label to ensure the game accurately reflected real-life issues such as fire safety, unions and poor sanitary conditions.

“We wanted to make a game that is fun and challenging and has the characteristics of a commercial title yet happens to have the education and message threaded in,” says Simon Parkin, who conceived Sweatshop and who writes about gaming for British daily The Guardian. “The goal is to bring awareness of the system. Hopefully, through the game you come out understanding that the choices you make as a consumer have real-life effects on other human beings.”

The game went online for free play in 2011. Channel 4 was happy, good reviews came from high places and there were more than one million plays within three months, according to Littleloud. The company then set about creating an iPad version for Christmas 2012. Parkin says it was in the iTunes App Store for four weeks before Apple informed Littleloud it was not comfortable carrying it.

While Parkin says it was difficult to know what Apple was reacting against, he points to the App Store guidelines, which state, “We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate… It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.” One theory is that Apple wants to distance itself from associations with sweatshops given its widely criticized labour practices in Chinese factories where the iPod, iPhone and iPad are manufactured. Littleloud submitted three amended versions of the game to Apple but to no avail—it was yanked from the App Store in February.

This came just as Apple also rejected the news game Endgame: Syria. Produced by Game the News, self-described as “news correspondents who cover global events as games,” the game puts the player among rebel forces in the Syrian civil war. In Apple’s mind, the game falls on the side of disallowed apps that “target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity.”

In 2011, Wired reported that Apple said no to Smuggle Truck: Operation Immigration, a game in which the player drives a pickup truck across the American border, trying to keep its load of illegal Mexican immigrants from falling out amid the bumpy terrain. Producers Owlchemy Labs countered that the game was satire criticizing the “shoddy systems in place for legal immigration,” but ultimately it had to change the passengers to fuzzy animals and the title to Snuggle Truck before Apple would carry it.

Parkin respects Apple’s right to host whatever content it sees fit, but adds, “If you want to have a healthy and vibrant medium, we need companies like Apple to be distributing all kinds of experiences.”

Seeing social problems more honestly
Game makers dealing with distributors are much like doc makers dealing with broadcasters. Producers must measure how pointed they want their project to be against its salability. “These kinds of products don’t have to be blockbusters but they need to be at least financially viable to make the next game possible,” says Dr. Ian Bogost, media studies chair at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-founder of Persuasive Games, which produces politically and socially minded titles.

Persuasive’s output ranges from innocuous puzzle game Colorfall to the satirical Jetset, in which the player is a security agent trying to keep passengers moving while thwarting terrorism. (Both are available through iTunes.) The commissioned CNN Campaign Rush, meanwhile, simulates activity in a presidential campaign office and appeared on the news channel’s website during the 2008 U.S. election.

The flip side of commissioned games is the “anti-advergame,” which knocks a corporate entity. In 2006 Persuasive released Disaffected!, in which the player serves customers under what is described as “the particular incompetences [sic] common to a Kinko’s store.” You won’t find the unauthorized game on iTunes, but you can download it at the Persuasive Games website.

Bogost says a Kinko’s workers association embraced the game. “It became a tool in their tool belt of labour advocacy and a kind of rallying cry: ‘Here’s a game about our crappy job!’” he recalls. “Things that you don’t anticipate can happen when you make a piece of media that tries to deal with a subject in a deliberate way.”

He feels that whether or not games are being effectively used for social activism is debatable, but he sees the potential. “In a good game, you are engaged with a set of variables inside some complex system in which you’re making choices troubled by other kinds of dynamics,” he explains. “You never really solve a game, but you see the system by which the game works, and if it’s representative of the way some seemingly intractable social problem works, we might be looking at that problem more honestly.”

Alex Jansen would agree. Despite the storm around Pipe Trouble, he says that, if anything, his resolve to make more issue-driven games has been strengthened. “I’ve definitely gotten wise to some of the [potential controversy] and I would prepare for it differently. But I still think the fact you’re able to tackle a subject matter like that and find distribution and an audience for it speaks to what an exciting time it is.”

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