For forty years, the makers of violent video games have insisted that their games don’t transform people into psychopaths.
Over the past week at a conference in New York, the industry tried on a different line: Games can change you. Instead of making you violent, the speakers at the Games For Change Festival say, a well-designed “social impact” game can make you smarter, or more socially aware.
Think of it as well-told documentaries in video game form. Going well beyond mindless shooters or candy-matching puzzle games, these new works aim to change the world, one player at a time.
How, then, do we rationalize this seeming contradiction about games and their impact on our habits? To festival participants, the consensus answer was that it depended on the game.
“It’s all about intention, in my eyes,” Asi Burak, Games for Change president, said in an interview with Re/code. “There’s a difference between learning and changing behavior.”
For example: Activision doesn’t intend for you to become violent after playing Call of Duty, but 11 Bit Studios, which was featured at the festival, wants you to contemplate the horrors of wartime when you play This War of Mine.
Games for change are seen as medicine. Our goal is, how can we make that medicine taste like cotton candy?
— Morgan Spurlock
In a keynote address, “Super Size Me” documentarian Morgan Spurlock discussed how he and other filmmakers have made entertaining but informative pop culture out of difficult issues like nutrition, the minimum wage and the American healthcare system. He challenged the game developers in the audience to use their games to make the unpalatable more pleasant.
“Games for change are seen as medicine,” Spurlock said. “Our goal is, how can we make that medicine taste like cotton candy? I want to give you broccoli, but it tastes like Pop Rocks in your mouth.”
Unlike a documentary like “Super Size Me,” which has a captive audience and a tightly controlled narrative, games are dependent on, and often have to reinforce, the willingness of their players to keep going. In the programming world, this is called a “game loop”: You did something! Here’s what you did! Now do it again!
Loops that click — and, more importantly, last long enough for players to form a long-term relationship with their games — are notoriously difficult to find in the gaming world.
The tension between players’ expectations of fun and a developer’s desire to say something worth saying was palpable at a pitch event on Wednesday. Before a panel of governmental and charity professionals, game developer Miguel Oliveira presented Thralled, a game about a runaway slave in 18th-century Brazil trying to escape to freedom while keeping her baby alive.
“It’s so dark and so depressing, how are you going to keep people playing?” one panelist asked Oliveira after the pitch. “It sounds like you’re asking people to eat their broccoli, and that’s not a recipe for a successful game.”
Oliveira countered: “How do people see ‘Schindler’s List’ all the way through? How do people read through ‘Crime and Punishment,’ the whole way through? They’re very depressing experiences, but they’re necessary.”
Other entrants in the pitch event included We Are Chicago, a game about the challenges of living on Chicago’s south side, and The Sun Also Rises, which aspired to use real veterans’ stories to explore the war in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, though, the panel awarded its grand prize — an hour of free consulting and $10,000 donated by Schell Games — to the fourth entrant, HappyPlayTime, which aims to give girls confidence in their sexuality and teach them how to masturbate.
There was just one problem, as developer Tina Gong explained: Apple banned HappyPlayTime from the iOS App Store because it was considered “pornographic.” Developers here want to encourage change. But the world may not be ready just yet.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.