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A Serious Game About Serious Things

Last night the issue of ‘gaming literacy’ came up once again. This is a recurring topic in our class, one that we continue to struggle with and argue about. To my mind we still have not settled on exactly what it means to be gaming literate. Does it mean the ability to navigate and manipulate systems quickly and easily? Does it mean having a base line understanding of the game making process to actually have the kind of conversations through the design that both Frank and I have talked about? Is it spotting inter-textuality as Bob says? Much discussion has taken place in the past semester and I feel that very little has been settled. That gives me hope actually, because it means that we have truly reached the real questions of game design, instead of mere engineering problems. May I suggest though, as the closing weeks of class approach, that we turn to engineering, to mechanics, and do what we all came here to do: design games.

So I propose making a serious game that teaches gaming literacy. Video game literacy, that is. For the sake of coherency I’ll limit myself both to what I know best, and where I think the least effort is put to welcome new-comers. It’s also fair to draw some distinctions between my project and others. Games that are on some level about gaming literacy, such as WarioWare or our own Frank Lantz’s Arcadia, have a tendency to assume that players are already well versed in in the mechanics that they’re parodying (Arcadia is both more and less forgiving in this respect than WarioWare). Another similar project is the Game Game, by Aki Jarvenin, which is a card game where players actually create games which are judged by another player who is designated as ‘the publisher’. The game I’m proposing would fall somewhere between these two kind of experiences. The purpose would be to acclimate players to different game mechanics rather than draw ironic attention to them. It would also not be teaching the design process, but rather the play process.

At this point a have only a sketchy, tongue-in-cheek, idea of what this game would be like. It would have a setting that changed from fantasy to science-fiction as the game proceeded, since those are the two predominant genres in games. It would feature a top-down, isometric viewpoint for exploring towns and the overworld map, but switch to a side-scrolling view for stages involving combat, similar to The Adventure of Link. Combat, by the way, could be avoided if necessary, through careful running and jumping. However, once the player acquired the sword they could slash at the enemy. There would be a wide range of maneuvers that the player was capable of right off the bat, but they would take skill to learn, like a fighting game. Dungeons would start small, but gradually increase in complexity until they were like little Metroids. That’s about as far as my own thoughts have gone, though I have dream of the player halfway through the game getting some kind of mech that changes all the perspectives to 3D.

So what do you guys think? I’m interested in your ideas for approaching this subject. I am, in the end, teaching a very particular kind of gaming literacy. There’s also no assurance that this would be the best way to go about it, but what I’m trying to get across is the idea of a slow progression of complexity. That’s just my way of going about things though, I’m sure some of you guys would come at it from a very different angle.


  1. Bob wrote:

    Believe it or not, but just this kind of idea was what I was kicking around in my head as a possible thesis project at some point, while I was trying to find a proper context for my top-secret idea which is either so brilliant one of you will steal it or so idiotic it’ll singlehandedly destroy my reputation in one fell swoop. It was connected to my concern about gaming as a medium for more than narrative storytelling (Metal Gear), thrill-seeking (Madden) or micromanagement (Sims). Instead, I was trying to figure out how you could use games in order for essayistic presentations of information and commentary. For some reason I thought that games’ nature as a simulation medium was one that could really open up certain aspects of journalism, and thought about how from a certain point of view all those flight programs and army training games can be seen in a pseudo-documentary light.

    If you’re serious about this, Charles, count me in as interested. I’d first suggest looking at how previous media have adapted to presenting information straight-up, outside of storytelling methods. Reportage in gaming has to study the reportage of newsprint (Hearst’s and Nast’s evolution of the modern newspaper, especially), radio & television (Edward R. Murrow in both cases), cinema (everybody ought to know at least one documentary filmmaker they can learn from– mine is Errol Morris, but plenty have preceded him, obviously), prose (Capote probably wasn’t the first to try his hand at mixing journalism and the novel, but he was the first to do both pretty well) and comics (McCloud’s work is obvious, but I’d also suggest checking out the adaptation of the 9/11 Report that came out last year).

    In the end, what you’re talking about is an attempt to make the video game equivalent of a text-book. Like I said, I can’t help but be intrigued.

    Wednesday, April 11, 2007 at 4:15 am | Permalink
  2. Charles wrote:

    Yes, I like your analogy. It would basically be a textbook in the history of the most influential video game mechanics. Maybe I should limit to the 2D era? The hope would be that it would both help people who play game understand the history of what they’re playing, and allow people who haven’t played as many games catch up.

    Thursday, April 12, 2007 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  3. Bob wrote:

    Covering the 2D era would both make sense on a practical basis (makes it easier to render while incorporating large amounts of information) and on a documentarian basis, as you’d be focusing on one historical period which is pretty big by itself. Besides covering different game mechanics, it’d be good to recognize what genres they occupy. It’s pretty meaningful to point out how mythological fantasy informs the wildly different mechanics of Final Fantasy and Zelda, or how both Contra and Metal Gear share futuristic millitary settings while employing their own unique gameplays. Furthermore, concentrating on the 2D era would allow you to really delve deeply into the origins of the different mechanics– this would be a good arena for you to show the chain of gameplay evolution you’re always talking about, making this a kind of interactive family tree. Instead of just talking about how similar Wolfenstein is to Metal Gear, or how similar Adventure is to Zelda, you could show us by putting the player into examples of their gameplay, allowing the player to learn how deeply indebted the series are to each other.

    Once again, let me know if you’re actually work on this in the future. I’d like to contribute.

    Thursday, April 12, 2007 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

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