Can Video Games Be Socially Conscious?
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.




Can Video Games Be Socially Conscious?

According to Rafael Fajardo, absolutely.
In the midst of last Wednesday’s snowstorm, Fajardo spoke to a half-filled auditorium at OCAD as part of the Faculty of Design’s speaker series. He is currently the Director of Digital Media Studies and Electronic Media Arts Design at Denver University, as well as the Director of SWEAT, a collaborative of video game designers who strive to push gaming beyond the realm of entertainment. Fajardo sees video game design as an art form, an interactive medium that is able to convey cultural critique when developed outside of the mainstream gaming industry.

SWEAT originated as a class project while Fajardo was teaching at the University of Texas El Paso. When the question arose of whether video games could handle this kind of heavy content, he and five students set out to prove that they could. Since the campus is located on the US-Mexico border and the student population is largely Hispanic, it seemed only natural to tackle the issue of illegal immigration. In Crosser (an homage to Frogger), a cartoony Mexican named Carlos Moreno must cross the Rio Grande, dodging debris and border agents who try to block him from entering the United States. The successful player is rewarded with a screen shot of Moreno victoriously clutching his green card between the golden arches and the Statue of Liberty.
Crosser is extremely simplistic and glitchy, which is to be expected of a game designed by amateurs in only six weeks. But Fajardo was dissatisfied with the effort and decided to create a sequel which revisits the Hispanic immigrant experience—an issue close to Fajardo, who moved to the US from Colombia when he was three years old. In La Migra, the player is no longer a would-be illegal immigrant, but an ICE Agent who captures border crossers in his squad car and sends them back to Mexico for repatriation.
2008_02_10-ReflectivePlay3.jpgSWEAT’s most recent effort, Squeezed, is the last of Fajardo’s “Border Trilogy.” The 3-D multi-player online game was commissioned by MTV as a way to teach people about the economic impact of migrant labour (research is contributed by grad students from Denver University’s International Studies program). In the guise of a cute green frog, the player must hop around an idyllic farm to pick fruit as fast as they can, which can then be converted to juice in an industrial juicer. The juice acts as currency, which the frog can use to control his “despair-o-meter.” Happy and motivated frogs are the ones who send juice home to their families through the farm mailboxes.
The network of people committed to making socially-conscious video games has greatly expanded since SWEAT was founded eight years ago. Fajardo now collaborates with Games For Change, a branch of the Serious Games Initiative, which also develops video games for medical use. One of the projects affiliated with Games For Change teaches high school students how to make video games in order to democratize game development and diversify the voices in the industry, particularly those of African-Americans, Latinos, and women.
It cannot be disputed that video games have traditionally been designed to appeal to people who think like game developers (read: white male nerds): why else would there be so many games like Halo and Call of Duty on the market? But what about the cross-gender, cross-cultural appeal of games like Guitar Hero or The Sims? Hasn’t there already been a noticeable broadening of voices in mainstream gaming in the 21st century?
Fajardo is adamant that the change take place outside of the mainstream industry, even going so far as to reject using Flash in his games. “Flash became the tool of The Man,” he explained as several dozen pairs of ears perked up. “In the last few years, people have become afraid to download a plugin,” and are instead content to have updates downloaded in the background against their knowledge. Most computers now come with Flash automatically installed, denying the user the right to choose their plugins. Fajardo insists on using free-ware to develop his games: Crosser and LaMigra were built using Stagecast, a visual development environment that was intended to teach children about computer programming, first released by Apple in 1996 and now abandoned.
The downside? Fajardo’s games look like they were programmed by children. Gameplay in Crosser is hindered by a slow processor which causes a constant lag in movement. When the audience was shown a demo of Juan and the Beanstalk, a game about opium trade in Colombia, the character couldn’t move more than a few spaces without the entire screen erupting into a sea of poppies. Fajardo prefers to see the sloppy artwork as “revealing the hand of the maker” and choppy gameplay as mimicking antiquated third-world technologies, admitting that these are glitches he’s turned into features.
In refusing to compromise his politics, Fajardo has created a repertoire of games that are dull and mostly unplayable. Flash is certainly not perfect, but it’s ubiquitous because it gets the job done. Not that we’re condoning working for The Man, but Fajardo is ignoring the opportunity to speak to an exponentially larger audience by building games in a program that won’t even load in our web browser. What’s the point of making socially-conscious games so inaccessible to the user and so unappealing to play? Any OCAD design student can tell you that craftsmanship doesn’t equal conformity.
If you’d like to see socially-conscious gaming in action, check out some of these titles developed with Games For Change: UNICEF’s Ayiti: The Cost of Life; Third World Farmer; the UN World Food Program’s Food Force; Wasteland Adventure; Web Earth Online; Planet Green Game, a joint project between Starbucks and Global Green USA; Darfur is Dying; Climate Challenge on the BBC; Orange Revolution; Peacemaker; Karma Tycoon. A full list of titles is available here.
Rafael Fajardo spoke at the Ontario College of Art and Design in a lecture entitled “Reflective Play” on February 6, 2008. Photo courtesy of Rafael Fajardo.