Thursday, August 24, 2006

Homeless Video Games

Oversimplification of Homelessness

Terry Lavender, a student of interactive arts and technology at Simon Fraser University, has created a video game as part of his master's thesis called Homeless: It's No Game. I have only been working with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless for a few months now, and often when I publish blogs to this here forum I worry that I am speaking outside my element. I make sure everything I say is solid, but being so new, I often worry I overlooked something small that will make me look quite the fool when the spotlight is turned upon it.

Today is different. Today, thanks to Terry Lavender, the ball is in Josh's court. That ball is homelessness and that court is video games. You see, my fair audience, when I was growing up, my best friends were a pair of Italian plumbers and a green-clad elf with a thing for triangles. Songs whose only melody is "blip bleep blip" make me cry. I have never been more confident in any blog I've ever written than the one I'm about to write for you now for I know the secret of manna.

First, it is important to note what Terry says about the game: "The game is a gross oversimplification of homelessness and the people who are forced into that situation. I have tried not to be condescending or judgmental and if the game comes across that way, I apologize" (from his website). His thesis is to find out if it is possible to entertain someone and encourage social change at the same time. He says, "A lot of organizations are jumping on the so-called serious computer games bandwagon to get their message out. Often their games are poorly made and are just not fun to play.

Given that, I don't want to detract from the importance of what Lavender points out and what he is trying to do. However, I can say straight up full of confidence that this game sucks. It just plain is not fun. It was a chore just to finish it. There seem to be a few bugs in it: I won after amassing only 18 esteem points when you're not supposed to win until you reach 50. The graphics are atrocious. I know it's petty, but the fact that the main character just spun slowly in circles the whole time really bothered me. Also, even though I know Lavender already said the game is a gross oversimplification of homelessness, it bears repeating because it is a really gross oversimplification of homelessness.

Despite all that, what Terry Lavender has said and attempted to do is important and needs to be expanded upon. A work of graphic art can communicate a vital social message, as can a song, movie, play, work of animation, poem, or story. When all of that is put together in a video game, so, too, can the video game communicate a message. Some other than Terry Lavender have tried. The Lord Jesus knows I sat through the hour long rambling about the dangers of nuclear weapons at the end of Metal Gear Solid because he sat next to me the whole time rolling his eyes. Thus far, social messages in video games have failed in their communication because they're either too direct or too forced.

Lavender's game is an example of too forced. It's the video game equivalent of the God-awful short films I was forced to watch in grade school that attempted to make learning fun. It's not really fun because it's not really a game. All you try to do in the game is rack up points. The points are acquired by going to different places. When you go to a place, it is randomly determined whether the outcome is good or bad. If it's bad, you lose points, and if it's good, you get points. It's totally random. There's no real sense of control over anything, and although that may be part of the message Lavender is trying to communicate, having no control isn't fun and appeals to no one. The message is lost because no one will play the game.

But, I believe Lavender's thesis is possible even though his experiment failed. I believe it is possible to entertain someone and encourage social change at the same time, especially in the realm of video games. It hasn't happened yet because no one's done it successfully and therefore it isn't guaranteed to be profitable. There's so many different angles one could take on this idea. A SimCity-esque game could be created in which the player is in charge of conducting the new city's 10-year plan to end homelessness, getting people to begin thinking not only about how to solve homelessness but also about the credibility of a city's 10-year plan to end homelessness. A game could be created in which one plays a cop trying to reduce the sudden rash of hate crimes against homeless people.

These are just a few suggestions and I am by no means the final word on this. I just wanted to get the conversation going and get the minds thinking.

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.


Kevin E. Cleary said...

I haven't seen the game, but it sounds like Lavender got one part right: the randomness associated with waiting in a massive number of lines. I'm a firm believer that we should elect homeless people to office because they are so skilled at dealing with the hassles of endless bureaucracy. The randomness comes into play in terms of whether or not the individual encounters a competent and caring worker at X place.

If someone could recreate an infinite number of permutations that mimic waiting in line at the BMV... That would go a long way toward recreating some of the real experiences homeless people face when dealing with government and/or some care providers.

Mr. John Doe Homeless said...

Referred to see your blog by a local... interesting. I agree... no one finds the "game" any fun. However, in empathizing your blogs, I can only say that unless a turn of events takes place... wait til you catchuip with CA.
You are not alone!

TJL said...

Interesting, if rather harsh comments. I'm the author of the game that you're trashing and while I concede some of your points, I think you go a little overboard (by the way, you could have sent me your comments as well - I do provide an email address on the game page).

Yes, the graphics are primitive. I'm not a graphic designer, I'm a graduate student. And yes, the game play could be (and will be) improved. However, there aren't any bugs that I know of. The object isn't to gain 50 points, but 25 points.

Encounters and whether one gains points aren't random - there is a random element (as there is for homeless people when they are foraging for bottles or begging for change), but it also depends on such factors as time of day, whether you've hit that corner before, your esteem level (low esteem = less chance of success, high esteem = more chance of success) and other factors.

The game was extensively field tested with homeless people and homeless advocates in Vancouver. Maybe they were all being kind, but none of them said the game wasn't fun to play. However, that's a matter of taste.

If you have any specific, constructive criticisms, please feel free to email me at at mac dot com