Welcome to the second installment of Caught in the Web, a feature that points out some of the best examples in the often-overlooked web-based games category.
Today we take a look at the web-based work of Gonzalo Frasca, a game researcher and developer based in Uruguay. Frasca's issue-based simulations are somewhat unique in that they are not necessarily intended entertain the player, but rather to engage them in the social and political issues of the day. "If you are… interested in designing videogames with social or political content, you simply can't rely on gameplay," Frasca says in a post on his site, Ludology.org. "Gameplay, if good, becomes addictive and makes everything else invisible."
Keeping this in mind, my text and number ratings will mainly focus on the depth and effectiveness of the game's social message, rather than solely on entertainment value.
Kabul Kaboom!'s simple graphics and simple instructions ("Use the arrow keys to get the nice American food, but avoid their missiles.") belie an even simpler message, namely: "The war in Afghanistan is bad." Frasca almost says as much in the game's introductory screen by proclaiming, "JUSTICE, NOT WAR," in green capital letters. The remarkably unsubtle, contrasting images of falling hamburgers (representing U.S. food aid) and bombs (representing U.S. military aggression) do not add appreciably to the depth of this message.
But this simplicity doesn't mean that Kabul Kaboom! has nothing going for it. The lack of a scorekeeping feature—a standard in most web-based games of this type—is off-putting enough to help drive home the message that "you can't win this game, just lose." There is also the matter of seemingly incongruous sound effects: an explosion sound accompanies the captures of food while an exploding bomb is greeted with cries of "Mmmm, yummy." Whether this effect is simply a programming glitch or an intentional play on the player's expectations, it is thought provoking nonetheless.
Still, it's quite easy to absorb all this game has to offer with both its gameplay and social message in one quick play.
September 12th, A toy world
September 12th succeeds in its goal of creating a "21st century equivalent to traditional printed political cartoons" by adding some much needed depth and subtlety to the anti-war message and unconventional structure of Kabul Kaboom!
The illusion of choice is central to the emotional and intellectual impact of September 12th. In the introductory screen, the game details the "deadly simple" rules: "You can shoot… Or not." Shoot at the isometric model of a stereotypical Middle Eastern town and some terrorists may die; but more will probably be created as passing mourners for the dead civilians don white turbans and grab rifles. Don't shoot, and the game's "toy world" continues unimpeded, a living doll's house of scurrying Arabs.
There is some interesting editorializing done through the smaller details of the simulation. For example, civilians will only mourn for other civilians, not terrorists, and all the mourners automatically become terrorists themselves. These two features are most definitely not representative of the real world, but seem easily acceptable in the context of a simulation. The slow rebuilding of shattered buildings also brings into sharp relief the dead civilians and terrorists which can never return (unless you reload the page, that is).
These deliberate design choices heighten the emotional impact of an already powerful simulation. September 12th succeeds by presenting its message in a simple, original and effective way.
The Howard Dean for Iowa Game
Dean for Iowa differs from Frasca's earlier work in two important ways: It is paid for by a specific political interest and it actually has a specific goal. That goal—"to get as many people as possible to go to Iowa and support Dean before the caucus"—becomes painfully obvious as you trigger three repetitive mini-games by placing supporters on a map.
The mini-games provide a good "how-to" manual for drumming up support for Dean, namely by waving "Dean for America" signs on busy sidewalks, going door-to-door to recruit caucus-goers and handing out copies of Dean's pamphlet, Common Sense for a New Century. What they are not good at is informing the player of Dean's personal views or campaign positions on important issues. This design decision severely limits the game's impact on all but die-hard Dean supporters, which is an odd choice for a campaign that will no doubt hinge on undecided voters.
Dean for Iowa deserves special mention for its attempts at using virtual playing pieces to encourage real-world Dean support. Players can earn extra supporters in the game by sending notes to friends through instant messaging or e-mail. It's a novel idea, but I have to wonder how effective it was at motivating people who had never considered campaigning for Dean before.
Still, the game provides a novel rallying point for those voters that are already Dean-faithful, which I'm sure was the intent.