As someone who thinks that games (video and otherwise) have an important role to play in promoting positive change in the world, I am dismayed when I look at some of the work that is being touted as making breakthroughs in the development of games as a “serious” medium. As with much other work that describes itself as promoting social change, “serious game” is too often a label that is attached to projects that reinforce the status quo of power relations.
The project’s creative director, Jane McGonigal espouses a worldview where gaming is a panacea for the world’s ills:
Evoke began on March 3, and will end on May 13. Subscribers receive an email each week for 10 weeks, alerting them to the availability of a new chapter in an online graphic novel and a new task to complete IRL and blog about on the Urgent Evoke site. Each week focuses on a critical social issue and asks participants to consider how these problems could be solved through “social innovation” (read as: neo-liberal intervention).
CNN reports that the World Bank Institute funded the project to the tune of USD$500k, with the purported goal of encouraging young Africans to develop solutions to the problems facing their local communities:
Bob Hawkins, senior education specialist with the World Bank Institute, said one big reason people in African countries aren’t as entrepreneurial and innovative as those in the West is that they don’t feel as empowered to create change. That’s largely why his international development group is funding McGonigal’s project to the tune of $500,000.
“There have been studies, for instance, in South Africa that the public investment in universities isn’t producing the types of new ideas and innovation that industry wants,” he said. “What happens is that industry is importing ideas from outside the continent and outside of South Africa.”
Yes, I can see how that would frustrate Industry, when the universities don’t come up with the answers that they’re expected to in the pursuit of profit. Better intervene with a serious game.
Following a recurring theme in these pages, the video contains an interesting example of blackface (blackvoice?). Alchemy, the shadowy leader of the Evoke network, is voiced by Adam Behr, white voice actor. If this is about creating employment opportunities for Africans, and there’s a half a million bucks to throw around, they couldn’t even find a black man to voice the lead black character? So what we have is a project created by funded, developed, and voiced by white folks behind a digitally generated black mask. (fishing for the ghost of Fanon to contribute to the comments section)
Thankfully, the webisphere provides the opportunity for concurrent critique of projects like this, and a group equally as shadowy as the Evoke network calling themselves Invoke has offered an alternate augmented reality game (AARG?), Urgent Invoke. The parallel story unfolds:
The time has come for the development of games and games studies that are not only serious, but critical. Gonzalo Frasca has done some of the foundational work in this aspirational field, but there is a lot of heavy lifting to be done before it takes any sort of real shape. I hope to have an opportunity to do my share of that work.