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This semester, my group is working on a transformational game for the non-profit Games for Change. We were given the controversial topic of gun violence in America, which was really difficult to come up with an idea for. Of course, we did eventually settle with an idea. I covered our brainstorming and idea evaluation process in a previous post, which I strongly encourage anybody who is working on a transformational game to read.
The goal of our game is to get the audience to understand the motivations and communicate respectfully with others who have different viewpoints from them on the topic of gun control. We specifically chose to focus on gun ownership for self defense and protection, as our research showed that that was the most common reason among gun owners.
The gameplay of our game is something like Twitch plays interactive theater. The audience controls the speech of an actor on stage by sending in conversation points via a web interface we built. This first actor then voices this out to the second actor, who responds accordingly. In this way, the audience discovers and directs the story as it unfolds on stage.
But that’s not the point of this post – I want to talk about story. Story has been our biggest problem thus far. As it stands, our story is about two middle aged women, one of whom is a gun owner. Both their children are best friends, and the two women care for each other as well. The anti-gun character, Linda, discovers a gun in the pro-gun character’s, Mary, handbag while at the latter’s house. At this point, the audience is asked to start sending in their questions/comments to help Linda, who is shocked and unsure of how to respond.
We chose for the audience to control Linda as the demographics of the people who attend the Games for Change festival skew to the liberal, anti-gun side. However, through our playtests, a number of anti-gun people have turned against Linda, sending in comments asking her to just leave Mary along. While this could be seen as achieving our goal-of-sorts, it causes the entire game to break down.
One of the reasons for this is that Mary gives really solid reasons for owning a gun throughout the entire game. There are two main ways in which the audience reacts at this point. The first are those who are suddenly stuck and have no idea what to ask Linda to say, because Mary does have a valid point. They tend to be the ones who enter good questions, and suddenly that stream of questions has stopped. The other reaction is from those who are extremely anti-gun, who no matter what argument is presented, will still think they are right and not budge. At this point, their comments start turning a bit nasty, almost attacking Mary.
And therein lies the problem: by just voicing out the comments of the second group of audience members, Linda starts sounding hysterical and unreasonable. This distances the first group of audience members, and further cements pro-gun audience members’ stereotype of anti-gun people.When interviewing our playtesters, a lot of them mentioned that they couldn’t really emphathize with Linda, and as such, didn’t want to help her. Which is a huge issue, because the audience interaction in our game is all about helping Linda communicate with Mary.
There have also been comments that our story isn’t very convincing and comes across as too set up. For example, at one point in the story, Linda asks Mary why she didn’t call the police instead of taking out her gun. Mary’s respond was that she had gotten rid of her landline, and had left her mobile phone at work. How convenient, right?
We’re rewriting parts of our story, but with live actors and a tight deadline to meet, we can’t really change too much or there won’t be enough time for the actors to relearn their new lines/backstory. Fingers crossed this will work out in the end!