Here’s an excerpt from a press release on a new social issue game, Dead Ends.
“Dead Ends is a full 3D computer game commissioned by Channel 4 to support Disarming Britain, a major new season examining the effect of gun and knife crime on Britain’s streets.”
Overall, it is an impressive effort by student game developers who had an incredibly short amount of time to make the game, 6 weeks from initial approach to going live with public downloads. I think there are two kinds of social issue games. 1) An awareness building game and 2) a call to action game. Dead Ends succeeds as an awareness building game but I think would be more successful as a call to action game, which requires more resources. Overall I feel its biggest let down is that it doesn’t answer its own question, “why does this happen? Why do teens resort to gang life?”
The game allows you to play as a teenage gang member and a detective trying to find who murdered the teenager. I give big props to the developers for putting the player in the role of the gang member and the detective, rather than some outside observer, such as a journalist which many social issue games use. Yet, despite playing as people directly involved, the game has very little about the real life reasons for teens participating in gangs.
Again, I realize they had 6 weeks and for that it shows how important it is to give social issue games the time needed to develop a game that reaches its full potential by exploring the issues properly. Here are some ways the issue could have been explored further. As a teenager, you live in a low income home with only one parent. For gameplay, you struggle to take care of younger brothers and sisters while cooking dinner for them. You must race back and forth between the boiling pot on the stove and picking up your siblings to keep them from causing trouble. Your mother comes home from work, dead tired and expresses her concerns about paying the bills. Your family needs money quickly or else you will be forced to leave your home. You, the teenager must quit school and find work.
You go to school to hand in your papers notifying them you are leaving and run into a friend of yours. The friend mentions his gang is looking for people and they pay really well. You are free to choose whether to join or not. Pros – lots of fast money. Cons – risk going to jail. You can choose to get a job at a local fast food restaurant instead. Pros – stable, legal job. Cons – doesn’t pay enough and the family still can’t pay the bills. No matter what, due to the circumstances of your situation, you are forced to join the gang and hope for the best.
After joining the gang, you steal cars and earn a percentage on the price of the cars. The more expensive cars are more risky to steal but net you more income for your family. Soon drugs become an option and then turf wars erupt and finally the game ends tragically in the death of the player character.
As the mother, you play a short sequence where you try to do you job as best as possible, but are turned down for a promotion, possible due to a form of discrimination or your level of education.
The other component is to offer a solution. You play the part of someone who’s been sentenced to work with low income kids for a small crime they did. Your character, doesn’t respect the kids who come from low income homes but must learn to do so. You eventually help kids find suitable jobs and take skill building classes after school. The point here is to explore the issues of respect and fear and show the kids other options. The teenagers think fear is the way to get respect. They’ve never been respected in another way by an adult, especially by someone like you. Once your character learns to show them proper respect, they learn that there are other ways besides gang life to get the respect they desire.
With this approach, we see a bit more from multiple perspectives why a teenager may be driven to join a gang and ways to help them realize there are other options.
In closing, I think they could have been able to answer their own question if only more time and resources were allocated for development. Here’s hoping they get another shot at it soon.
© 2008, Reid Bryant Kimball. All rights reserved.