Associated Press

Posted on June 2, 2013 at 12:06 PM

c.2013 The International Herald Tribune

From The International Herald Tribune


LONDON _ Computer and video games inspired by real-life events are a growing segment of the industry, which is slowly moving from simple entertainment to interactive experiences that carry a message.

These new games explore issues like drone strikes, child labor in Uzbekistan and child abuse by members of the Roman Catholic Church. Their intent, besides profit, is to entice players to reflect about real-world issues.

"Our belief and bet is that these games will reach a commercial audience and we’re just in the early days," said Ken Weber, executive director at, the philanthropic arm of Zynga, the social games developer, which recently began building games that raise social awareness about issues like the oppression of women. "If you can imagine five years down the road, people creating games around these issues are going to be much better and more compelling at doing that."

This segment of the business, which until now attracted little attention from the mainstream video game industry, is building on growing demand for meaningful games.

"Peaceful, thoughtful games are on the rise, both commercially and critically," said Richard Lemarchand, associate professor of interactive media at the University of Southern California. "It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as the big game publishers revise their ideas about their market."

While the segment is still too small to put a number on it, a turning point was the surprise popularity of "Journey," developed for PlayStation 3, he said. The game, in which players need to rely on others to travel through a desert, was for a time the fastest-selling game on PlayStation and won several awards at the game equivalent of the Oscars last year.

The 2009 protests over the Iranian election inspired Borut Pfeiffer, a video game developer, to create "The Unconcerned" (a working title, based on a medieval Persian poem), after he realized that video games could be used to promote understanding about Iran, especially in the United States.

"When I saw the stuff in Iran I really connected with the people," Mr. Pfeiffer said. "But there was a huge disconnect between Iran being treated as an evil country and what the life of the average Iranian was."

His game, which is still being developed, revolves around a couple searching for their missing daughter, who is caught up in the violent protests, and around the crackdown on demonstrators by the police.

"What I’m interested in is making entertainment meaningful and that allows people to realize things about the world in a deeper way than watching the news," he said. "There are specific questions I’m trying to raise in the player’s mind, as well as some information and some context that your average American is probably largely unaware of."

Mr. Pfeiffer, who had been working at the U.S. video game developer Electronic Arts, quit his job to pursue his newfound passion, devoting months to research. To fund his game on Iran, he developed other games on the side.

"I think there is an untapped demand for games like mine. It’s a function of the increasing age of gamers, and that modern games don’t speak to us. I find it harder and harder to find a game that reaches out to me," he said. "So I’m confident that there are a lot of other people who feel that way."

Cliff Harris, a developer based in Wiltshire, England, also said he believed there was a growing audience for games that played off real events. He is working on "Democracy 3," a strategy game about running an indebted country that brings together the financial crisis and the debate over euro zone government debt.

"It’s an insane game," conceded Mr. Harris, who said he expected to release the game _ the third installment in a series _ this year. But unlike its predecessors, he plans to include banking scandals, credit downgrades and anti-capitalist street protests to reflect recent events in his native Britain.

"The whole austerity thing, budget deficits, taxes and stuff like that are suddenly mainstream discussion and much more immediate now than during the boom times," Mr. Harris said. "There is no consensus on the best way to handle them, so I think there is a much bigger, and perhaps even angrier audience interested in this."

But sometimes the controversy becomes too controversial for game developers.

This year, Apple pulled "Endgame: Syria" from its online store, citing guidelines forbidding games that "solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real government corporation or any other real entity," according to a statement by the developer Game The News.

Apple killed a game by the Italian developer La Molle Industria in 2010 called "Phone Story" that was intended to raise awareness about workers’ conditions at Foxconn, the company that makes iPhones, following a wave of suicides there. The developer, Paolo Pedercini, said Apple had told him that he had flouted four guidelines, notably two related to depictions of "violence or abuse of children," and "excessively objectionable or crude content."

La Molle Industria also made "Operation: Pedopriest," inspired by news reports of alleged cover-ups of sexual abuse by priests, and most recently "Unmanned," about a soldier who remotely drops bombs on enemy territory.

In 2009, widespread criticism forced the Japanese publisher Konami to suspend the development of "Six Days in Fallujah," a video game about the six-day battle in 2004 in Iraq involving U.S. marines. The game, based on hundreds of hours of interviews with returning marines, military officials, historians and local Iraqis, was intended to convey the psychological complexity of the battle.

But the board of directors at Konami decided to leave the game unfinished due to the political sensitivity around the war in Iraq, said Peter Tamte, president of Atomic Games, the developer.

"It is an extremely limited view of the future to suggest that interactive media cannot be used to explore the subjects that have been explored through film for decades," he said. "I feel very strongly about that. We can’t look at video game consoles as simply game machines. You cannot look backwards; you have to look forward."

Despite a growing audience for such games, developers say mainstream publishers have not yet caught up with the trend.

But there are tentative signs of change.

For Ian Dallas, whose company developed "The Unfinished Swan" for PlayStation 3 _ about a boy chasing a swan and discovering a new world _ playing on the theme of exploration is a first step.

"I’m trying to create a world where players can feel awe and wonder _ it’s a kind of activism on a psychological and emotional level," he said.


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Keywords:World, technology, entertainment, video games, games, gaming, gamers, virtual reality, reality, Iran, Iraq, child abuse, activism