Serious Gardens. Serious Games.

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I want to begin this blog by saying “Select Character ” by Hugh Howey, was a great and interesting read. It was a refreshing change from the analytical texts we have read up to date, and it left me wanting to read more! I really loved the imagery that was captured by the writing style and I was immediately captured in the world created by Howey’s characters. “Select Character” follows the story of a working dad, Jamie, a newborn baby, April and a part time stay at home mom, part time gamer named Donna. In the story “Select Character”, Donna plays a game about war that contains different simulations and that was developed by the Department of Defense in order to recruit individuals to the military. The story moves to introduce three playable characters, all equally massive, just different in skin tone and catchphrase. Donna comments on the lack of playable female characters and emphasizes sarcastically how the three men and their different shades filled the diversity criterion for the game. “Three identical brutes of slightly varying shades.” (488)

Then Donna does something that I even found outlandish for a game that surrounds war, violence and killing; she un-equips almost all of her weapons– her grenades, her uzi, her knife, her assault rifle, and more– and replaces them with five canteens of water, an AK-47 with a bayonet, and a small pistol. Not the best lineup of weapons for wreaking havoc on the battlefield if you ask me. Shortly after beginning the game, Donna’s husband arrives at home early and is surprised and dumbfounded to see his wife not only playing a video game but also the game he loves so much. “THIS IS THE COOLEST THING EVER” (490) Donna then does what I would consider to be a “speed run” of the level, avoiding most, but not all of the violent conflict. She plays the game with the purpose of avoiding violence altogether, unless absolutely necessary. She passes up weapons, and battles, and only shoots in order to create diversions that allow her to move past enemies. Donna plays the game to get to her garden, her serious garden. Donna makes it to the shop, narrowly escaping bullets as she sprints to get there, and instead of using her money to buy expensive guns, she buys tomatoes to give to children and stray animals, and then proceeds to the back to water and tend to the garden that she had developed over time playing the game over and over again. Using the canteens, she waters her existing plants and using the bayonet to prune weeds, all to which Jamie is in awe of. “It’s crazy they would even put this in here.” (498) The story progresses to the point where the way that Donna has played, and with Jamie’s deciphering skills, leads to a call to the Department of Defense with the representative congratulating Donna and asking for help. “Listen to me carefully. Your country needs you.” (502)

This reading was insightful not just about serious games, but also resonated some of the points that we have discussed up to this point. Beginning with diversity, it’s very common for developers of large games to just adjust pigmentation, add a stereotypical vocal catchphrase like “Dawg” for the Black brute and “Following Orders” for the White one. This and also the stereotype about women not being gamers, as Jamie is dumbfounded to see his wife playing his game, almost as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. We’ve learning in the class that women actually make up a large number of total gamers in the world.

Moving past these points, I was able to have my eyes opened about what it means for a game to be serious. Obviously, if a game is designed by the Department of Defense to recruit individuals into service through war simulations, it is a serious game. The game is developed to create a realistic interpretation of what the battlefield, war and the culture surrounding it is like. If I were to play the game seriously, I would try to rack up as many headshots as possible, all while avoiding being shot, protecting comrades and preserving as much ammo as possible. But in Donna’s case, what was serious to her was avoiding unnecessary violence and creating life, and looking out for those in need rather than killing. Her garden was the serious part of the game and that’s how she played it.  Donna followed what she believed to be the best action in her heart, she did what she believed to be the right thing to do, and effectively weighed the consequences in-game that would definitely matter outside of the game in a real time situation. She applied critical thinking to a game where it would be so easy to be lost in the procedural rhetoric and mechanics where the rewards are placed in killing and killing that more efficiently. In Donna’s case it was her ability to critically think about her actions in the game, and the seriousness of it all that made her the type of candidate that the Department of Defense was looking for. Serious games definitely are more than what they perceive to be.