This post discusses games about dating violence and domestic abuse. Some links contain content centered around similar themes.

A few months ago, I helped write some dialogue for a game called YourSpace (with Paul Andrew McGee, Sam Gross, Ross McWilliam, and kayfaraday). The game was created for the Life.Love. Game Design Challenge held yearly by The Jennifer Ann Crecente Memorial Group, and was designed to address the issue of teen dating violence. Our game was a dialogue-heavy interactive story, with branching paths inspired by hypertext fiction. All of the game’s interaction happens within the context of a fictitious social network. While I was pleased with the final project (which placed third), I've been thinking lately about the way we tend to explore issues like dating violence when approaching development from a “serious games” angle.

Paul and I talked quite a bit during development about how to make the narrative accessible to as many teens as possible, but ultimately, I felt that my contributions were still a representation of spaces and situations that were familiar to me personally. Could I have made more of an effort to include a diverse set of characters? Yes, certainly. But reflecting on the nature of serious and educational games, continually taking the “interactive story” approach is limiting. Attempts to create characters who resonate with everyone can quickly become exercises in generalization, resulting in an unconvincing cast that communicates through stilted dialogue. If we are serious about communicating with youth through games, it's worth approaching serious topics from an angle beyond text-heavy narratives.

Our game included visuals and audio cues, but ultimately relied heavily on on dialogue to provide examples of specific problematic behaviors that can surface in abusive teen relationships. In Henry Jenkins’ “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” Jenkins proposes “examining games less as stories than as spaces ripe with narrative possibility.” Why not use the “game-ness” of games to our advantage and think more in terms of environmental storytelling and narrative through mechanics? Thinking of recent releases like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Gone Home, it’s clear that game mechanics and environments are capable of powerful storytelling even without long, dialogue-based interludes.

This year’s Life.Love. guidelines also encouraged designers to include “interactive” elements like “GPS; camera; motion sensors; voice; etc.” The first-place winner, Love in the Dumpster, has yet to be released, but none of the Life.Love. games released thus far have featured these elements. Personally, I feel that this shift towards “more interactive” interactivity is inhibited by a couple of things. First, putting the player directly in contact with abusive language, behavior, or imagery, even if only through game mechanics, might be upsetting or potentially triggering. It’s safer, in many ways, for the designer to mediate the relationship between the player and the abuser through a heavy dose of narrative. Second, any game with a didactic element that must convey specific factual information can easily do so via text, while other methods of communication within the game space are more challenging to implement.

Exposure of the player to abuse and violence is a logical concern, but relying on text to convey important concepts is less defensible. YourSpace used “pause screens” between conversations to interpose information about dating violence in a non-diegetic manner. While this guaranteed that all of the important information we wanted to include was conveyed in some manner, it wasn't a particularly nuanced or engaging approach. In fact, all of the information on the Warning Signs page at JenniferAnn.org could probably be conveyed through mechanics or environment  — a truly creative design might even figure out a way to fit the phone number in without too much intrusion from outside the game world.

So what might successful mechanics-focused or environmental storytelling look like in a game about violence or abuse? Looking outside of games that present themselves as educational, we find a variety of games that capably explore the subject matter without relying on dialogue. Amy Dentata’s Ten Seconds in Hell, a first-person 3D game, explores themes of domestic abuse through setting and mechanics. The game is rendered in a decidedly lo-poly fashion, and its minimalist setup is eerily successful at conveying the experience of entrapment in a space where options seem sparse.

We know that games are capable of telling powerful stories without walls of words, but the realm of “serious games” still has a tendency use text and dialogue as a crutch. The Life.Love guidelines for 2014 have yet to be released, but I’m looking forward to seeing how the new rules and rubric will guide next year’s designs, and how many designers will take up the challenge of putting “interactivity” front and center.