Juan and the Beanstalk
“Juan and the Beanstalk”, a game that is still in the process of being made by Rafael Fajardo and the Sweat collaborative is likely to reinvent the way we see games as social mechanisms and further the important work of understanding how experiential and interactive gameplay can produce empathy within complex social issues. In the game you play as Juan, a simple coffee farmer in rural Colombia. Juan, whose son has just vanished before planting season, is given the difficult choice of cultivating poppy flowers for the rich and powerful narcos, or continuing to grow coffee for the federation.
The economic system buried within this gameplay consistently emulates a lose-lose situation. This strategy of burying a social issue within an interesting story is the approach that game designers, like Fajardo, interested in socially conscious games have been taking.
In a 2010 article from Cognitive Technology, authors Belman and Flanagan highlight the unique capability of games to foster empathy:
They argue that empathy, having been shown psychologically to be a powerful tool to reduce negative attitudes and behaviors towards other individuals, combined with carefully designed games as a sort of step to jump over prejudices that prohibit empathy, can be a legitimate approach to opening people’s minds to other viewpoints within complex social issues. The authors give several key principles in designing these experiences, emphasizing the importance of making the player aware that they are meant to cognitively empathize, clearly stating ways in which the player’s actions can affect the issue, and highlighting the similarities between the player and the group with which the player is meant to empathize. Although “Juan and the Beanstalk” follows some of these principles (e.g. Juan’s original plight is a lost or missing child, a relatable fear for many players), however some would point out that following these rules is not enough.
In a blog from 2012, Stephen Dick argues that designing socially conscious games is not always good, and can even sometimes be destructive.
Dick takes a pessimistic view on the issue, but brings up a serious point. Gamers, generally speaking, play games as a form of escapism, not to face serious issues that they are already averse to in everyday life. Although experientially games can how a powerful influence on players’ thoughts and habits, having a player aware of the fact that they are meant to be empathizing (as emphasized by Belman and Flanagan), removes them from the playful space and makes them a third-person viewer in their playing experience. The game must be attractive to the player first as a game, Dick argues, and then sneakily introduce the player to the desired message.
Another perspective presented by Dan Solberg at Kill Screen recognizes the development of empathy games but calls into question some of the methods frequently used in them. Solberg highlights the transition between two games made by a pioneer in empathy game, Anna Anthropy. Her first, “Dys4ia”, is an autobiographical take that puts the player in the shoes of a trans woman trying to decide whether or not to begin hormone transplant therapy. “Dys4ia” served as a cultural artifact and holds artistic importance for the story it brings to people’s attention, however Solberg notes it is hard to measure its success. Even more critical of the next game, Solberg argues:
It seems that Solberg finds Anthropy’s autobiographical voice to be uninspiring within the context of her medium. He, among others, may have only taken the time to put on the shoes, and not related enough to Anthropy’s story to take the time to cross the road.
Both Dick and Solberg bring up relevant criticisms. If the goal of an empathy game is to broaden the perspective of the player, than the faults existing within players in general make empathy games like “Ohmygod Are You Alright?” problematic. In a way the player must be tricked into empathizing, or by Solberg’s apparent mantra “motivated to supportive action”, not just empathy.
This is the way in which “Juan and the Beanstalk” will excel. It attracts players like a traditional game to scenarios that are challenging, interesting, and hard to beat. It goes beyond challenging the player to cross a road, or to read a plain-text story in a new and creative way. The game has a story worth exploring that engages the player, but also the classic gameplay elements that have attracted generations to games that lack a strong narrative (Pacman, Super Mario, etc.). The most important trick to making the player think more deeply within Fajardo’s work, however, is not in the ways that it is secretly not “gamey”, but how it explores what “gamey” is in the first place.
Fajardo suggests that we can insert cultural understanding by changing the gameplay rather than explicitly stating the message. For example, Juan is rewarded after losing a soccer game against el narco, Pablo. The player is left to question what they are meant to consider a win or a loss in this scenario, redefining the meaning of the game and creating a unique moment of empathy between the player and Juan.
This approach is difficult to understand and explain. It seems as though it will work, and if not, it is at least an interesting experiment. Perhaps the approach is best explained by the Fajardo and the Sweat collaborative themselves:
Juan and the Beanstalk
Works and Days:
Ohmygod Are You Alright?