In "Creatively Dead" Industry, Change Comes From The Outside

In mid-1980s Nicaragua, a woman stood beside a burnt out bus in a tiny, remote town. Game designer Jim Gasperini was in the region to visit his brother, a journalist covering Contra issues during the Reagan administration.

The bus, the woman told Gasperini, had been provided by the Nicaraguan government, and she had relied on it as her only means of visiting her sister. The Contras - anti-government guerillas funded by the U.S. - had destroyed the bus. The woman, passionate about American democracy, told Gasperini that if he could just tell everyone back in the States about what had happened to her bus, Americans would vote to help, the Contras would cease their attacks, and she could travel to her sister's again.

Touched by her plight and by her faith, Gasperini wondered what he could do to disseminate information about the Contra situation. In the end, he decided to do what he did best: Make a game.

That game, a 1989 mouse-and-keyboard HyperCard adventure on an 800k floppy disk, was titled Hidden Agenda, and it was a huge critical success, discussed on All Things Considered and in Newsweek, among others. [UPDATE, Feb. 22, 2012: Actually, it wasn't a HyperCard adventure, Ron Martinez, who works on the game, tells us: "It was all original development, programmed in an object-oriented version of FORTH, a threaded, interpreted language originally developed to control big telescope servos. Strange, that bit of misinfo, too. Greg Guerin was the brilliant systems designer, also building a "narrative simulation" engine that controlled the behaviors of the virtual political operatives and citizens."] Incidentally, the face of the man in the screenshot was modeled on Gasperini's apartment doorman inventor Ron Martinez.

Games For Change is an organization developed to support academics, activist groups, educators and the non-profit sector in creating games that act as agents of social change. At the organization's 2008 event in New York, panel moderator Celia Pearce introduced Gasperini, as well as another of the first social game designers, Balance of Power creator Chris Crawford, who's also credited with instigating an informal event in his living room in 1987 that would grow to become the Game Developers' Conference we know today.

The idea of developing games for other audiences than the core gamer, and with other goals than simple entertainment, is often hailed as a "new" phenomenon, as is the idea that games will "one day" be treated in the mainstream as a serious and valuable pursuit. But Gasperini and Crawford are notable for beginning this work long before there was a game console in every home.

"In digital culture, people always assume that they're doing something for the first time when in fact that is very seldom the case," said Pearce.

In fact, back in 1985, Gasperini met Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, still leading the company in its earlier days, and received some advice from him on being successful in the industry: Make a game that your dad would want to play.

Gasperini's Dad loved Face The Nation and 60 Minutes, so at the time, Hidden Agenda definitely fit the bill. Years later, though, Gasperini met up with Hawkins again during the time when EA was specializing in sports sims. They had just released a volleyball game titled Lords of the Beach, and so Gasperini asked him: whatever happened to making games for Dad?

"Well," laughed Hawkins, "My Dad likes watching girls in bikinis playing beach volleyball."

Crawford's 1985 game Balance of Power, a geopolitical simulator where the object was to prevent a war, actually preceded (and helped inspire) Hidden Agenda. But Crawford said that if it wasn't for massive economic losses in a game industry that looked to be about to tank, no one would ever have published his title, which decades later still inspires activist groups to develop social games.

"People only change when they're in pain," said Crawford, explaining why MindScape, a startup publisher, was willing to pick up his game after Atari's collapse left the industry "at death's door." EA, Broderbund and the era's other market leaders took a pass, he said.

Crawford and Gasperini both have faith, though, that a new game industry can be built alongside the existing one, to build games that provoke thought on world issues, that educate and encourage activism. It'll take time, though.

"It's a slow, steady process," said Crawford. "No industry develops suddenly. You have to develop public awareness of it. I figure it'll take at least five years for this to get off the ground, maybe 10 years before we have a real industry."

And unless the game industry ever finds itself in such dire straits again, Crawford said it's still unlikely that social games will ever reach success through commercial channels. "The games industry is creatively dead," said Crawford. "It is 'marketingly mature'. They know exactly who they're selling and the people they're selling to... You're not going to wreak any major changes in this industry."

[You can see the games discussed at the links provided in this article.]