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Regular readers will know I’m a disgruntled game-player. I love games. I just wish less of them sucked – both in the sense I wish more were playable and actually fun and in the sense that they didn’t FAIL quite so hard to not just pointlessly, boringly repeat and reinforce kyriarchy.

Ludum Dare is a competition for game designers to quickly turn around mini games in 48 hours, on a theme. Via Offworld I happened to see the latest theme for this tri-annual game was domestic violence.

The idea of using games in an interesting way to make political points is very appealing – and some people have done this successfully by “social game” developers – for example ICED is meant to raise awareness about unfair immigration polcies in the US.

Let’s look at the game which Offworld highlighted as “the best of the entries I’ve played thus far”:

Queens, a short (and, in keeping with the theme, appropriately brutal) treatise on patriarchal indifference, and, as auntiepixelante aptly puts it, “the expendability of women”.

queens is the best of the ones I played, certainly (warning: I didn’t have time to play any of these games to the end, so ultimately that might have changed my perspective). In basic platform games, it is taken as read that the character you’re playing will ‘die’ multiple times – that’s the point, to get through the level without dying.

In queens, a small white pixalated figure, pushes a small pixilated queen off a ledge, and you are then meant to navigate her through the game without her dying. There are multiple queens, so if you die your character doesn’t just jump magically back to life, you’re replaced with a different queen. Or, as autie pixelante says:

In queens, these lives are characters and the repeating cycle of their deaths and replacement is the narrative, suggesting the expendability of women (who are neither faceless nor nameless) to a henry viii-style patriarch.

What about the other entries though? After School, a text game in which you play a boy and you have to choose the right thing to say out of a list, to stop his mother from hitting him.

One of the most basic points about domestic violence is: it’s not the victim’s fault, and it’s not up to the victim to ‘be good’ in some way in order to avoid abuse. And as the game progresses, it makes clear that there is no magic combination of things that someone can do to avoid abuse in this situation, as every option ends up with the mother hitting the son. Domestic violence is “not a game”, as it says.

Then there’s Punch the Red Ones Only – you are a penguin. If you punch the red penguins, you score points. If you accidentally punch a yellow penguin, the game zooms in and ends, zero-sum, don’t hit the ones like you. This one doesn’t work at all for me and seems pretty problematic – after all, it just seems to segregate the penguin world into “enemies” it is OK to hit and friends it’s not OK to hit, and based, no less, on colour.

This one sounds terrible, but I couldn’t confirm by playing it ‘unfortunately’:

Domestic Abuse: The Fighting game!

Arrows is woman, needs to get to gun. Z and X is man, Z punches, X grabs. Punches only count if the woman isn’t moving backwards, grabs only work if woman is moving.

In all seriousness, someone thought that was a good idea – because equating domestic violence and a fighting game is appropriate!

I also didn’t like this one called “the domestic” – in which you have to balance going to work and staying home – because it seems to be justifying/saying that work stress causes people to be violent to their partner, and that is an unavoidable reaction.

So, ultimately, there’s some potential here. It wasn’t as FAIL-ridden as I expected when I read about the competition, and maybe stimulates some thoughts about what games are for and their potential.

But another game designer, who ultimately pulled out, sums it up best:

Lesson learned: some themes just aren’t meant to be fun.