December 6, 2012 3:00 AM | Staff
One of the very best stories I've covered this year has been the genuinely heartwarming tale of Marius Mathisen, a Norwegian father who created a game specifically for his young step-daughter, who struggles with learning difficulties.
It's just one example of game players finding ways to make their passion help other people, and of the broadening scope of this entertainment offering us insights into emotional lives not previously covered by games.
Now, because of the uniqueness of games, the experiences of people with life-challenges are being explored in a way that's entirely new. Another example is Lars Doucet's prototype of Tourette's Quest, which he says is inspired by his own condition.
He explains, "Lots of people know what Tourette's symptoms look like from the outside, but it's very hard to communicate what it feels like internally, and that's what I am trying to capture with this experience."
Doucet has been writing educational games for many years, but he hopes this project will click with other people with Tourette's, especially younger people struggling with its effects. Those with the condition display facial tics, coughs and sometimes involuntary verbal outbursts, which can make social interactions a struggle.
"It's almost like I'm playing a game internally [with Tourette's] managing my internal resources in different social situations and I wanted to talk about that. If I was a poet I'd write a poem about it but I'm a game designer so..."
"Serious" gaming has been with us for many years, often framed by the great work of Ian Bogost, among others. As its inherent usefulness becomes apparent -- and available -- to more and more people, it shows how the emotional connections we make with games can be transferred in very practical ways to the emotional ties we have with others.
Doucet's game is at a very early prototype stage, but his final point will be, he hopes, to show the "authentic" struggles people have with Tourette's, such how hard it is to stifle a tic in entirely difficult situations, like a job interview or a first date.
He has the rare form of Tourette's called Coprolalia, which leads to verbal outbursts, and he has adapted a personal strategy of purging his regular vocabulary of curse words as much as possible in an attempt to reduce their appearance in verbal tics. He says he wants the final game to explore the trade of gaining additional powers by exposing the character to a greater likelihood of social difficulties.
The game is a metaphor for life, perhaps for us all, in which players can choose less risky (and less rewarding) paths in order to avoid social discomfort.
For Marius Mathison, his inspiration was a desire to simply help his step-daughter overcome a difficulty that was personal to her.
Angelina has a learning age of about four, and has no patience for traditional learning techniques. She refuses to tolerate picture-books. He found the games already available unsuitable for her particular needs and so, despite having no experience writing games, he set out to create one for her.
He used a select-and-drop tool called GameSalad as well as the help from some friends with skills in art and music. The result is Angelina's Verden(Angelina's World), a simple recognition-and-memory game.
Mathisen says Angelina has shown incredible progress since she started playing her game. He is now using its success to demonstrate the power of games as a learning tool to the somewhat conservative education establishment in his home country.
He says, "Her attention span is very short. Her patience is very short. I tried to avoid having a lot of animation and other unnecessary details. I focused on keeping it simple, clean, and understandable."
He adds, "Kids will try hard to beat a game. If you give a child a hard game like Super Meat Boy, they'll figure it out. Too many educational games are too simple, they are made with adults in mind. Games can help children to enjoy learning, to see it as a fun challenge."
Doucet says the media can often get carried away by the promise of new technologies and their power to change lives. But he says there's little doubt that as game-development broadens from its core constituency, and takes in more people with individual and unique life-experiences, the opportunity to share those struggles through gaming also widens.
"More people having access to cheaper entry level technology empowers them to do interesting things. That is one of the cool promises of technology and specifically of games. It's cool that more people are telling their own stories as they become literate as game designers."
Colin Campbell writes for IGN.
[Colin Campbell wrote this piece originally for sister site Gamasutra.]