A re-post (or will be, whenever his site's working again) of my response to Raph's great talk given at the "Games For Change Conference" and available for listening on Raph's site here: http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/12/02/games-for-change-closing-address/
My main interest in game development is designing a didactic game through interactive allegory.
Allegory is a very tricky business. A difficult balance must be struck with the force and obviousness of the communication’s impression. It’s also difficult controlling the universality vs contextuality of the message. As you pointed out, Monopoly was once recognized as a statement on economic ethics, whereas now it’s just another fun game to most players. Conversely, with what idea did the poker variant “Mexican sweat” gets its name, and do many players make a connection between the label and its gameplay? (symbolism and allegory don’t always put forth positive messages)
A primary means of making a game didactic is sanctions. I think modern Americans in general, and perhaps most individuals of Western cultures, generally view any moral instruction from non-family as arrogant and unwarranted, but we do accept relatively-overt didactic sanctioning in some games while still perceiving those games as fun. In American football, a game which is appealing largely for its celebration of controlled violence (i say as a fan), there are in-game penalties for excessive celebration, unnecessary roughness, and tackles which endanger another player’s well-being. In every sport I played on a team growing up (and I played them all), the players of the opposing teams were required to shake hands afterwards and forcibly dissuaded from taunting other players. Yet we still had fun.
We call them “games", which seems to apply the ultimately goal should be “fun", but the word “appealing” is better. “Deep” stories and “deep” works of art are not fun, or not only fun...or even “entertaining” in the most common usage of the word. They are appealing; they attract us to them. The game developer doesn’t need to make the player smile, or tense with joy or anticipation; but instead just needs to make the player want to continue the game, and maybe even come back to it when it’s over (if it ends).
Work and play aren’t exactly exclusive of one another. I’m a Catholic. Did you know that a major consideration in the Church’s recognition of someone as a saint is that the person was joyful? A saint is illuminated from within during acts of service. Mother Theresa was famous among world newspapers for suffering to care for the suffering, but she was famous among those who met her directly as a lady who was always smiling and often joking while she tended to the sick and the hungry. Joy and work...joy and suffering even...are not mutually exclusive.
“Can you? Should you?” show the horrors of reality in complete honesty? The cultural majorities of the West (of all ends of the political spectrum) are against the idea. Even in media aimed at adults, the general consensus seems to be that utter truth is too much. I disagree. I’m of Flannery O’Connor’s bent in thinking “for the blind, you draw large and startling images, and for the hard of hearing, you shout". And besides that, truth is good, even when it’s most painful...people just need a guiding hand there for support. But even if I were at liberty to design a completely honest game, what are the odds I could get it published? I’ll tell you this though...regardless of said hesitation, many people respond positively to the naked truth when it’s offered to them at last.
Human beings long for truth. It’s why so many Normandy veterans went to relive the horrors of war in the movie theater with “Saving Private Ryan", despite remembering only too well that those memories would be more comfortably forgotten.
So... How best may we reveal truth and encourage action through video games? To that, I’ll just offer two brief thoughts:
Socrates offered wisdom by asking for it. Christ spoke in parables, because statements are take-it-or-leave-it (more passively accepted or rejected) and statements don’t grow with experience the same way. The strength of games is real-time feedback to player choices. You can let the players make their own choices, but sanction them accordingly; and remember that sanctions can be broad in scope.
For example: In an RPG, a young beggar girl asks for something to eat. The player can be generous with food, generous with money, generous with service (guiding the girl to aid) or ignore her entirely. If the player is generous, maybe the girl just smiles and thanks the player; maybe she joyfully greets and thanks the player everytime the player is in town; maybe she is re-encountered in better living circumstances (she's not only healthily fed, but is attending school too). But what if the player ignored her, and later encountered the young girl’s dead body emaciated (from hunger) at the edge of an alley? What if the town left the body there for days or even weeks, rotting and picked at by vermin, because nobody cares about beggars? Graphic and horrific, certainly. Fun? No, but appealing in the same way that “Schindler’s List” appealed to millions and received an Oscar award? It’s an appeal to the human longing for truth, and for justice (people need inspiration).
And lastly.. What does the game developer sacrifice? Great service (in the moral, not the economic, sense) is the reward of great sacrifice. What can we offer of ourselves? Can we be open, revealing our deepest frailties, so that others may not feel alone in inner darkness? Can we be strong, accepting years of criticism and headaches (political, financial, personal) for stubborn committment to truth, instead of security? I don’t mean to poeticize the concept, but I really don’t believe game developers can make great changes for good without sacrifices of some sort.