Creators Put Politics Into Video Games

The Associated Press
Sunday, January 21, 2007; 12:52 AM

ATLANTA -- Ian Bogost takes some of the fun out of video games _ and replaces it with opinion. The Georgia Institute of Technology professor creates games _ or "playable editorial cartoons," as he calls them _ that are packed with political messages.

One he created just after liquids were banned from carryon baggage pits players as a frustrated airport screener faced with an ever-changing set of rules. Another challenges gamers to double the price of crude oil by afflicting a fantasy land with a series of natural disasters.

Just as the documentary developed as a potent force within the film industry, Bogost is among a growing number of designers who develop video games that focus and comment on the world's social and political ills.

"I'm not against fun. I like to play the same video games everyone else does. But I don't believe that video games have to be fun," Bogost said. "I think they need to be given the opportunity to bother and disturb us."

The games don't quite carry the same weight as opinion pieces in traditional media. But their creators say they can still carry a punch as they force players to consider serious issues, such as security policy or the volatile price of gasoline.

The genre's financial potential is no joke, advocates say. The Serious Games Initiative, a group formed to encourage more substantive games, estimates players and developers spend more than $60 million on the games each year and that developers will be doling out at least $300 million to create and market the games within five years.

Bogost's focus _ Web-based Flash games that users can play online _ has become a $5 million a year business, by the group's estimates.

"Games as a media form allow people to have political discourse," said Ben Sawyer, the initiative's co-founder. "Will you see more of this? Of course you will."

Developers have pumped out a stream of titles that let gamers relive classic battles or pit heroes against terrorists and other evils. Although there's always been a political element to traditional games, many developers have been reluctant to express overt political or social messages for fear they would alienate potential customers.

One of the most notable exceptions is "Balance of Power," a popular Cold War strategy game published in 1985. It refused to delight players with a graphical nuclear explosion when they failed. Instead, it showed a black screen that read: "You have ignited a nuclear war ... We do not reward failure."

Other efforts were more accidental than revolutionary. Jacques Servin, a programmer who helped create the "SimCopter" computer game, was fired in 1996 after its publisher, Maxis, discovered he had sneaked in some code that made certain bathing suit-clad male characters kiss other men.

With the rise of the Internet, more developers have begun to take video gaming more seriously, creating short and punchy games readily available for free on the Web.

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