Playing around with documentaries

A new breed of factual games reduces the two great media of documentaries and computer games to crass infotainment.

Tessa Mayes

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Occasionally I’ll have a go on a computer game, only to lose badly and watch my kick-ass avatar explode on some beach or in a jungle. Not that it matters, because part of the fun of videogames is to get completely immersed in an imaginative, virtual world – even if it means staying up until 5am and being left wondering whether you’re wasting your life away.

Now, however, there’s a whole new market opening up for games that are about immersing yourself in reality, rather than escaping it. Documentary makers are rushing to invent ‘documentary games’ or ‘online interactive tie-ins’ for factual films and TV programmes. The future of this new genre was the subject of a lively panel discussion at the Sheffield Documentary Festival earlier this month.

For one of the panelists, the game designer and consultant Margaret Robertson, videogames have a noble purpose, addressing ‘everything we want to think about in the human condition’. Robertson put forward an impassioned case for a two-way creative process between games developers and audiences, who together can explore, virtually, the reality upon which documentaries are based.

Yet the examples of documentary games shown at Sheffield were far from state-of-art explorations of real-life dramas. Instead, they were quite unsophisticated interactive pieces teaching us about things like health issues or how to build simple constructions.

Nick Cohen, a game designer for the BBC who created the Dr Who adventure games, said that, for him, a primary aim is to ‘inform people’. He said it’s important to be ‘less literal in trying to tackle a subject and to find a fun way’ of conveying information. Cohen created the kids’ game Wallace’s Workshop, which accompanies the animated Wallace and Gromit films. Here, young players can construct things, learn about physics and then test out their creations with a Wallace crash dummy.

It is neat stuff and young Wallace and Gromit fans no doubt love it. The question is can this kind of video infotainment be successfully transposed to games for adults? Will the aesthetics and interactivity of documentary videogames ever match that of fantasy games such as Warcraft?

I was hoping Paul Bennun, an award-winning game designer and director of digital production company Somethin’ Else, would show us something with a real wow factor. Instead, he gave us a game he created to accompany a Channel 4 programme – SuperMe – aimed at helping teenagers to be happier. Here, players score points in different stages slotted into four categories: wisdom, ability, influence and connection.

Saying he didn’t like the word ‘gameification’, Bennun explained that this creation was about ‘turning an understanding of happiness and resilience into a game’ and giving teenagers ‘tools to deal with difficult emotions’. Apparently, the concept is based on ‘resilience theory’. To me, it looked like a virtual therapy session, and if I was a teenager I imagine I’d be more likely to get bored and sulky rather than cheerful and chirpy by playing this game.

It was left to Phil Stuart, creative director at Preloaded, to mention the E-word. No, the word was not ‘escapism’, but ‘educational’. Of course we can learn things from playing games, but at this point I started to yearn for some real geeky gamer to tell us about the wonders of losing yourself in some high-tech, interactive world for hours on end. But perhaps I’m missing something. Or I may have GADD, Gaming Attention Deficit Disorder.

The fact that the games on show weren’t very complex did come up during the audience Q&A. One panelist retorted that this is down to the fact that budgets for documentary games are relatively small. But the games also suffer from education being such a big part of the brief: this often makes them seem like glorified instruction videos.

Another problem here is the centrality of ‘behaviourism’ to games making. In the words of Robertson, games ‘are powerful in changing what people do’. They are good at ‘incentivising us’ by encouraging us to buy things and see films. ‘What if we harness the power of all games to solve problems’, Cohen asked, ‘by tapping into personal motivation?’ Continuing on this theme of covert influence, Bennun said that documentary games were the best way to reach teenagers, who do not tend to watch many documentaries. He acknowledged that you can’t tell teenagers what to do directly, because ‘they’ll tell you to fuck off!’. That’s why, Stuart argued, educational games have to be ‘as fun as possible, with learning hidden in the system’.

For me, however, Robertson made the most sense when talking about the true ethos of gaming compared to other media. Declaring ‘fun’ as her most hated word, she said games are neither simply serious or fun. It’s more nuanced than that, it’s about ‘how fulfilling the experience is’. ‘The reason we love games is about deep elements to do with overcoming difficulty, learning skills, using memory and communicating with people. Getting there [to a game’s endpoint] is not necessarily fun.’

So while it’s true that games can draw the audience deeper into the world of the documentary, games should also draw the audience deeper in to the world of pure gaming, with a licence to shock and turn your world upside down. As Robertson said, good games ‘tear story narratives apart’.

Tessa Mayes is a writer and filmmaker based in London. See her website here.

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