Event report: Playing (with) non-violence

Screenshot from the game Memory Gliders

Written by Maria B. Garda. This post is a part of an ongoing blog series by members and alumni of the CoE. See the full list of published posts and the introduction to the series.

On September 25th 2019 at the Vimma, Youth Art and Activity Centre in Turku, the CoE GameCult together with the AgainNeverAgain project, Turku Institute for Advanced Studies and SELMA centre, co-organised a workshop on educational aspects of video games under a title: “Playing (with) non-violence”. The event was attended by over a dozen registered participants, mostly lecturers and students connected to the University of Turku, but also coming from the local game development community and cultural institutions (e.g. town library), as well as invited experts and educators.

For game scholars, it may seem that the discussion on games and violence is an obsolete one and that the main issue has long been solved. Yet, in the public discourse the subject of so-called “violent video games” resurfaces repeatedly, and regrettably often in relation to tragic events such as mass-shootings. In 2017, American Psychological Association – in order to discourage this sort of media coverage – released a statement confirming that: “longitudinal studies of youth suggest that violent video game exposure does not meaningfully predict youth physical aggression or violent crime” (full statement). In fact, one of the most recent reports in that area – by Patrick M. Markey and his team – finds that the very argument is, at least in the context of US mass-shootings, often connected to racial stereotypes.

The complex interrelations between video game culture, US society, and the military-entertainment complex were the main topics explored in the workshop’s opening lecture by Thomas Apperley (Tampere University, CoE GameCult), titled Monstrous Gamers: Videogames, Violence, and US Politics. The keynote was followed by a half an hour of discussion and then the event continued with the workshop itself. As organizers, we hoped to counter the negative stereotypes by focusing on educational games and how they can be used in teaching and research practice. After a quick introduction of selected titles, the participants could spend the rest of the evening playing and discussing games of their choosing.

Mikael Mattlin (University of Turku) showcased Diplomacy, a strategic board game that he uses in his international affairs classes where it proved to be a valuable tool for learning negotiation skills. Myself, I have chosen to share my experiences of using September 12th, a simulation developed by Gonzalo Frasca in response to the post-September 11th US military actions in Afghanistan, in my game studies classes. Lassi Puolakka (NordicEdu) presented – among other educational products developed by the studio – a gamified timeline of Finnish bio-industry developed for the Finnish Forest Association, Havina (NordicEdu 2017). Finally, Nena Močnik introduced Memory Gliders (Ulric Games 2019), a recently released adventure game created as a part of the AgainNeverAgain project and dealing with the issues of trauma transmission and remembrance. This game is a notable example of implementing a very ambitious high-concept developed by researchers into an accessible casual gameplay experience.

The premise of Memory Gliders was to use interactive storytelling to engage players with the long-lasting effects of trauma caused by, for example, escaping war or natural disaster. The innovative idea was to create a culturally decontextualized setting that would not relate to any specific historical location or event. There are many games referring, for example, to atrocities of the Second World War but as with every retelling of a violent history it is difficult to develop a multi-perspective narrative, one that would satisfy everyone. How to create an experience that would be as inclusive as possible? The science-fiction scenario of Memory Gliders was carefully developed in order not to engage with any cultural stereotypes, at least these known to European designers and their global testers (e.g. from India). The dialogues were written in simple English, and the voice-over was recorder by a non-native speaker.

Memory Gliders follows a story of bird-like creatures, descendants of space refugees, struggling to settle on a new planet while trying to retain their identity. The game offers about two hours of gameplay, which reminded me of the new wave of point-and-click adventure games such as Broken Age (Double Fine Productions 2014). As for a conceptual prototype developed in less than a year, Memory Gliders delivers fine art and sound design, as well as a nicely crafted story and characters. The tensions between different members of the community are genuinely engaging. Yet, the game really needs the upcoming update that will solve its remaining technical issues and improve the playability. When it arrives, Memory Gliders might become a really promising game-based experiential learning tool, useful in many research projects related to issues of violence and trauma.