This week a game called 1,000 Days of Syria launched. It doesn’t sound that fun and it’s not really supposed to be. It’s the creation of Mitch Swenson, an author and reporter and now a game designer. 1,000 Days of Syria is a text-based, choose-your-own-adventure, which you can play free online. The game puts you in the shoes of a mother, a young, rebel fighter or an American journalist and aims to help you understand the situation and the plight of the people caught up in these events. The question is, can games tackle current affairs without becoming exploitative?
Playing 1,000 Days of Syria is as far removed from the latest Call of Duty game as you could possibly get. There are no images. Swenson has said that he feels images can dilute the intensity of the events and I tend to agree. Left with only text, you ‘the player’ are forced to imagine these people, what they look like and their surroundings. This makes the process of choosing whether to persuade your husband to join the freedom fight or stay in a cell and suffer certain torture or try to escape much more affecting.
The ‘game’ paints a truly bleak picture, which is much easier to shrug off when it’s just a segment on a news programme, before they move on to the weather. However, there is no window dressing to entice anyone who can’t be bothered to read the text.
Each page starts with a date and an brief outline of the situation in Syria on that day. Then a short paragraph describes what’s happening to your character, what they’re feeling and then offers you a decision, which determines where you end up next.
I’ve played through as all characters now and each time I ended up dead. I don’t know if there is a chance to survive, but the game has made it clear that the odds are stacked against survival and there’s no difficulty setting allowing you to play through on ‘normal’ or ‘easy’.
There has been a lot of objection to games trying to be more than just entertainment. Bristol-based indie developer, GameTheNews.net, created Endgame: Syria, which was famously rejected by the mystical censorship rules on the Apple iPhone app store. People spoke out against the idea of a game tackling news issues
Endgame: Syria is a simple war-sim, which puts you in the position of rebel fighters trying to garner diplomatic favour, as well as fighting Assad’s army and trying to gain access to weapons. Unlike 1,000 Days of Syria, Endgame does have a gaming aesthetic and delivers less text, in favour of chunky, non-animated visuals.
Of the two, Engame feels much more like a traditional game and maybe that’s why it garnered more negative commentary. However, as a representation of war, I find it less offensive than the visceral entertainment offered by the annual slew of war-based FPS titles. But when games try to get serious, they are dismissed as using terrible situations to simply entertain. Of course, cinema and literature have done that for decades with only some trying to make a social or political comment.
Despite the reluctance on the part of the wider public, more political games are being created and the growth of the indie scene offers them a bigger platform than ever. In 2013 Papers Please proved that games can make you think and went on to win a BAFTA in 2014. But Papers Please doesn’t focus on a real life, happening now situation, such as Syria and this may the line that’s still too difficult for games to cross without a backlash.
1,000 Days of Syria feels like something different though. Some are calling it interactive journalism or the awful term ‘newsgames’. I’m not sure if this is the future of journalism or political gaming, but it’s definitely part of a movement to use games to tap into something pure news or film can’t reach.
It looks like games are ready to stand alongside comics and cinema, when it comes to telling stories that help people understand difficult issues and events. It looks like games are growing up.