Remember when gaming was just a fringe hobby? These days, there's still a stigma in some quarters about self-identifying as a 'gamer', but really, everyone's playing games.
On Facebook, Zynga's Farmville has gone from an idle distraction to a worldwide craze, with millions of people who'd swear they never waste their time on something as trivial as a game still logging in to check their farms and gather corn.
The likes of Rock Band have made games cool in a way that no Grand Theft Auto or Starcraft II could ever hope to manage. Even big media empires are rushing to jump on board, with both the BBC and Channel 4 even now waving their chequebooks.
Many TV shows have spawned games in the past – usually terrible cash-in jobs, from the godawful South Park FPS to generic platform rubbish. The difference this time is that instead of simply selling the licence, the original program makers are getting directly involved and commissioning the games in the first place.
The BBC's pilot program span around Doctor Who – four episodic adventures, two of which are already out – intended to be seen as part of the most recent series. It uses the show's actual writers and actors, to variable levels of success.
As games, they're low budget and, frankly, not very good, but they've been stormingly popular, especially with fans of the show, rather than experienced gamers. The first, City of the Daleks, had over half a million players rushing to get their hands on it, giving them a quick interactive journey with the Doctor and Amy on a destroyed Earth.
Channel 4's offerings are much stranger, and much more interesting. They're not just games, they're… pause to shudder… 'edutainment'.
But wait! For once, that's actually interesting. Instead of the usual ponderous nonsense that parents and teachers love to inflict on kids, these games are built around a more subtle form of teaching. The most recent of these is called The Curfew, a web adventure game set in an England under the rule of a totalitarian government.
As a faceless rebel, you've been given some important information and have to choose which of four people in a safehouse to hand it over to – playing through their memories, asking questions to decide who to trust, and making them trust you enough to take the data package and help save the day.
The educational element is built around exploring the issues of social control by making the player experience them, rather than being scored on questions like "Do you like fascism Y/N?"
One player is a kid, another an immigrant, another an ex-cop, with each having their own perspective on their world. It's tongue-in-cheek, fast-paced, and… let's just say the acting is at least interesting, if prone to all the usual 'talking into the camera on a green screen' problems.
Some interesting music choices keep it humming along nicely though, and none of the sections is long enough to outstay its welcome. You can play it online at curfewgame.com.
Interesting as The Curfew is, though, it's nothing compared to the next one that's on the way: Privates.
You say what?
This is a sex-education game. Specifically, it's a sex-education shooter, starring a squad of condom-hatted soldiers running around zoomed-in naughty bits and taking out STDs with… well, assorted weaponry, let's put it that way. Probably at least one BFG.
As silly as the idea sounds, it's actually pretty smart – players are more likely to memorise the attacks and weapon combinations in something like that than if it's presented in a quiz form or pop-up bubbles during a generic platform game. Worse-case scenario, it should at least be funny. Either way, it's also going to be free, coming out on PC in the UK a bit later on this year.
This approach has been tried before, without the comedy, in an obscure game called Wrecked – an anti-drugs platformer from the early 90s. It turned the drugs into power-ups, and if you're wondering how well that worked, you may well be stunned into a quivering pile of jelly to discover that it Did Not Work Very Well At All. It's unlikely that the world will have a sudden realisation that games are infusing every part of our entertainment, but it doesn't have to.
The point isn't that people should game for the sake of it, but that games open up whole new avenues in storytelling, in enjoyable experiences, and in ways to connect with our favourite subjects, characters and storyline. The more people who get to share that, the better.
First published in PC Plus Issue 299
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