Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Using frustration to teach

I complain about stories in games a lot, and usually on some minor point, but finding myself somewhat (hopefully) momentarily crippled, I’m finding the amount of effort required to undertake any task has become exponential.  Even lecturing while sitting down is exhausting.  I go to get a drink, and I want to take a nap.  Luckily, yesterday, I was able to.  For people with chronic pain, it’s not nearly so simple.

I know several people who have chronic pain, for several reasons – slipped discs, pinched nerves, unknown causes – and I don’t pretend to understand what it must be like for them to continue through everyday life.  But if the amount of consistent pain I’m in right now is any indication of what they go through in their day-to-day existence, I can understand why they might be a little bit grumpy. 

I don’t know of any characters in movies who have this as a motivation.  I suppose it’s a little difficult to show.  The closest I remember is Sophie, in Howl’s Moving Castle, when she is suddenly made old, and she starts complaining about getting tired, or cold, or how her teeth don’t work anymore.  That’s effective in showing what it’s like to get old, but even she gets better throughout the movie, until her age is no longer an issue and, in fact, is reversed to normal.  How frustrating must it be for those people for whom the pain never gets better?  How could we bring this across in games?  Should we?

This does come across a little in The Passage, where the main character becomes progressively slower and more hunched as time goes by.  Even this, though, is a lot about age.  The question might be whether or not this topic is something we can bring across to the audience at all.  What would be the benefit?  Well, for training for those in palliative care, it could be useful to understand the challenges their patients face.  It could also be of use to the family of those with chronic pain, to understand why Daddy can’t pick you up today, or why Alice keeps asking you to get her glasses from upstairs, rather than just getting them herself.

How would this translate to a game mechanic?  Would it be a character who simply moves more slowly than the player can control?  Some of the sections in Heavy Rain require slow movements, such as picking up a bottle and sneaking up on the man robbing the convenience store.  Could this be used to represent someone who has a problem knee, or someone who can’t lift their arm above their shoulder without excruciating pain?  There could be a moral choice, dictated by the amount of pain on the character’s face as you make them perform a specific action.  And if you make them perform a certain action that pushes them past their limits, perhaps they won’t be able to do something later.  Maybe Daddy can’t pick you up because he had to do the grocery shopping and lifted something a little too heavy.  Maybe Alice walked home from the train station because she didn’t want to bother her husband for a lift, and so has stiff knees and can’t go up and down stairs.  Without knowing what’s coming, how do you plan ahead to make sure you don’t overdo it?

And, if this ‘game’ were suitably frustrating, would anyone really play it?  Apart from those who are interested in finding out what their loved ones go through, I don’t imagine it being Game of the Day on Kongregate.  That being the case, perhaps it might be better to have a game where the player’s choices – job, posture, footwear, exercise and food decisions – lead to the player’s eventual physical state.  This, too, is a different angle, and somewhat implies chronic pain is the sufferer’s fault.  There must be a way to make a game based on this feeling, and make it educational, but my lack of experience with serious games leaves me at a loss.

The painkillers I’m on probably aren’t helping, either.  If it’s a choice between being fuzzy-headed from painkillers or fuzzy-headed from pain, I’m not sure that’s a choice the player could be made aware of.  Perhaps a screen effect, where the player can do more if on painkillers, but response time is affected and the screen has a Days of Our Lives glow to it, or running without painkillers and being able to do less before needing to take a break.  There are many dimensions to this problem, none of which I feel particularly qualified to discuss. 

So, in essence, my brief stint yesterday and today as a slow-moving member of society has built a sense of empathy I wasn’t aware of before, but feel at a loss to replicate, apart from going around breaking kneecaps.  Although, given my state of painkiller-induced confusion, that might become a game in itself.

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