My childhood, looking back, sometimes felt like a really, bad video game. To survive, I remember conjuring rules I thought could keep me from as much harm as possible:
Rule 1: If you say something embarrassing in world history class on Tuesday, Chris will tell his friends about it later that day, and laugh at you about it all week. If you say it on a Friday, you’ll only be laughed at for one day, then everyone will forget over the weekend.
Rule 2: Chris and his friends laugh about you less when you act less like yourself and more like them.
Rule 3: Telling a teacher about Chris will keep him off your back for a few days. But the more you bring the teacher in, the more likely Chris will learn to torment and harass you when they’re not around.
As I grew up, society patched in some changes, like an online video game getting updated with new content. Chris and his friends added new tricks to their arsenal, learning that the word “gay” meant something akin to “bad,” and turning even the seats on the bus into a fortress of isolation.
But it’s actually very strange that I think of my experiences with bullying as a video game, because none of the games that actually portray bullying really look like the life I lived. And that’s because they get it all wrong.
And in a country where 91 percent of children play video games, that’s a giant discrepancy that needs to be addressed.
MONSTERS IN THE ROOM
When bullying is portrayed in games, it’s represented in a repetitive fashion. For child-aged heroes, schoolyard bullies show up as a physical threat to be eliminated. Fallout 3 pits you against your tormentor Butch as a test of its dialogue and combat mechanics (unless you hack in a rocket launcher, like the player in the video above), while Fable uses this as part of its tutorial sequence to introduce its morality system. In video games, this is the limit of bullying: dumb brutes set up as entry-level challenges who don’t matter in the big scheme of things.
But that’s not reality; reality is far more complex than any of us are ever told. And that’s not the full breadth of power games have to introduce and portray social systems like childhood bullying.
Writer Hogan Sharrow at Scientific American defines bullying as “behavior that is intended to harm or disturb, occurs repeatedly over time, and exists in an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one.” Harrow’s argument points to the roots of animal social behavior as a biological root for a schoolyard problem, but also explains this problem is not common in all countries in the western hemisphere. Girls in Sweden, for instance, were found to experience the lowest amount of bullying on average in surveyed countries.
This inconsistency, Sharrow argues, shows that childhood bullying in modern society is both borne of those biological roots, but also of societies where violence is celebrated but other normal social behaviors are punished, creating a toxic brew ripe for homophobia, sexism and more harmful attitudes among children.
Sharrow’s arguments against the celebration of violence in preventing bullying immediately throws the way most games have programmed their players to deal with bullying askance. However we argue about the bigger presence of violence in games, teaching players to resolve these specific real-world situations with violence poorly equips them to handle these situations when encountering them in the real world.
If you dive too deep into this situation, reality also gets a little depressing. The repeated story of the champion fighting monsters that go bump in the night—so prevalent in video games—only repeats the cycle. Scholars, educators, and advocates fight about the best ways to reduce bullying in school environments, but with little statistical data showing widely applicable methods, progress is incredibly slow. We’re left with a population bitterly unable to comprehend how to make it through these trials, stuck with long-term mental health problems, and unable to imagine a world where this doesn’t exist.
So how can games work to change the tide of a problem this big and complicated?
’DIFFERENT, BUT IN A GOOD WAY’
Nicole and Jason Stark of Disparity Games in Australia have begun to tackle that challenge. Their upcoming game, Ninja Pizza Girl, has a story drawn from their daughter Raven’s experiences at school. While joking that part of the decision to include Raven’s experiences was a result of their own lack of creativity, they got serious when explaining that the more they dug into it, the more they realized this was a portrayal that they couldn’t find in any other video games.
“The game is dramatically different from what we conceived it to be,” Jason told me. “It started off being a by-the-numbers side-scrolling platform game and it ended up having this whole different emotional base and therefore gameplay mechanics to suit. We really want people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be core gamers to be able to play it.”
Despite the game playing like something that could run on an old Nintendo, they wanted the player to experience a modicum of the cycle of abuse that victims of bullying face, not just be told about it through dialogue or cutscenes. Nicole and Jason explained that their own research first told them they needed to envision a world where preventing bullying wasn’t the responsibility of a targeted victim or an ignorant bully, so they needed players to want to envision ways to escape the scenarios trapping them in.
Their own research put an emphasis on the need for bystanders to intervene, so Gemma, the game’s heroine, is mainly trying to get her own pizzas delivered on time and reach her support group while dodging bullies who will physically slow her down and mock her if she falls from great heights.
From there, the Starks needed small interactions to enable and disincentivize players from participating in the traditional manner of assaulting bullies to achieve victory. The result, the Starks explain, was a micro lesson built into encounters with every rival bully standing in your path. “The thing that’s built into the system is that attacking the bad guys slows you down,” Jason said. “You can do it, and we’ve had people who get really hooked into the revenge cycle in playtesting. They’ll be shoved over, the other ones will point and laugh, and they’ll get up again and they’ll just stand there, knocking the bullies down over and over again.
“We’ve had people go ‘how do I kill them?’ and I go ‘you can’t kill them,’ and I point to the timer, and they see the timer’s still just running down.”
Nicole chimed in here with a story about an encounter she had with American players at the gaming convention PAX East in Boston. “It’s kind of beautiful watching people realize that,” she said. “Particularly kids that were bullied, they’re the ones that are the most upset. At PAX East, I handed the controller over and let a group of boys play it instead of doing my explanation of the game, and the first guy played the first level without any enemies, and then he gave the controller to his friend, who has to deal with the bully enemies. So he’s playing alone, and he’s not having as good a time as the first guy did, and the first guy was giving him a hard time about it, and he goes ‘but dude, these guys are bullying me!’”
Since their daughter Raven has Asperger syndrome, their prime focus has been around bullying based on inferior social skills, though they are aware that their science fiction setting removes them from the realities of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that can also drive bullying in real life.
But those are equally worthy of being tackled in game design, even if it’s in small games like Ninja Pizza Girl. Allowing players to step into the shoes of someone dealing with a realistic bullying situation, using the tools and navigational skills taught to them by other games, has the power to rewrite the cultural narrative of bullying.
Where Ninja Pizza Girl seeks solutions and tries to guide the player out of these abusive scenarios, my own history and the stories fed to me told the opposite story. All those rules I made for myself did nothing to save me from the world I was in, and don’t matter for other kids caught in the same traps today. Ninja Pizza Girl rewards players for letting the character be themselves and sets up specific social rules to replicate and provide an escape to the bullying trap. Its designers want players to know there is a solution, but that solution is not to try and mimic the bully’s behavior.
The game’s logic isn’t so different from how players guide characters like Mario and the Master Chief to victory, but more is always possible. What are the ways that real-world problems affecting kids who play games can be retold, reimagined, and posited with solutions in the space of game design? We need those answers. Not just for the children living these situations now, but also for the adults who have the power to intervene and change the fate of both bullies and their victims.
Bryant Francis is a gaming writer and columnist seen at Gamasutra, Geek and Sundry, and Unwinnable Weekly. You can hit him up on Twitter @RBryant2012 if you want to chat about games, movies, or other ludicrous nonsense that makes too much sense.
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