When Tomas Rawlings took part in his first game jam in October last year, he found it a revelation. It reinvigorated his love for making games, and showed him – a veteran of traditional game development at Fluffylogic, Hothouse Creations and Pivotal Games – how it’s possible to build games not only very quickly, but also with quality production and original ideas.
It was the germ of Game The News, an ambitious project for his seven-person studio, Bristol-based Auroch Digital, to spend a year building tens, if not hundreds, of games that react to current affairs. By in its third month, Game The News has been hosted on Huffington Post and Wired UK’s websites, taking on varied stories and expressing them as light, but surprisingly polished, games. This week it’s made headlines for a markedly different reasons, with Endgame: Syria, a game about the Syrian civil war, pulled from the App Store after falling foul of Apple’s restrictions on apps that “solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation or any other real entity”.
The first game the initiative produced, Moral Kombat, was based on the US election, in which you race the computer to type out quotes from the presidential candidates. After that came Coconut Sunshine, a strategy game that depicts the South Pacific nation of Tokelau’s attempt to become the first to completely support itself with solar energy, balancing the need to serve its power requirements while selling energy to pay off its debts. it’s far breezier than it is deep but, underpinned by real-world economics, it tells a real story.
The aspiration is to release a game a day. Many are five-minute distractions, but not all. Auroch’s strategy game based on the civil war in Syria is an attempt to respond to weighty events. “The warning
bell in your head says this isn’t trivial – people are dying,” says Rawlings. “Is it a step too far to make a game about it? Games cover current events normally in long retrospect. But as somebody for whom games are a natural language to explore something, I think they have something to offer complicated situations where outcomes are uncertain.” Playing as the rebels, players expend resources on political and military matters. Without outside pressure to end the war, the game’s systems mean it may run
indefinitely, causing more deaths.
Rawlings is (rightly, with the benefit of hindsight) nervous about how the Syria game might be perceived. “It can’t be tasteless,” he said, acknowledging that strategy games’ sober presentation tends to insulate them against accusations of crassness. The fact it’s also presented on Auroch’s Game The News website with extensive links to source material gives it more weight, too. “I hope the player comes out from it more informed,” he says. But he’s uncomfortable with the idea that the project might be conflated with ‘serious games’, a term he feels implies that there aren’t ways of interpreting situations other than by being serious. Game The News’ philosophy (written on the studio’s wall) is: “Short, playable experiences that make players laugh, smile or think.” And its inspirations are as much The Onion as Al Jazeera. Rawlings’ aim is engagement rather than information delivery. “It’s about speaking the same language. I’m used to thinking, in so many other areas of my life, about the real world. Games are going to have a lot to offer.”
The project’s also a testbed for interesting designs – the drag-and-drop element in Freedom Of Information: The Game, an otherwise slightly scrappy title about the process of getting freedom of
information requests approved has informed a poker-based side project. As it happens, Rawlings is also working on a doctorate on the relationship between biological evolution and game design, which has led to the idea that making more games means more chances for ideas to mutate, and therefore greater chance of the good ones sticking.
Auroch primarily builds its games in GameMaker and exports them in HTML5, which can play on smartphone, tablet browsers and PCs. since HTML5 isn’t only cross-platform but also embeddable,
the games can be found anywhere. The scale of the project, which is funded for its first few months, but has to be self-sustaining afterwards, brings many challenges. One is the fact that the headlong rush to maintain the pace of releasing games means it will be hard to publicise them. Rawlings feels that the
important thing is to focus on marketing Game The News rather than the individual games, which
are aided by a retro-pixel-arcade visual style that balances quality, distinctiveness and speed of production. But when Auroch releases longer-form projects, like the syria game, it will need extra support,
most likely advertising income.
Whether Auroch can successfully navigate a transition between game development and journalism while
maintaining a year-long game jam will be fascinating to watch, as will seeing whether there’s an appetite to play the news. Rawlings hopes so, even if just to disprove a cliché. “There’s a stereotype that gamers are disconnected from the world, but it’s not the case. We want to marry technology with world events.”