July 1st, 2008

[Doh. I wrote this piece, squarely filed under the “better late than never” tag, for the main Voice site back in February–when Persuasive Games’ nutrition-based title was new/news. Four months later it’s… Well, it’s got some Bogost widsom, plus I’m no longer under the slim and watchful eye of the French, so turn back your inner calendar and read away.]

Fatworld may be a video game, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. Fun, says Ian Bogost, designer of the new independent game that teaches players about obesity in America, is way overrated.

A professor at Georgia Tech and the founder of video game studio Persuasive Games, Bogost specializes in titles that “make an argument” through play. In Fatworld, he says, that argument is about “the politics of nutrition,” and the “strong relationship between nutrition, obesity, and socioeconomics, which has been largely suppressed in media coverage of obesity.” Instead of feeding players health facts though, the game educates by letting them uncover the complexities of the issue for themselves.

Players create and control characters in simulated towns full of fast food restaurants and exercise courses–where they have to balance their diets with their budgets. “Games communicate differently than other media,” Bogost says, explaining the effectiveness of this kind of approach on his studio’s website. “They not only deliver messages, but also simulate experiences.”

But who wants to experience being obese, or working at McDonald’s—two things Fatworld lets players try out for themselves? To anyone who thinks video games should stick to distractions and not hard doses of reality, Bogost says it’s time to get over the myth of fun. “While often thought to be just a leisure activity, games can also become rhetorical tools,” he writes. So what if they aren’t entertaining? “Why do people view documentary films, or read nonfiction books, or watch the History Channel?” he asks: not because it’s fun. “Fatworld is an example of a game in this tradition.”…

The thing is though, Fatworld actually is fun. It comes with a weighty goal—“ to demonstrate the complex, interwoven relationships between nutrition and factors like budgets, the physical world, subsidies, and regulations”—but the final products plays like lots of other “fun” simulation game. True, instead of picking a character’s emotional or clothing like in The Sims, Fatworld players get to choose qualities like “overweight or obese,” “poor or middle-class,” or “prone to heart conditions or diabetes.” From there they can decide what to eat, how to burn calories, and even what to serve in their own restaurant. Eat broccoli and live to be eighty; eat fries and die a young couch potato….

Fatworld isn’t the first Persuasive Games title to challenge the fun factor. Past games from the same studio have included Points of Entry: An Immigration Challenge, in which players “compete to award Green Cards under the Merit-Based Evaluation System included in the legislation recently debated in Congress,” and Oils Gods, which encourages, “Wreak havoc on the world’s oil supplies by unleashing war and disaster. Bend governments and economies to your will to alter trade practices. Your goal? Double consumer gasoline prices in five years using whatever means necessary.” Ironically, many of these “no fun” games make their arguments by using snide, satirical humor…

Of course, the story Bogost is trying to tell isn’t a fun one. “I’d like people to recognize that obesity and nutrition are much more complex issues than media coverage of all kinds lets on,” he says. “When we stop talking about obesity in sound bites and start allowing the complexity of the situation to come through — economics, accessibility, trends, franchise restaurants, food subsidies, health care access — quick, easy answers become impossible.”

[P.S. On a totally un-p.c. note, I love that the sample Fatworld lady shown above is named “Gordita.” It makes me feel like she should be some sort of delicious, bean-filled burrito. Yummy.]

Tags: better late than never, independent games, reviews

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