Dartmouth Professor Creates Recession-Inspired Video Game

Some academics may deride video games as mindless escapism, but Mary Flanagan and her collaborators are trying to push the medium into service as a tool to educate gamers on pressing social issues.

Ms. Flanagan—who is a digital humanities professor at Dartmouth College—and her colleagues with the Values at Play research project design video games that seek to engage players with the real world, rather than distract them from it. Funded in part by the National Science Foundation and Microsoft, the project aspires to “harness the power of video games in the service of humanistic principles, or human values, knowing that their work can have a tremendous and wide-ranging impact on our world,” according to its Web site.

Ms. Flanagan’s latest creation, called Layoff, is a puzzle-style game (similar to Solitaire or MineSweeper) aimed at exposing the outrages of the financial crisis and subsequent bailout. The gamer is presented with an 11-by-8-inch grid populated by tiny workers—some wearing hard hats, some wearing glasses, some reading books, and some holding spare tires. The objective is to shuffle these characters into groups of three of a kind, at which point they can be banished to mill aimlessly about the unemployment line (a pen that resembles a prison yard below the grid).

Players who want to learn more about the workers they’re firing can hover their cursors over a character and get a brief character sketch. In addition to names, ages, and job titles, those descriptions include humanizing facts about the workers—their dreams, their fears, their custody arrangements, and more. Of course, this pathos is merely incidental; players are to fire as many workers as possible.

Ms. Flanagan told The Chronicle that one of her objectives with the game is to remind people of the human cost of the financial crisis—something that tends to be obscured by the scope of the figures released each month by the U.S. Department of Labor. She also said the game provides non-executives the chance to sample the burden of the bosses doing the layoffs.

The fired workers are replaced by new ones, including suit-wearing bankers and financiers, who cannot be laid off. (When a player hovers over those characters, they spout self-justifying platitudes or blithe appraisals of their company’s outlook.) As those well-heeled Masters of the Universe take over more and more spots on the grid, the gamer’s task becomes more challenging. All the while, unflattering facts about how certain companies have behaved after receiving emergency subsidies scroll in a large font on a ticker beneath the game board.

Although she admits that her game vilifies bankers and financiers, Ms. Flanagan insisted that her only agenda was to raise consciousness and encourage people to “take a stand.” It’s up to them to decide what that stand entails, she said.

Ms. Flanagan is just one of the professors who are building video games about social issues. –Steve Kolowich

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