How to make an impact — the right way
Video games are often blamed for leading to violent tendencies in adolescents, but a new wave of developers are aiming to put an end to that negative stereotype.
Referred to as impact games, they are designed with more than just play in mind and have been finding their foothold in society in recent years.
The Games for Change nonprofit organization was founded in 2004 to empower game creators and social innovators to “drive real-world impact through games and immersive media,” and hosts the largest gathering for impact game developers around the world every year dubbed the G4C (Games 4 Change) Festival.
Impact games are being recognized outside of the gaming industry too.
After its establishment in 2004, the British Academy Games Awards honored its first impact game, “That Dragon, Cancer” (2016), with the Game Innovation award in 2017 and subsequently added the Game Beyond Entertainment category in 2018, awarding games that strive for social impact.
“That Dragon, Cancer” is a video game that follows the story of a child named Joel Green as he fights off cancer. The game was developed by Ryan and Amy Green, Joel’s parents, who wished to cherish their memories with their son while also raising awareness about what cancer patients and their families go through.
“That Dragon, Cancer” also received the Games for Impact award at The Game Awards and Best Gameplay and Most Innovative awards at the Games for Change Awards both in 2016.
While impact games remain unfamiliar to the Korean public, local developers have been catching on to the trend.
GamBridzy released 2D-animated game “After Days EP:1” in April 2017, shedding light on the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Nepal in 2015, which killed nearly 9,000 people and injured some 22,000 others.
The main character Asha ventures around her village and other places to help save people whose lives have been destroyed by the earthquake. Three million won ($2,700) of the profit generated from the game also went to help a coffee farm in Nepal that had been affected by the earthquake.
On Nov. 30, GamBridzy will launch a PC game called "The Wednesday" on the subject of the tens of thousands of young women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II, euphemistically referred to as comfort women.
Another highly-anticipated impact game is “Unfolded: Camellia Tales” by duo COSDOTS, which comes as a sequel to the mobile game series “Unfolded: Old Wounds” (2018) and “Unfolded: Massacre” (2019), set for release next year.
The game is set around the time of the Jeju Massacre on April 3, 1948, a government-civilian conflict that lasted from 1948-54 and is said to have resulted in the deaths of between 25,000 and 30,000 civilians, or about 10 percent of the island’s population at the time. The release date is set at March 15, 2021 on Steam.
While the premise of both “The Wednesday” and “Unfolded: Camellia Tales” are based on completely different historical events, both deal with issues that are still being studied and discussed today.
The developers of the games said they were careful to stick with official records and testimonies because impact games are not for educational purposes, but rather to raise awareness about the events.
The Korea JoongAng Daily met with CEO Do Min-seok of GamBridzy and Creative Director Kim Hae-min and Art Director Jeong Jae-ryeong of COSDOTS to learn about their impact games.
Having studied at the Graduate School of Culture Technology at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Do learned that games had so much more potential than they had been credited with. It’s true that games are frequently blamed as inciting violent and selfish behavior among users, but that’s far from what games are actually about, said the CEO.
“Games have the innate characteristic of immersing people into them and giving players a sense of achievement when they reach the ending,” said Do. “Games are about entertaining people and so much can be done by using that fun experience to send a positive and social message to the players — and very effectively, too. I thought that if more gamers started changing, then that would amount to a change in society.”
Do founded his company by himself in 2016, then released his first mobile game “After Days EP:1.” Four years have passed, and now GamBridzy is funded by the Korea Creative Content Agency with 16 employees, pioneering the field of impact games in Korea.
The title of the upcoming game, “The Wednesday,” was taken from the day when Kim Hak-soon stepped forward to make a public testimony as a victim of the Japanese military sexual slavery on Aug. 14, 1991, marking the first time for a victim to do so. Kim died in 1997 at the age of 73, but weekly rallies have been held every Wednesday since to commemorate her and the many other victims which the Japanese government fails to recognize.
“People know the comfort woman issue in Korea, but people outside of Korea — especially the younger generation — aren’t really aware of this tragic history,” said Do. “I thought that games would be the best medium to spread the issue to the younger generation outside of Korea. I had made a lot of games that were either educational or experimental since my first game on the Nepal earthquake, then I heard about the death of Kim Bok-dong, another victim.”
Do was aware of the issue but had felt that it wasn’t a responsibility for him to raise awareness about — until he found out that only 17 victims were left in 2018. Even the survivors had grown too old to protest themselves and the issue was getting pushed aside by “more urgent matters” in society. That’s when he thought he should step in.
“We were already dealing with social issues as a company and I thought if we could make a game out of it, then it could be an opportunity for us to spread the issue around the globe more effectively,” he said.
“It was a very deep and heavy matter for us to deal with, so we deliberated about how we could unravel it as a game. Then we decided that the charm of playing a game lay in how we as users become the main character of a story and solve the problems that are being laid out in front of us. I get to be in the story. We thought the main character should be a survivor, who gets to do what she didn’t get to do all those years ago.”
“The Wednesday” revolves around Suni, a survivor of a camp in a fictional island called Satkin, who travels back in time from 1992 to 1945 to save others victims that she couldn’t in the past. Users must gather clues from information and memories that are scattered across time. Satkin Island was inspired by a real comfort women camp in Ambarawa, Indonesia and Suni and her friends were created based on the testimonies of survivors. Books, news articles, testimonies, documentaries and all pieces of data that could be gathered were also used.
Having chosen such a serious topic, Do questioned whether he would be able to pull it off, especially taking into consideration how games are often negatively stereotyped in Korea. But he believes that games are going down the same path that plays and films have traveled — once undermined as cheap and useless, but now appreciated as one of the most popular and artistic forms of culture.
“If after playing the game, people think about what Suni went through and why survivors are still holding rallies every Wednesday for almost 30 years, then the goal would be achieved,” said Do. “People will realize that this is still an ongoing matter and take the time to look into more. That's the mission accomplished for the game — and our hopes, of course.
“There are many creators out there who are trying to deliver diverse messages and ideas through games, not just us. I believe that it’s the efforts of these creative minds that lead the game culture and industry. I hope people pay more attention to those projects, because that’s what will keep it all going.”
The topic of the “Unfolded” series is much more controversial in Korea. While the Jeju Massacre is referred to as the “April 3 Uprising” in Jeju, it’s referred to as the “April 3 Incident” elsewhere across the nation, and is at the center of a historical debate between the conservative and progressive political parties in the nation.
In the decades after 1954, the victims and their families have claimed that authoritarian governments distorted or covered up the truth behind the incident and silenced victims for the sake of public order and peace. Some conservatives defended the government’s bloody crackdown on islanders as part of a campaign to “exterminate communist sympathizers.” Despite a 2003 government report which included details on how many were killed, it still remains a controversial topic in Korea — which is why directors Kim and Jeong made sure to stick only to the facts laid out in the 2003 government guide, which they confirmed with related organizations.
“The report and the contents of the report have been approved by both parties of the government and the law, which is the most credible and also the most detailed account of the massacre and the aftermath,” said Kim. “We focused on the ordinary people — the people who were sacrificed. Because of the geographical uniqueness of an island, both perpetrators and victims had to live amongst each other and could not be told apart from each other. And it was only recently that the residents came together on a consensus to call it an ‘uprising.’”
“Unfolded: Massacre” begins with Dongju, a young elementary school student, running his mother’s errands and accomplishing missions along the way. The small details that he sees on the streets — like anti-Communist posters and scenery of Jeju — are recorded in the form of sketched drawings and poems. The character was inspired by Korea’s renowned modern poet Yoon Dong-ju (1917-1945) and the name of the character in the English version, Herman, is also based on a literary icon of the 20th century: German-born Swiss poet Herman Hesse (1877-1962).
“Dongju leaves his poems and sketches in his notebook through the game,” said Kim. “Later, these notes become the means to connect the past and the present in the 1990s society where the Jeju Massacre starts to get discussed again in Korea. We wanted to recreate the scene from the eyes of a young boy, so we created a young elementary school student character along with his friends, who are all different in their own rights.”
Kim and Jeong founded COSDOTS in 2017, but it wasn’t for the sake of the business that they came together. The arts major girl and engineer boy were in love and were eager to bring light to the lives of people that fade with time. Their first project was inspired a temporary worker who died fixing a platform door at Guui Station, eastern Seoul, in 2016. Shortly after, they learned about the Jeju Massacre when President Moon Jae-in gave a speech for the 70th commemoration of the event. They ran straight to the bookstore to buy a best-selling novel on the issue, “Sun-i Samchon” (1978) by Hyun Ki-young, and from there, started working on the game.
Just as they learned about the event through a chance encounter, the pair hope to offer an unexpected opportunity for enlightenment for players all over the world.
“Our goal for the game is that it gets played by international players,” said Jeong. “It will be available on Steam in numerous languages including Korean, historical Korean, English, Chinese, Russian and German. Historical Korean is the Korean language used by people in the 1940s and '50s. And we wanted to get across the natural scenery and details of foliage in the game as much as possible, so that people who play the game get to know more about Jeju — not just the Jeju Massacre.”
“It’s important that we right the wrong, but that’s not a game developer’s job,” said Kim. “If we realize that had we all just kept silent, then no one would know about the Jeju Massacre. Our job is to make sure that as many people become aware of the incident as possible — but it stops there. We didn’t portray any of our individual perspectives or opinions. Whatever thoughts players have afterwards, it’s their thoughts to have.”
Potential ideas for their next projects are also unique and social. If it’s about history, it will be about gyeongyeon, the daily morning study time of kings in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). If it’s something more modern, it will be about whale hunting, seen from the eyes of a whale. Whatever they choose, it will be about giving things that go unnoticed by society their own spotlight and a chance for people to experience their point of view.
“Our motto is ‘to make games that reflect diverse values,’” said Kim. “In a healthy democratic society, everyone should be able to voice their own opinions, while respecting other people’s rights. If some people find our games disturbing, then they’re free to not play the games. No one’s forcing anyone. It’s for everyone to decide for themselves.”
Jeong added, “We’re still young and young people are full of rage. We can’t pass injustice and we want to express that rage through games.”
YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]