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Shark Cull 2014 – On Making Games with Social Commentary

I finally finished Shark Cull 2014, a free browser game you can play right here. 

This game is pretty short and dumb, but I had a lot of fun making it. I started it during the Ludum Dare 29 compo, just solo, and got the gameplay pretty much done. Since then I've just polished it up a bit, adding music, sounds, a new upgrade, last boss, harder enemies and optimising the code a lot...

Okay, so I guess I polished it up a LOT in retrospect. But I’m pretty happy with where it’s at now, and can look back on what went into it, what worked, and what failed abysmally.

INSPIRATION

The inspiration for this one was a chain reaction to hearing the theme, Beneath the Surface. It got me thinking about sharks, which got me thinking of a recent policy in Western Australia to cull sharks, in a bid to defend their citizens against one of the unlikeliest ways to die on record. It made me pretty angry, and I decided to make a game about it.

I'd be lying if I said that’s all there was to it though. I’m about to begin dev on a 2D shooter and wanted to basically prototype some shooting mechanics with this game, try get the look and feel right. It was also an experiment in “juicing” a game – I figured with a small enough scope I could get a lot of satisfying feedback to everything the player does.

THE MESSAGE

The overall message wasn't something I thought about very much as I was making the game, honestly. I was angry about the cull and it just came out in this kind of tongue-in-cheek, hyperbolic patriotism about killing these sharks for the safety of the public. I was worried the undercurrent of sarcasm would be missed, but from the comments I received on the LD29 page I think it hit the mark. Some people were commending it for being a fun way to spread awareness for a serious issue, which was nice to read. 

So it worked, sort of.

Except for when it didn't, and the takeaway from the game was "killing sharks is so much fun!" When a few people played the game and told me that, I knew I'd messed up. My goal of making fun shooting mechanics I could use elsewhere and my goal of providing social commentary butted heads in the final product, and the message suffered as a result. I wish I'd done a clever survival simulator or something, something that showcased all the ways you’re more likely to die than in a shark attack -- champagne cork, icicles, even cows for instance -- but I didn't. I made a game where the very thing I'm protesting against is fun to do, and I guess that was pretty dumb in hindsight.

Fortunately, my game has next to no public sway, so it's not like it'll spawn a whole new generation of shark slaughterers or anything (fingers crossed anyway).

SO YOU'VE MADE YOUR POINT... NOW WHAT?

All well and good to make people aware of the issue, but what was I going to do with that awareness? I didn't think about that either. Making a game in a weekend is a frantic affair, you tend to gloss over the finer points. Only, getting people to impact the situation in a positive way is kind of the whole point of making a game like this, right? Eventually it occurred to me to link to a petition on the page, which was a great idea, except for the fact that all the petitions online had been delivered over 3 months ago. Not so great. 

Instead I linked to a form that would send off an email to an MP if you put your credentials into it, which is something, but that particular MP has already ignored 100,000 voices telling him this policy is ass-backwards. What are a few stray emails 3 months after they've initiated the policy going to bother them? So that was a bit of a bummer too.

LESSONS

This game could have done a much better job of what it was intended to do, that's for sure. But let's not get too down on ourselves, there are still lessons to be learnt here! It was a crash course in the making of a game with social commentary, from which I have produced the following questionnaire for anyone out there thinking of writing one themselves:

  • What is the central message you're trying to communicate?
  • How are you communicating this message – and if your chosen medium is a game, how is the gameplay itself communicating this message? What actions are the player performing that would be pro-your cause, what do you want them to experience?
  • You've captivated people’s attention with your game, what next? Is it enough that you've raised awareness, or can you give them the option to sign something/donate?

I could go on, you should also consider ethics, how you’re going to raise awareness for your game raising awareness for your issue and so on, but those are entirely different articles I'm not qualified to write.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Games as a medium have an incredible potential to make people care about things they normally wouldn't. Instead of just informing them that a cause exists and that conditions are bad, you can make them live hard choices and build empathy as well as sympathy by making the player live it. That’s an amazing tool and I think as people learn to harness it more and more, we will see social commentary games leading to genuine change.

So my advice is, if you want to change the world with your game, don’t follow in my footsteps. I did the most typical thing anyone working in this industry could possibly do – I took a real world issue, and made a fun game about shooting guns. Basically just don’t do that, and you should be fine.

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