A couple of weeks back, I made a game, indelible, centered around the experience of periods. Specifically, you are a girl who has the misfortune of having your period come early, staining yourself as a result. Now you have to make your way to the toilet without getting your stain seen, pop that tampon in, and wash that damn stain.
When I googled to see if there were similar games, the only result that came out was a game purportedly about de-stigmatizing menstruation by having you shoot tampons as bullets.
Since then, I’ve had quite a few people play my game, and observed their reactions. What surprised me was the sheer variety of reactions I’ve seen. On one end, there was fear, discomfort, and extreme embarrassment – my teammate, for example, felt so afraid of pushing that tampon into someone that he refused to touch the computer for at least five minutes while we were falling over ourselves laughing, and a faculty member literally jumped away to the next computer when he saw the tampon scene. On the other, there was relief, delight, even comedy – “Now you know what we go through!” some female spectators gleefully exclaim when watching their male friends attempt it. Male players have completed the game with a happy dazed look, as if glad to have an insight into the female experience. Both male and female players have excitedly grabbed their friends to make them try my game. In common was a certain amazement that this game was made, which frankly I marvelled at.
Today, we had a visitor from Disney who played my game, and asked me the question in my title. “I come from a business standpoint,” he said. “Why would anyone want to pay for a game that makes them uncomfortable?”
Some context – I am doing a project, Emotionshop, where each of us makes a game every week centered around a common emotion. The aim is to explore what game mechanics are more effective in evoking what emotions. It’s a research project, and it’s an experimental one. The sheer volume of our games is so that we can test a wide variety of techniques out in the shortest possible time, and see what works and what doesn’t.
Is there value in, at least currently, non-commercially viable products? From a business standpoint, no. “We want to find the lowest common denominator,” he explained. “We want to hit the widest audience possible.”
I guess from the time I chose English Literature in my secondary school education I was already marked out, doomed even, to hold on to an artist’s belief that there is value in art, regardless of its commercial viability. I go for story rather than special effects. I go for originality rather than templates. Which is why I get so mad at watching yet another Hollywood movie with the same old fucking template – Big Hero 6, Avengers: Age of Ultron, you name it. I had a free ticket for Marvel Universe Live, and I fell asleep there – it was that boring. I don’t fall for people trying to use flame and fire to hide a lack of actual story. I will only be impressed by a sincere exploration of character, emotion, human nature – all the things that make us us.
“Why would anyone want to play a game that makes them uncomfortable?” Because they are seeking new experiences. Because what makes them uncomfortable is a natural part of life, and people are inquisitive. Because experiencing discomfort is a way to grow and understand more perspectives.
On commercial viability – I think there is space for non blockbuster offerings. They might not reap the billions of Disney, but there are niche audiences for them nevertheless. I am part of that audience.