Arguing that Rambo 4 ("despite its incredible violence") brought attention to turmoil and oppression in Myanmar, Jeffries advocates that videogames too should aspire to serve such an educational purpose: "At the very least we could teach people history by having them participate in wars and learn about atrocities that they otherwise would know little about."
The idea of "games with a purpose" is not a new one. But Jeffries' argument seems to imply a moral imperative that challenges conventional game studies wisdom: at least where journalism and other citizen-first pursuits are concerned, game mechanics might just not matter as much as the subject matter.
The argument certainly seems compelling. I myself have been a critic of superficial newsgames that simply "re-skin" existing games.
But I worry that the argument fall flat when faced with the practical demands of journalism.
As I wrote last week, the primary purpose of journalism is to provide the information that citizens require to be free; its first loyalty is to the citizens.
Keeping this purpose in mind, it would certainly seem strange to criticize a newspaper article - say, a breaking story about a gruesome terrorist attack in Baghdad - for failing to take advantage of the "unique qualities" of the written medium. The only thing the journalist cares about is whether the information was successfully conveyed.
Of course, good storytelling and awareness building are typically complementary rather than orthogonal. Our primary purpose might be to inform, but news reporting must be engaging enough for the target audience to care enough to pay attention.
On this point, Ian might argue that each medium offer its own set of design affordances. Reflecting on one advantage of procedural arguments over written arguments, Ian writes: "Whereas the verbal argument verges on moralistic, offering little meaningful insight into particular risks, the procedural argument allows the proclivities of an individual driver to resonate against the mechanical features that might offset those tendencies."
The problem is, videogame development is difficult and time-consuming. In terms of breaking a developing story, it might be more feasible to copy an existing design template; in terms of reaching a broader audience, it might be more strategic to use a proven formula or genre - in the case of Rambo 4, the violent action flick.
Think about it this way: awareness building is only one small part of the education process. It might make sense then that certain games or movies focus on motivating their audience to learn more (call this the "Spore argument").
As journalists and educators, we'd certainly prefer a thoughtful documentary over an action movie, but at some point we need to settle for what we can get. When awareness building takes precedence, our mission might not be to tell a good story, but rather any story - especially when the target audience (for example, teenagers) might not pay attention in other contexts.
Ian confronts this temptation in his book. Surveying a number of advergames, he keenly observes that one main draw of serious games is the buzz they create (e.g. "wow, someone made a videogame about this topic?"). He writes: "Understood this way, advergames themselves become a type of associative marketing strategy: an attempt to reach a niche market of "gamers," a meta-advertisement."
At least where advertising is concerned, Ian makes an ethical argument as to why a procedural kind of persuasion might be more socially productive. And I do acknowledge that we risk a slippery slope when we start ignoring how we covey our information.
Revisiting to Jeffries' piece, it might be a misreading to conclude that how we tell stories is wholly subservient to what we tell. A less radical way to read his argument is that games made for entertainment purposes only stand to gain by adopting real-world, politically meaningful settings: "Whether you acquiesce to the popular shooters of today or the RPG formulas of yesterday, the subject matter of these games is always open to change."
Nevertheless, thinking about how games can reach build awareness, we need to remember that the game itself is only a means to an end. The setting is paramount. As Jeffries writes: "No matter what [the players are] doing in the game, how you frame and discuss the events they interact with will still control their impressions."