Meaningful Play

Anti-Immersive Aesthetics in Serious Videogames

Judy Ehrentraut is a PhD student at the University of Waterloo who specializes in reading the transformations of the human body in the posthuman digital era. Her research interests include agency and identity in cyberspace, spatial theory, simulated reality, the digitized body, and cyborgism. You can read more of her work at here.

Educational and/or serious videogames have seldom been popular among mainstream game audiences, but that hasn’t stopped the recent onslaught of indie developers from trying to use their games to explore complex themes outside the realm of pure entertainment. Games that try to engage players in meaningful play are often criticized for not being enjoyable. Yet, is that because they aren’t well designed, or is it because audiences aren’t used to games that don’t try to heavily immerse them in computer graphics?

In “Videogames of the Oppressed,” game designer Gonzalo Frasca argues that videogames can effectively address “critical thinking, education, and tolerance.” To explore this idea, I’m going to be looking at his game September 12th: A Toy World (2003), created as a reaction to, and critique of U.S. policies involving the War on Terror. It is considered to be a “Newsgame” by many critics (including Frasca), which is typically defined as a game with journalistic intent that aims to subvert culture and to address real world issues (Bogost, Ferrari, Schweizer).  Like Frasca, I believe that serious games in general, and this game in particular, have the potential to encourage conflict resolution, empathy, and critical thinking.

September 12th

September 12th, named to invoke the World Trade Center attack on 9/11, was designed to convince players of a message through its rules and construction, and intended to give players a new perspective on its sociocultural themes. It communicates its message primarily through a simulation of a missile attack on an unnamed Afghan village. At first glance, it looks like many  “god’s eye view” first-person shooting games with cross hairs aiming missiles at enemy targets. The setting is a grid-like layout of identical buildings with intersecting dirt roads and civilians walking about, with the occasional terrorist that pops up amidst the crowd.

The object of the game is to fire a missile to hit those terrorists. As this happens in real time, the terrorists will continue to move or to run outside of the player’s targeted area, so that by the time the missile reaches the village, it will inevitably hit more civilians than terrorists. Once this happens, other villagers run over, cry at their losses and mourn their dead, and then, in a rage, morph into terrorists themselves. Following this, the player gets many chances to fire missiles—as many as it takes to effectively eviscerate the entire village—yet every missile launched will kill terrorists, kill civilians, and make more terrorists.

The implication here is that the actions of the player, as the missile launcher, cause people who start out as “neutral” to become violent. For every “terrorist” you kill, several more pop up in his place. This narrative is meant to model the paradox in the American-Middle Eastern conflict: the fact that inevitably, “collateral damage” will occur when standard combat models are used to fight terrorism. By “standard combat models” I’m referring to the mechanism seen in many first-person shooters, where the player’s goal is to kill as many enemies as possible regardless of the casualties. What is different about this game is its goal, which is not so straightforward. You do not “win” this game by eliminating all of the terrorists, as that destroys the village as well as the lives of the innocent bystanders. In fact, you do not “win” this game at all – its object is to show the player that killing terrorists simply creates more terrorists to kill.

Some critics, such as Greg Costikyan, have described September 12th as no more than an “interactive model” of a concept based on real life rather than a game, particularly criticizing the game’s over-simplification of the War on Terror.  This raises significant questions surrounding the nature of interaction, choice, and goals in play. Specifically, I am wondering what makes a model interactive, why that matters, and how that translates to a game’s playability and potential to do more than just entertain. Given that, I will be looking at how this game utilizes anti-immersive techniques of deterritorialization in order to submerge players into a different kind of simulated reality, one that invokes a degree of personal reflection not often seen in triple-A titles.

September 12th has also been criticized for not allowing its players enough freedom of choice and actions, which makes me question whether there are particular rules for how “interactive” something must be to qualify as a game. September 12th does not have a wide range of choices that the player must make as the game moves along, as there is really only one decision to make: to shoot, or not to shoot. As for actions, the player can move the crosshair over the village and aim wherever he or she pleases, choosing when exactly to fire (or not to fire). This is where the choices end, but rather than focusing on what the game does not offer in terms of complexity, we must first accept the rules of the reality that the game sets forth and play by those rules if we want to understand not only its message, but its overall function.

Critical Play

In Critical Play, Mary Flanagan points out that “in much of critical games scholarship, it has been argued that games are by their definition competitive in that they always have an end point – a winning or losing state” (7). Flanagan is not the only critic to assume this, for in 1994, Greg Costikyan defined a game as a “form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in pursuit of a goal” (qtd. in Flanagan, 6). Costikyan is one of many critics who believe that games depend on decision-making, and that if these decisions do not pose real, plausible alternatives, they are not real decisions. According to Salen and Zimmerman in Rules of Play, player agency, or the ability to make choices that mean something, is necessary if a game designer wishes to create situations for “meaningful play.” Similarly, Janet Murray defines agency as “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (126). Yet, if this is what makes “meaningful play” function, how does a game like September 12th fit in?

I propose that when dealing with serious games meant to educate and to enlighten, the binary requirement of a win/lose state is not entirely applicable, as these games have more to do with experiences, situations, lessons and procedures than they do with competition. If games need to have a conflict that drives the narrative and the gameplay, this game’s only real conflict is that which arises in the player herself (Flanagan). After witnessing the results of the first missile launch, the player can decide whether to continue shooting or leave the rest of the village intact. Nothing happens as a result of ceasing to fire, but that isn’t the point of the game, as there are no rewards.

In Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost points to the disclaimer in September 12th’s instructions as a nod to critics that believe that games must be winnable, for it states: “This is not a game. You can’t win and you can’t lose.”  By stating this outright, the game establishes “the impossibility of achieving a goal given the tools provided […] the tool the game provides for combating terrorism is revealed to be a sham—using missiles to root out terrorists only destroys innocent lives” (Bogost, 87). Given that the game clearly admits that its tools and procedures are not there to ensure a victorious outcome for the player, how can this game still be an effectively immersive, insightful experience?

In Critical Play, Flanagan notes: “In some ways, the experience [of September 12th] is a re-skinned version of a classic SimCity game, with a highly reduced set of player options (239). What Flanagan is implying is that this reduced set of options and choices lessens the interactive experience and makes the game less immersive, yet the game’s anti-immersive procedurality is what makes it so effective. In “Rethinking Agency and Immersion,” Frasca raises the point that the videogame industry tends to regard “immersion” as something that can only be increased by creating more realistic graphics and sounds, or through greater control over playable characters. Frasca states that after a while, even the best gaming graphics become invisible, as they are merely impulses to the brain. When watching a film, the viewer wants to identify with the hero and become him/her, but in a game, the player does not identify as Mario. Mario is the player’s every action and move – he is an avatar, a cursor, and nothing more. The more freedom a player is given over a character’s actions, the less personality that character will have.

Immersive Experiences

Frasca argues that this is why straightforward, action-oriented adventure games such as Mario Bros. often feature flat characters that are not intended to be relatable to the player. In games such as these, the characters exist for functional reasons, since it is more important to get the plot moving forward with instructions such as “save the princess” or “find the treasure” than to try to connect the player with the character they are maneuvering. In these games, the players are not concerned with why the characters are acting in a certain way or what their goals are – the object is to play the game through and to enhance the on-screen character’s skills, overcome obstacles, and, finally, to win. In the gaming world, this is considered to be an “immersive” experience, but I see that connection as being between the player and the simulated reality, not with the character or the narrative.

Janet Murray defines immersion as the willing suspension of disbelief, and “the experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place […] the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality” (98). Within a simulated reality, we experience the environment with a degree of immediacy, yet this is not without its problems. If immersion is intended to cut off the player’s grounding within the “real world,” there is no distance from which to address the immersive experience critically.

In a game like September 12th the player is given few choices with no real attempt to immerse her within the universe. There are no realistic graphics to make her think that she is truly moving within the simulated world, and there is no character for her to move or identify with. Furthermore, the game positions the player as far away as possible from the characters that are running around. All the player can see is the “big picture,” which effectively alienates the player from the action (Flanagan, 240). This technique reminds players that what they are experiencing is a representation of an environment and this forces them to think about what they are doing and, more importantly, the limitations of those actions and choices.

These limitations notwithstanding, players can still make choices and become involved with the game’s action, even if they are not in complete control of everything. What a game like September 12th does is allow the player to explore her own reality through non-immersive methods, as Frasca suggests when he compares videogame design to theater and performance. Traditionally, acting schools encouraged actors to get “into the skin” of the characters they were playing. Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright, resisted the Aristotelean method of theater that insisted on actors “losing themselves” in their characters. The result of that, he argued, was that the performers would get too immersed in the theatrics and lose their critical distance from what was happening on stage, and in the piece of theatre as a whole.

Essentially, Brecht thought actors should be completely aware of their actions, so instead of being inside the skin of the character, he wanted them to study their role at a distance so as to understand the full breadth of the characters they were playing. While controlling an avatar in a videogame is not the same as acting, taking complete control of a character does not allow any distance between the player’s actions and those of the avatar onscreen. By limiting the player’s active choices and emphasizing just how many things are out of a player’s or a character’s control, September 12th encourages critical thinking and self-reflection as part of its narrative challenge.

In Life on the Screen (1995), Sherry Turkle envisions the possibility of using simulations in order to invite players to analyze and question their ideological assumptions for consciousness-raising effects. Of course, using simulation for educational purposes is far from new. In Critical Play, Flanagan discusses how artists frequently use simulated settings of real places in order to “subvert” current issues. Subversion, in Flanagan’s case, is intended to uproot, overturn, or undermine an institution, event, or object. With reference to game designers, she extends the term from definitions provided by Michel Foucault, Antonio Negri, and Judith Butler, among others, to explain how serious games will often try to comment on systems, conditions, and laws through play.

According to Negri, subversion involves the act of “breaking out” against pervasive systems of power in order to trigger social change, when used with the right tools. Flanagan suggests that games themselves are such a tool, and the subversion in this case is a creative act, rather than a destructive act. Games are well suited for subversive practices, or even interventions, since they can rely upon direct action to engage with political or social issues.


While a game like September 12th is not, after all, intended to mitigate or stop terrorism, it does successfully open up a new kind of dialogue about how we can examine the issue from more than one perspective. When entertainment is so often presented in the form of violence, the overall message can sometimes be lost on the audience. Noah Wardrip-Fruin argues that such games, by utilizing hatred and fear of a common enemy, can successfully use an image of a hated group to create a simplified “us versus them mechanism” that drives the gameplay. He claims that commercial games that follow the Hollywood tradition of situating token enemies such as Arabs do not always require the player to think twice about the ideological message that their actions carry (Terdiman, Wired).

On the contrary, September 12th can be considered an “activist” game (Flanagan), due to its emphasis on social issues and education. Activist games are not merely conceptual exercises, but games that engage players with a particular issue through narrative, setting, and goals, and less often through game mechanics and effects. An activist game has, at its forefront, a social or political message, and while entertainment value is not absent, it is only one of the desired outcomes of the gaming experience.

Overall, September 12th operates on the assumption that players can “explore aspects of the War on Terror,” (qtd. in Flanagan, 239). The message it is trying to convey is that our actions, no matter their intentions, have consequences, and that we should try to understand why other people take to arms. Looking even deeper, the game is stating that just as the terrorists have terrorized us, our actions have the potential to terrorize a nation with our “peaceable” efforts, inevitably turning those who could otherwise support us against us. As Wardrip-Fruin puts it, the goal of the game is to develop in the player “empathy for the people who will become terrorists out of that experience, of having seen innocent people killed” (Terdiman, Wired).

 Works Cited

 Bogost, Ian, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer. Newsgames: Journalism at Play. The MIT Press, 2010. Print.

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games. The MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. The MIT Press, 2013. Print.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Videogames of the Oppressed.” Electronic Book Review, 2004. Web.

—. “Rethinking agency and immersion: video games as a means of consciousness-raising.” Digital Creativity (2001): Web. 167-174.

Murray, J. H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. New York: Free Press, 1997. Print.

Powerful Robot Games. September 12th: A Toy World. Montevideo, Uruguay:, 2003. Web.

Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The MIT Press, 2003. Print. 

Terdiman, David. “Playing Games with a Conscience.” Wired. 2004. Web.

Trundle, Sean. “September 12th: A Toy World.” PopMatters. 2003. Web.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. Print.