"Decisions That Matter" is a video game that comes with a "trigger button." No, not the gun kind.
It's more of an instant-quit button, providing players with a safe way to exit the game in case it starts to hit a little too close to home. And "Decisions That Matter" can get uncomfortable quick.
The game tackles sexual assault, and it asks players to witness disturbing situations that test their moral fortitude.
"It's an important topic. It's also a topic that's in the news and relevant," says Kirsten Rispin, one of the producers and writers on "Decisions That Matter."
Today, it's no longer uncommon for games to reflect the national conversation. In a year that's seen a microscope placed on the harassment policies of college campuses, as well as a host of abuse allegations levied against entertainer Bill Cosby, games have proved they can and should be a part of the larger cultural dialogue.
That's not to say there isn't work to do. The idea of women as second-class citizens is so ingrained in the gamer aesthetic that the recent film "Pixels" thought it appropriate to treat women as trophies for winning a video game battle.
Indeed, the mainstream video game sector still has to shed its reputation as a boys' club in which guns and barely clothed women are an intrinsic part of the action. This year the documentary "GTFO" aimed to expose the game community's troubling history with sexism, and it's still rare, for instance, to see women in starring, playable roles in most mainstream games.
Change may be coming, however. Lara Croft returns as a slightly more thoughtful adventurer in this holiday season's "Rise of the Tomb Raider," and many of the major games coming soon to home consoles offer the ability to play as a female character, whether it's in "Call of Duty: Black Ops 3," "Star Wars: Battlefront" or "Fallout 4."
Outside the mainstream, developers are more regularly pushing games in once unexpected directions."Decisions That Matter," for example, is not the only game to deal with abusive situations.
"I want to make games that talk about connections and help people understand more about human relationships," says Kanane Jones, whose "Final Girls" is a game about how women recover from trauma.
The designers of "Decisions That Matter" talk about wanting to place players in an "awkward space." "Freshman Year," designed by a small team led by Nina Freeman, lives almost entirely in that terrain, putting players in the role of a young woman alone at a bar.
Such titles are short and personal, and a long way from the save-the-world fantasies that have ruled the industry for much of the past decade. They're not competitive. They're a way to work through — and understand — real, sometimes emotionally disturbing situations.
"This game was made as a purely personal endeavor," says Freeman, who worked on "Freshman Year" with artist Laura Knetzger and game designer-musician Stephen Lawrence Clark.
"I really wanted to make it as a way to vent about this experience, because I had never really worked through it emotionally," she says. "Some people are able to vent to their friends or family when something's bothering them, and I do the same kind of thing but through games."
Out of comfort zone
Scenes in "Decisions That Matter" come in various shades of gray. One, at lunch on a college campus, asks players to decide whether to intervene when a friend makes a move on a fellow student under the table. Is her expression one of fear or excitement? The correct path isn't always obvious, especially when other characters start mocking your chaperon-like behavior.
If at first it feels a bit like a public service announcement, the developers — all graduate students at Carnegie MellonUniversity — soon toy with player expectations. Situations start obvious, and gradually become more obtuse. How to respond to a catcaller on the street seems relatively clear, but the game becomes less so as it explores relationships among the students.
The game is told entirely from the point of view of a bystander, and it's quite possible, for instance, that attempts to come to someone's rescue will result in a scolding. How dare you create an awkward situation with a crush? The result is that "Decisions That Matter" gets the player out of a comfort zone and manages to illustrate how harassment can occur among the most trusted of friends.
"We wanted to acknowledge that there are a lot of pressures to not intervene in a sexual assault, and a lot of them aren't explicitly ever mentioned," says Stephanie Fawaz, a co-producer on the project. "There's social pressure to not be weird, and a lot of internalized fear. Like, 'Maybe I'm not understanding what's happening right now. Maybe I'm wrong.' "
"Decisions That Matter" was born as a project in the Pittsburgh university's Entertainment Technology Center. Inspiration came from Jess Klein, coordinator of gender programs and sexual violence prevention at the institution. Frustrated with most rape-prevention tools, especially those that place responsibility on the victim, Klein wanted something that could get inside people's heads
"Our society is so judgmental," Klein says. "With the Bill Cosby thing, people who are defending him are saying, 'Well, why didn't you come forward 30 years ago?' It's none of your business why. We tend to think, 'Oh, if I was in that situation, I would have fought back. I would have carried pepper spray.' When we do that, we are trying to change the narrative to fit us, but it didn't happen to us."
"Freshman Year" can be an even more bracing experience because the harassment also happens to the player's character, a young college-age woman.
You head to the bar, and your friend is late. A bouncer appears to be your only friend, only his offhand remark about your loneliness triggers a mental alarm. "You're a pretty girl, though, so I'm sure you've got other people to chill with." It's cringe-worthy, but was it a signal that something is wrong, or a thoughtlessly casual remark that can be ignored?
"I want to be clear that my experience is not universal, and so I don't want players to assume that I'm trying to make a statement about all of sexual harassment," Freeman says.
Still, it's an emotionally fraying experience, and like "Decisions That Matter," it shows how harassment can creep into seemingly mundane situations.
"Final Girls" shows how deep those scars from past trauma can run. Named after a horror movie trope referring to the last woman standing, "Final Girls," like the other two games, is free. It, however, takes a more metaphorical approach. Though the setting is very natural — a therapy session — the characters are not. They are all modeled after recognizable figures from horror films or thrillers, and the group leader does look an awful lot like Ellen Ripley from the "Alien" franchise.
It's not necessarily a game directed squarely at abuse or harassment. The characters have already survived unspeakable horrors (like the events of, say, "Carrie"). Rather, "Final Girls" provides insight into their post-trauma thoughts, such as worries that they'll never "meet someone I can actually count on."
Jones, an abuse survivor herself, says making the game was "cathartic" and, hopefully, a reminder that it's OK to talk about one's innermost thoughts, no matter how sensitive.
"When I was going through the stuff I was going through, I had no awareness that it was wrong or bad," she says. "It took some years before I looked back and said, 'No, that was really abusive and damaging.' The game reflects the lesson that I learned. If I had talked to people and said, 'Hey, this is what's going on,' people would have said, 'No, that's not right.' "
"Decisions That Matter"
Developer: A graduate student team at Carnegie Mellon University
Where to play: http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/course/53-610/
Developer: Kanane Jones
Where to play: http://spideyj.itch.io/final-girls
Developers: Nina Freeman, Laura Knetzger and Stephen Lawrence Clark
Where to play: http://ninasays.so/freshmanyear/
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