For centuries, the threat of what might happen to a child the moment they leave their home was a concern for parents and guardians. As outdoor safety became better understood over the generations, children grew up to be caregivers and passed on what they learned in their youth to the children they now care for themselves.
But in today’s digital age, the Internet has become a new place for children to play, and at the same time, it’s given parents and guardians something else to be concerned about.
A new game created out of a collaboration between designer Gregory Weir, the Game Developers Conference Online (GDC Online), and Web Wise Kids aims to help parents, guardians, and children think about internet safety and empowering both all parties.
Passing the Ball debuted in early October on the GDC Online website and in part one of our interviews to learn more about this project, we spoke with game designer Gregory Weir. We wanted to hear more about his previous work, his design style, and how he came to work on this unique project.
Your body of work revolves around creating pieces of interactive digital fiction. Can you explain some of your most popular work and what inspires you?
My most popular works include “(I Fell in Love with) The Majesty of Colors,” “Exploit,” and “Looming.” Majesty is a game about a titanic monster from the depths of the ocean discovering the surface world. Exploit is a hacking puzzle game that is driven by a pulp technofiction storyline involving terrorism and totalitarianism. Looming is a game with a one bit color aesthetic where you control an archaeologist exploring a dead world.
I’m inspired by strong images and dark themes. Most of my games stem from a single powerful image I had; a Lovecraftian creature holding a balloon or a tiny figure standing beneath an immense, towering rib. Most of my games have an unsettling or uncanny feeling, where either the nature of reality or the nature of ethics is in question.
Looming, Exploit, and (I Fell in Love with) The Majesty of Colors
Is this your first time creating something that could be considered a “game for change”?
I try to make my games arguments for progress of the medium and change in society; many of them explore acceptance of the unknown or unfamiliar, and very few of them provide a violent challenge. However, Passing the Ball is the first that I designed to promote a specific real-world cause.
How did you get involved with GDC Online and Web Wise Kids?
I’ve done previous work with Simon Carless, one of the people in charge of the GDC conventions. For some time, I wrote a column for GameSetWatch, a website run by the same company that organizes GDC Online. Simon approached me about creating a game to advocate online safety for GDC Online, and introduced me to Web Wise Kids. Both Web Wise Kids and the GDC Online folks contributed to the design and development process as the game was being created.
Like many of your other games, Passing the Ball has a somewhat dark feel to it. How does your aesthetic help tell the story of this game?
The Internet can be a scary place, and often parents and guardians are more afraid than kids of the dangers out there. One of the great things about Web Wise Kids is that they help teach kids and adults how to confidently face challenges online. Passing the Ball is about that process of working with a kid to make an initially-scary environment manageable. The dark aesthetic reflects the worries and fears and unpleasant feelings that kids and guardians have about the Internet, but by working together and teaching kids about online safety, those worries and fears can be faced head-on. The kid can confidently handle most situations that may arise, and adults can be more comfortable that their kids are prepared to deal with the challenges of being online.
In your opinion, how else can interactive story telling help break down complex topics for all audiences?
Games and interactive storytelling are excellent at two important things: evoking feelings from the player and teaching her complex rules. A designer can use games to create empathy with people that the player might otherwise not connect with and give voice to ignored or avoided points of view. Additionally, games can help players understand a complicated topic by challenging them to master the rules of the game. By gradually increasing complexity and leveraging our natural impulses to overcome challenge, games can teach far better than a textbook or documentary. Games are also an implicit argument for a certain rule system; by presenting a set of rules and a complex system, a game argues that the world works a certain way. This can be used to promote any number of ideas and philosophies. It’s my hope that games move toward more empathic and ethical messages.
When are you going to make your next social impact game?
I’m not sure! Everything on my drawing board at the moment is more in the vein of my other titles. My works in progress aren’t specifically social-impact pieces. However, I’ll continue to explore themes of empathy and individual ethics, and one of my current projects will specifically explore issues of online safety and online freedom. I definitely expect to make more games in the future that are focused on social issues or advocacy.
I’m excited to see how they turn out.
Update: Web Wise Kids has since closed down and links to the website were removed.