Documentary Games and Gameplay

Back in 2007-2008, when I was still a young’un in high school, it was difficult to be a deeply interested video game fan without hearing about controversy. That was the period when many of the video games Ian Bogost mentions in his essay about documentary ‘newsgames’ were released. Games like Kumawar, Six Days in Fallujah, and Super Columbine RPG were regularly featured in gaming websites and blogs. An inevitable media rampage soon followed. I dabbled in playing a lot of these types of games (except Six Days, which never saw the light of day), and they all had something in common.

They weren’t very entertaining.

The Kumawar episodic games were critically lambasted for being simplistic, sloppily made first-person shooters. Super Columbine RPG was made with the RPG Maker tool, inherently limiting its gameplay to that of a generic, 90’s-era turn-based roleplaying game. The subject matter they reference is definitely compelling, but it’s hard to be engaged in a game when the actual ‘game’ part of it is flawed and boring. Some of the flash games are better in this aspect, such as the McDonald’s game I blogged about earlier in the year, but they’re also just that: very simplistic flash games.

Bogost speaks of the spatial, operational, and procedural aspects that can shape these documentary games and help them properly replicate and emulate historical events. But should these games be critically discussed without mentioning the playability and game design aspect? Obviously, the coding and design of the game itself is distinctly separate from the more scholarly and political ideas behind it, but shouldn’t these games be enjoyed and analyzed holistically? Considering how new this entire genre of media is, I didn’t exactly expect a masterpiece out of any of these games, but Bogost does convince me that the potential is there for video games to be serious documentary works.

We don’t have a video game equivalent to ‘Planet Earth’, a documentary series that demonstrates deep technical achievement and accessibility, but we might just see something like it emerge.