Video Games for Social Justice

Oftentimes, the reader that could benefit from reading a work of literature that is intended to develop empathy for a particular plight is not likely to pick up a book that clearly advertises itself as being about that hardship. Many authors have tackled this obstacle in the past by writing speculative fiction rather than a straight narrative. The time-travel aspect of Octavia Butler’s Kindred might draw in the temporal enthusiast, but her message is still overtly about the struggles of African-Americans. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is a fantastic ghost story that is still straight-forward about the poverty and incarceration related suffering of African-Americans over several generations. However modern authors approach this minor subterfuge of “tricking” a reader into ingesting their message of social justice, there will still be a group of people that have no desire to pick up a book. This is where new forms of media, not just modern writing, come into play. Television and film in recent years, especially those based upon novels that have a message of social justice, reach more of an audience than just fans of the book. Video games, especially those developed by independent studios, are in a unique position to deliver the audience a perspective they would not normally have sought on their own through the allure of gameplay. One such game I will focus on is This War of Mine, published in 2014 by 11 Bit Studios. The game uses a popular game style from the time—Survival—to deliver a specific message about the lives of non-combatants in a military conflict. The tagline of the game (“In War… Not Everyone Is a Soldier”) provides the player some foreshadowing that the game is atypical.

Video Games In Academia

Though academic study of video games is on the rise, it is still on the sidelines when it comes to accepting it as literature worthy of study. Video games in general suffer from the “curse of new media.” Scott McCloud wrote on comics when he explained this burden, but it certainly can be applied to video games as well. This curse, which is newer forms of literature or art “… being judged by the standards of the old,” plagues all of society, not just academia (McCloud 151). McCloud explains that rather than being studied as a format of writing, comics (or graphic novels) are often considered a genre of writing. This same misconception was applied to film as well early on, though film’s relation to theater has allowed the medium to become accepted in academia. Video games have fared worse through a combination of being both a new and an interactive medium. Film has become widely accepted in society, and many universities have a school of film that will teach history and technical skills necessary. While “sequential art” or “drawing” focuses are available at universities for those who wish to study comics, there is still only a focus on the technical skill of producing art rather than producing a complete novel. As for video games, very few schools offer classes that integrate video games and interactive media except in ways to produce a program.

Video games are still considered to be consumed by only the fringe of society; a distraction at best for most. Video games are often dismissed as a childish form of entertainment for boys, despite the results of a 2015 Pew Research poll indicating that nearly half of American adults play video games, and half of those identifying as female. There really is no basis for this dismissal of games wholesale. Video games, especially single-player story-focused games, contain all the common elements of any other written fiction: characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Granted that some games—especially anything published by Zynga and similar studios (Farmville, Candy Crush, etc)—completely lack any of this structure, the same could be said for much of what is technically considered writing is not necessary literature. The proliferation of inane and argumentative messages on Twitter doesn’t negate the possibility of someone delivering a powerful work of literature (or Twitterature) through the platform.

Video games, and arguably all of modern literature, needs to be evaluated in a different manner. Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature provides insights into ways literature can be evaluated other than the methods employed in the era of “New Criticism.” Felski’s Uses are especially well-suited to formats that fit squarely into the category of entertainment. Works considered “pop culture” are often dismissed by academics because of their fringe topics and mass production, which completely ignores the history of many so-called masterpieces in Western literature canon. Shakespeare’s comedic works are littered with dirty jokes (because the target audience wasn’t the nobility), Milton’s Paradise Lost is ostensibly fan-fiction of the Christian Bible (fan-fiction is almost always dismissed as the titillating drivel of young women), and much of American historical writing is white-washed colonial propaganda. Literature academia has an optics problem, and is in need of a public-relations firm to change the outside appearance. Trying to treat the humanities like a science strips a lot of meaning from literature that is accepted as canon, and dismissing anything that’s entertaining means there will be a lack of engagement in the studies in the future. “Their imagined readers,” Felski muses on the expectations of these equally-imagined academics, “Are curiously bloodless and disembodied, stripped of all passions as well as of all ethical or political commitments” (Felski 16). While this may have been a successful method for evaluating works when the humanities were fairly new and popular, the methods no longer suffice. The old standards were developed long before the newer forms of writing were ever a thought. Much of the world now is so inundated with these newer forms of writing that the thought of picking up and reading a physical book is left to a particular subculture of literary purists rather than the masses. There’s been an ever-widening gap between what was studied and what can be studied because of this adherence to past academic methods and a failure to adapt to society’s changing sensibilities. Felski bridges this gap with her Uses of Literature by providing four ways of viewing and studying literature from a reader’s point of view as well as the author’s, without completely isolating the written work from society. These tools and uses (Recognition, Enchantment, Knowledge, and Shock) additionally allow forms of writing not traditionally associated with the literary canon to be evaluated. Video games very clearly adhere to “Enchantment” by wrapping the reader up in the novelty of interactivity. By transforming the reader into a player, video games can draw in new audiences for a particular piece of wisdom from the author (or deliver “Knowledge”, as Felski calls it).

In a world where video games are primarily associated with the violence depicted within, most study of games is centered around the sociological and psychological effects violent games have on children and teens. Outliers exist, such as Ingrid Hoofd looking into whether “civic-minded” games can be used to actually teach students people-management skills. Likening this to Felski’s Uses, Hoofd is reviewing the adequacy of the “Knowledge” aspect of gamings. Surprisingly, she only mentions games from the 80s and 90s (the original SimCity, the first Halo game, etc) in her writing, even though it was most recently revised and published in 2019. Hoofd references studies on games done in the late 1900s to make the point that there is real consideration to use “…serious gaming for educational purposes that range from computer-assisted chemical modeling to games that simulate ethical decision-making” (Hoofd 139). Games have improved in regards to Hoofd’s topic in the last thirty years, and though SimCity and resource-management games similar to it still exist, there’s much more to the medium than just a set of rules and a win condition. Even though she determines that “…video games can be harnessed for inculcating democratic values into youngsters,” she is showing a surprisingly close-minded view of games and players (141). There is no age limit on enjoying a good story, and no age limit on learning, and connotation of the word “youngsters” implies that her view of games (and learning from them) is not for anyone over a certain age. Without a doubt, This War of Mine is not a game for “youngsters.” The threats of starvation, slaughter, depression, and possible war-crimes against the player-characters are all very mature topics. It can be presented to teens and adults to provide a glimpse into the way war ravages refugees, but it is not something that children should be exposed to.

Despite the out-dated source materials, Hoofd does make an important point later in the article: that these games have a selection of pre-programmed results that restrict truly innovative thinking in regards to problem-solving when it comes to civil equity. However limited video games may be at teaching real-world decision making, they are even more limited if they are treated as tools to teach rather than forms of entertainment from which the player can learn. Early articles on the teaching uses of video games would likely consider This War of Mine as a way to show children resource management. While the basic mechanics of a survival game can do just that, there is much more to This War of Mine that is completely lost if it is reduced to its game mechanics and “right” or “wrong” answers. Similar to reading a novel with a war-torn city as the setting, the lesson when playing This War of Mine is the moral ambiguity of non-combatant life during a siege. The player is intended to experience a moment of empathy rather than learn a particular skill.

Shawn Graham’s academic focus is history, but his method of teaching while utilizing video games more closely aligns with treating video games as a form of literature, and especially literature that seeks to inform the reader of social injustice. He writes on using video game mechanics to teach history in a way that focus not on the facts as written but the experiences of those who lived in the time being studied. This is something that aligns closely with Felski’s Uses in that reading literature should not just be the act of absorbing definitions of words and situations into the brain, but as a lived and felt experience. Graham states on the benefits of using a video game over just reading: “A person can engage with the storyline, the events of the past reconstructed in the game, and when they are able to immerse themselves into the game, they absorb the facts and repercussions of the past without having to be consciously aware of all of the minute details. Thus engaging them on a personal level with the past” (Graham 155). In his class, he aimed to have his students, in groups, create games (or at least create documentation on how they would design the game), that would engage the player in learning history while playing the game. The process, short of releasing the game, is similar to what many developers go through when they want to teach their players as much as they want to make an enjoyable game.

Graham sought to have his students understand that historical accuracy and recitation was not the end goal of studying history in academia. By challenging how they not only acquired information, but also disseminated it, he hoped that his students would take a stronger interest in the human factor of historical events. In order to help his students fully grasp what he was getting at, Graham asked his students to play an interactive fiction game called Depression Quest. The game is text-based and was created by Zoe Quinn in 2013 to educate people on depression, whether they suffer from it or know someone who does. The goal was not entertainment (as most people assume games are made for), nor monetary compensation, but to create a tool for comfort and understanding. Graham described the results of this assignment as positive, even quoting a student in his article: “…the strength of video games like this is that they create empathy; they’re more like what we’re used to reading when we read history, but because our interests and choices make a difference, we care more about what’s happening to the characters” (153). One group of students in Graham’s class created a game they called The Medic’s War, where the goal of the game was to heal as many injured as possible. The goal of the group that created the game, however, was to provide the point-of-view often ignored in war literature: the field medic. They stated in their assignment, “Our game doesn’t rely on domination, but rather attempting to show the true nature of war; no matter which side you’re playing on, there will be casualties…” (154). This War of Mine has a strikingly similar aim. War has a greater impact on the world than just the glorified battles and generals taught about in history class and TV documentaries. The two games have different plots, settings, characters, and game mechanics, but the hopelessness of successfully completing the task at hand is present in both. The Medic’s War has endless numbers of injured that make all the casualty counts quoted in history books and news articles into more than just figure on a page; This War of Mine has a constantly dwindling supply of resources in easy reach, requiring the player to venture further out of their comfort zone to keep their survivors alive.

Indie Games vs Large Publishers

When discussing how to link “Social Justice Literature” to single-player story-focused video games, several peers suggested that I should write on the Assassin’s Creed series, published by Ubisoft. I balked at this suggestion, because Assassin’s Creed, like many other big-budget games released for console and PC, on the surface didn’t seem to seek to engage with the player beyond the wallet. I don’t intend to disparage the series, however I find it hard to be required to identify with the muscled, stoic, late-twenties-to-mid-thirties, unshaven, brown-haired, male leads found so often in games from triple-A studios. How many games can be described as having such a lead? Most of the time, if there is a non-cis-white-male option, the offering is a female-shaped object with a backstory as flimsy as her armor. (There’s always Guerrilla Games’s Horizon Zero Dawn for those of us bored with the usual.) These sort of games seek to be wish-fulfillment for the targeted male player, and tend to rely on the mechanics of a game (as well as the “best” graphics, an entirely dubious goal for sales for the last few decades) to deliver action-packed stories that tick all the boxes for clichés. In short, these games are made to appeal to the demographics that would spend the most money for the purposes of making money for the publishers. Felski’s “Recognition”—the ability to create a personal connection with the reader by allowing the reader to identify with the character or situation—falls flat in games that focus on being the biggest and baddest soldier, or assassin, or post-apocalyptic survivor with the most kills and missions completed. Assassin’s Creed has a story, for certain, but it is a story refined by editors, publishers, and writers, to the point where the essential message of the story can be safely ignored by the player seeking to just experience the game. Many larger games publishers, just like many publishers of the written-word, will balk at any storylines that call into question current politics or any of their shareholder’s interests. I knew I needed a game that showcased an injustice in the world, and on the recommendation of a friend, I was introduced to This War of Mine. Gamespot’s review, highlighted on the game’s website, describes it thusly: “It’s a longform exercise in empathy, a sobering piece of work that fills in the blanks left when all we see of war are the headshots.”

Games from independent developers (or indie games) many times are made by a single person or a small team, and while they may offer innovative gameplay, they more often have a story to tell. By not being beholden to any larger publisher, their stories can go direct to the public without political sanitation. Indie devs and indie games are akin to small-press or self-published authors and books, with some being closer to zines (which tend to have extreme or unconventional topics). Indie games are sometimes made and sold not because of the money that could be made, but because of the creator’s love of games or their desire to depict a certain situation. This War of Mine was created and published by a small Polish team of developers with the idea that the player should “pay if they can afford to.” Many indie devs release games this way, either independently on their own website or through services like Humble Bundle, because either the exposure to the cause the game represents or to their own skill set is more important that the money that may be made. 11 Bit Studio’s team is interested in fostering the moral and empathetic side of the player while they played This War of Mine, rather than focus on filling the company’s bank account.

Many of the team at 11 Bit Studios left larger developers (including some from the aforementioned Ubisoft) in order to pursue a career in making games that can make a difference. In fact, the 2015 War Child DLC (downloadable content) released for the game is named after the charity they support, which provides assistance to child refugees of Syria. The results of this charity fundraiser are no longer available on their website, but other sources indicate that food and services for 350 children, including counseling for their trauma, were completely funded. Other sources said the amount was over €500,000 ($555,877 US). While large publishers will make donations to charity as business, rarely do we ever see it as directly related to the content of a game as with This War of Mine. For example, Electronic Arts (EA) runs charity campaigns under the title “Play to Give” where they donate $1,000,000 US to the selected charities, and ask EA games players to donate in addition to that amount. Over the years they have been able to fund initiatives for the UN’s HeForShe, PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, and Ditch the Label. The focuses of these charities, bullying and gender equality, are often linked with the video game industry; especially with the misconception that those that identify as female cannot play games and the toxic trash-talking often associated with online games. However, EA is doing little with their publishing lineup to address the issues. Rather than reaching out to their player base to elucidate them on the negative side of gaming and fostering change, they instead provide (tax-deductible) funding to groups that will address effects of and those affected by the injustices. They opt to pay someone to clean the mess rather than address what’s causing the mess.

This War of Mine

Felski’s definition of “Shock” as a use of literature is readily apparent in This War of Mine, as there is no shortage of unsettling scenarios. Not all reviewers appreciate the efforts of 11 Bit Studios in bringing the atrocities committed against civilians in wartime to the public. Though the review from Slant Magazine says the developers “seem interested only in presenting a near-pornographic level of human despair in a warped attempt at edifying players,” it is clear that 11 Bit Studios wanted to depict the horrors of war without any of the feel-good platitudes of “beating” a level. The game seemingly has no end where the player “wins”, and the goal is to survive as long as possible with the civilian characters provided. The violence often associated with video games is present in the game, but is not necessarily physical nor perpetrated by the player. Rather than being handed a gun and being told to go forth and slaughter the enemy, the player controls several survivors in a shelter. The game mechanics simplify the experience of the victims of war to allow the player to make decisions and manage the characters’ health (both physical and mental), usually in the form of scavenging for supplies and building up makeshift tools to protect the shelter. There are other decisions the player is faced with as well: help the neighbor or let them fend for themselves? Steal from an occupied home or stick to looting evacuated buildings? The option to kill is there, but the consequences of doing so are there as well.

The game is loosely based on the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo, but takes place in the fictional town of Pogoren, Graznavia (loosely translated from Slavic languages as “burnt rubble”). The player is told that rival factions have taken control and both sides are committing war crimes against civilians. Many escaped, but the player’s characters, each for their own reasons, did not. Snipers shoot anyone out during the day, and roving militiamen and raiders make trouble in the night. The melancholy music the player hears throughout isn’t loud enough to drown out the staccato report of guns in the background.There are two main modes to the game, the Classic seemingly-endless mode, and Stories that takes the players through a specific character’s life in the war. On my first play through of the This War of Mine, I selected Classic.

I was given three characters: a local football star, a journalist that traveled to the city to report on the war, and a local chef with his own TV show. The player is given control of how each character works together scavenging, building, and surviving; but they are also given a bit of insight into each character’s thoughts on their situation. I chose, for game mechanic reasons, to keep Katia (as an investigative journals, she has “Bargaining Skills”) and Bruno (“Good Cook”) at the home base, and send Pavle (“Fast Runner”) out nightly to scavenge for goods. It made for a good story as well: The chef, who happens to be full of himself as a “local celebrity”, stays home and cooks for others. The smooth talking journalist meets with the wandering traders during the day, while the altruist athlete raids abandoned buildings in the night. At this point in the game, I had no idea if there were any win conditions, or any goal other than to “survive.” The shelter had a fair bit of resources to start with, so I was not yet worried about dying off. Like the characters, I was not yet exposed to the worst of the situation. I still had hope that I could not only keep them alive, but happy as well.

The kinds of decisions the player must make within This War of Mine can lead to starvation, illness, depression, or exhaustion of the characters. If the player makes decisions counter to the programmed empathy levels of the characters, they will comment on it or even react in game by refusing to do work. The game actively makes it harder for success if the player chooses to be selfish, even causing other characters to commit suicide (provided they aren’t programmed as a “sociopath”) if they become too depressed at the death or immoral actions of another survivor.

There were several times that the neighbor (a Non-Player Character or NPC) came by and requested assistance. The commentary in Pavle’s “Bio” indicated that he has a family that escaped, including a young child, and so I sent Pavle to help without question. I felt that if I didn’t, he might become despondent and not be able to contribute to the welfare of the group. Bruno thought it a waste to help others that weren’t directly helping him, while Katia praised Pavle’s (the player’s) decision. So far, I hadn’t done anything questionable to allow the three to survive, making me consider Bruno’s rebuke as just his selfish attitude showing through. Even with helping out the neighbors, the survivors still had food, water, and a few materials for repairs within the shelter. The game was making me feel that, if I were in this situation, I’d have made the right decision. I’m not certain how the game would have continued if I did not choose to have Pavle help the neighbor, but I suspect that the game would have continued on as endlessly as the war depicted. I just would have felt a little bad.

One night, though, Pavle was scavenging a location held by a violent gang. They offered trade, but my shelter’s supplies were already too low to give anything away without putting the survivors in jeopardy. The representative from the gang didn’t particularly like the response I gave, and reacted violently. Pavle was able to knock out the armed man in front of him, but despite his “fast runner” description, could not outrun the bullets from the others. The first character death in my playthrough happened suddenly and unexpectedly. This, I suppose, was part of the message that 11 Bit Studios was trying to convey about civilians in war. There is no power held by the people other than by who has the gun. This lesson learned, I sent Katia out the next night with a shotgun for revenge. Based on her Bio in the game, I considered her a woman of action. She came to a warzone to report on it, after all (and to check on her family nearby). I don’t know if she would have enjoyed being a vigilante, though, as she didn’t return that night. She was able to take out several of the armed men before she, too, was killed. Truthfully, I did not expect her to survive, but it seemed like something she would do. I would like to think that I would do the same—not because it’s the logical response, but because it is an emotional outburst during a hopeless time. She was listed as “depressed” in the game after Pavle’s death, but being depressed doesn’t mean being sad; it’s hopelessness. I would personally want to do anything I could to get out of a hopeless situation, and so I made Katia do it. The developers presented me, the player, with this option, and I took it. Any other player can make a different decision, and the game would continue, because like life, This War of Mine goes on. However, I’m now down to one survivor, meager supplies, and no weapons. My mind turned from the emotional distraction of revenge to the focus on survival. The game’s never-ending war setting replicates the degradation of the human mind over time in this way; I’m no longer concerned with how happy (or rather, not-depressed) my characters are, but rather if they can eat today.

Bruno’s only outward concern now was that there was no longer anyone else to go out and collect supplies. As the last remaining person in the shelter, he had to risk going out at night to raid or trade. He complained each time he ventured out, and turned to smoking the cigarettes I’d saved up for trade. Bruno was working against me, the player, because I was asking him to do things he did not want to do. I took action against him, and made him get drunk; a counterintuitive measure, I’m sure, as the moonshine was very valuable for trade. At this point, however, I had succumbed to the hopelessness of the situation. Bruno was alone; I was alone. I couldn’t imagine surviving much longer in this situation. No amount of cooking skill mattered if there was no food to cook. I was reminded of Jack London’s To Build a Fire. Like the man in that short story, I thought I knew what to do, but found myself woefully underprepared when it came to actually surviving.

Eventually, another playable character came to the door: an old math professor named Anton that escaped from being holed up at the destroyed university. It’s implied in his Bio that his students were taking care of him, but one by one they left him behind. He walked until he found my shelter’s door, and asked to come in. Bruno was conflicted on the matter—another body to help is good, but could he go back to staying in the shelter each night? I was less conflicted—now Bruno could continue to go out nightly while Anton guarded the building. Shortly after Anton joined, a teenage boy and his younger sister knocked on the door. The brother asked that the survivors take in his sister while he tried to escape the city and get outside help from their uncle. He insisted he would return in a “couple days”. Again, Bruno was against the idea—another mouth to feed, another person that can’t take care of him. Anton was much kinder, and as he had answered the door, I had him agree to take her in. Bruno was tired and angry at this point: he now needed to find more food and supplies than before. He had already considered Anton to be a marginally useful burden, but now a child that could do no work was especially bad. He was right, in a sense. I began to take more risks with Bruno in order to have enough food and materials to keep everyone alive.

My risk-taking did not pan out as Bruno was neither swift nor strong, and could not escape the attackers that ambushed him in the night. At this point, though, my only concern about the loss of Bruno was that those that remained, old Anton and the young Kalina, were not suited to survive on their own very well. Bruno may have wanted others around in order to feel safe in the shelter, but there are groups that suffer in war that need to have others around. My game could have gone completely different up to this point—Pavle and Katia could have lived. I could have chosen a different location for Pavle to scout that night. I could have kept Katia from going out for revenge. I could have chosen Bruno as the scavenger from the start. However, the way everything was presented to me by the developers, I did not make those decisions. Instead, I saw victims of war I could not help any longer: the elderly and the children.

Kalina’s brother never returned for her. She wasn’t completely useless, as Anton was able to teach her how to do some basic tasks. The days were getting colder, and I could no longer spare the books and other materials from being made into fodder for the fire. Kalina’s toys were traded for bodily warmth. The two eventually fell ill, because Anton could not collect much and Kalina could not go out at all. Without much remaining at the shelter, they could not barter for medicine when the wandering trader came by. The hopelessness returned in full force as I knew I could not save either of them at this point, and I was just prolonging the inevitable when I sent Anton to a neighbor’s house. He stole medicine to give to Kalina, and though she was beginning to get better physically, she was mentally destroyed. Her status in the game was not “depressed”, but “broken.” She no longer moved from where she sat, no matter what Anton did. I feared sending Anton out again, lest something happen to Kalina. As I set their night-time actions to “sleep in bed,” my game ended after day 29. Anton passed in his sleep from illness, and Kalina fled.

Reflecting on this experience, I find that I have a little more understanding of the situations that refugees are escaping, and I didn’t even get to the more detestable locations in the game (such as the brothel with trafficked women “employed” therein). There are those in countries that do not currently have warzones that might consider refugees fleeing on overloaded rafts across the seas, irresponsible for risking their and their children’s lives, and thus unworthy of assistance. However if they knew the feeling of hopelessness and fear that comes with staying and awaiting an end to the conflict, they might reconsider their judgement. The potential for further trauma to a victim can drive them to make decisions that someone from a place of privilege might never understand. By playing This War of Mine, and allowing oneself to feel empathy, or even sympathy, for the characters, the player can gain insight they might otherwise have not been exposed to. Knowing that this fiction of the game is based (however loosely) on reality should have an effect on even the causal survival-genre player.

If the Classic mode is still too broad for someone to make a connection with the characters, there is the Stories mode, which I played second. This game mode is more like an interactive novel than Classic mode. The player still has freedom to roam and use the game mechanics as with the standard game, but they have certain checkpoints to meet in order to advance the story. The player can still lose, as well, but the end goal is to essentially “read the book” that is being visually provided. Each of the stories available touches on different subjects related to survival of the war, with “The Last Broadcast” focusing on communication and “Fading Embers” on the preservation of heritage. I selected the first story available, “Father’s Promise”, which focuses on family ties. I found myself in control of Adam, a recent widower trapped in a destroyed building with his severely ill daughter. His brother has suggested that they use Amelia to escape via the “humanitarian corridor” that prioritizes parents and children, but Adam repeatedly refused to risk his daughter. By day four of the game, Adam awakes to an empty room, having passed out from exhaustion. It is implied that Amelia has been kidnapped by her uncle, and the player must send Adam searching for clues to their whereabouts. Adam eventually finds that his brother has been killed and Amelia is still missing. Talking to various NPCs at a shelled school, a ruined gas station, and a destroyed hospital, Adam is eventually lead to a toy store that is being used as an interrogation room by soldiers. The soldiers are torturing a doctor that they accuse of smuggling civilians and/or rebels out of the city. He admits that he used the hospital as a waystation and helped lead people to the old church nearby. The player can then choose to free the doctor by murdering the soldiers, or leave with the information. Either way, as Adam arrives at the church, he finds corpses of people clearly executed via gunshot to the head. He asks the priest if his daughter was killed during the massacre, and is told she was not. As he is lead to the graveyard behind the church, Adam has flashbacks to the blackout period that the player did not see. It is revealed that Amelia did not survive her illness, and Adam blocked the traumatic events that followed her passing from his memory. The story ends with Adam kneeling at his daughter’s grave, experiencing his loss all over again.

Playing this story was much more like watching a movie than the emotionally-driven gameplay I had during Classic mode. I felt sympathy for Adam, but not necessarily empathy. The disconnect, I believe, was that I was on rails for the story. It felt like my choices had little consequence, but my level of interaction was also at my discretion. I wasn’t merely “turning the page” or just bearing witness to Adam’s grief. Even when the control of the player is limited, the scenery and optional interaction can still have an effect. The first icon I clicked on after given control in this story allowed me to examine a piece of paper near Amelia’s bed. It was a drawing she had made. Adam comments that Amelia may not have her crayons, but she will draw with anything she finds. The child’s drawing shows her and her father in the waxy texture of color crayons, and her deceased mother was drawn in with charcoal from the burning rubble. Seeing this made me need a break, because it was deliberately unclear when this drawing was created in Amelia’s timeline. Was the charcoal mother a result of a lack of materials, as Adam assumed, or is it because mother had passed, and Amelia chose to reflect it in her drawing? Either way, I, the player, was left with a wave of emotional empathy that may be lost on those who do not have children. But those that do not make this connection may make connection elsewhere, as each of these details in the scenery is intended to bring the player closer to the characters within when they have little control.


I want to emphasise that this play experience, and my connection with it, is unique while at the same time not unique. Anyone can make the same game decisions, for (as Hoofd laments) decisions in-game are limited to what is programmed, and get the same result. However, my reasons for these choices are exclusively my own because of the writing of the story and characters by 11 Bit Studios. Rather than telling a story of war via novel where the reader is told what the characters do, the interactivity of a game allows the reader to control what the characters do. This connection is what Graham highlights in having his students tell history via games. In other words, the interactiveness of games is what can make a message of empathy strike home, especially for those who would not have sought to understand the struggles of another demographic without the lure of the game. Survival and resource management games are popular on mobile, and one that is well developed might get picked up and played by someone who wasn’t even considering the conditions depicted. Additionally, by presenting the past in a way that isn’t strictly accurate, the intended lesson of social justice can be applied to situations outside the ones referenced in the game. This War of Mine may be primarily based on the Siege of Sarajevo, but the situation shown is similar to any siege of a city. The message of the game isn’t limited to “This is how people survived in Sarajevo” but rather “This is how people will need to survive when their city is under siege,” or indirectly, “These are the living conditions that refugees of war are fleeing.” Independent developers are better suited to deliver these messages of social justice due to the freedom of having a small team (and fewer people to answer to or offend). Conversely, large game development companies tend to have marketing departments that make sure the game is advertised and appealing to as many people as possible. Anything that could be seen as impacting sales, such as moralizing or taking a political stance, is likely to be scrubbed from a game or diluted to the point that the player’s reception of the message is optional. Many indie developers that release games with a specific social message prize that message over the monetary gains, and with the proliferation of services like the Humble Bundle, indie devs can have both.

Works Cited

  • Duggan, Maeve. “Gaming and Gamers.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 12 Sept. 2017,
  • Graham, Shawn. “Pulling Back the Curtain: Writing History Through Video Games.” Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, edited by Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2015, pp. 149–158.
  • Hoofd, Ingrid. “Video Games and the Engaged Citizen : On the Ambiguity of Digital Play.” The Playful Citizen: Civic Engagement in a Mediatized Culture, edited by René Glas et al., vol. 1, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2019, pp. 138–156.
  • Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Blackwell, 2008.
  • McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1994.
  • Pressgrove, Jed. “Review: This War of Mine: The Little Ones.” Slant Magazine, 9 Feb. 2016,
  • White, Hayden. “Literary History: The Point of It All.” New Literary History, vol. 2, no. 1, 1970, pp. 173–185.
  • “This War Of Mine.” This War of Mine, 11 Bit Studios, 14 Nov. 2019,
  • “This War of Mine Wiki.” Fandom, This_War_of_Mine_Wiki.
  • Włosek, Rafał. This War of Mine. 11 Bit Studios, 2014.
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