Student Reflection – Facechange

By Katie Tiller, Will Tangey, Jacob Philpott, & David Hook

Visual Rhetoric:

The game is set up as a dungeon game, but with the structure and color scheme of Facebook. The player will start on the splash page, which contains the game title “facechange.” We agreed with your suggestion to have a more neutral title than “slackbook,” as it is not until after the game has been played that players will realize our point that sharing and liking activist posts on Facebook creates no change in the world beyond spreading awareness. The title “facechange” is both a nod to “Facebook” and a statement about the goal of the game, which is to face (or address) change. The splash page also contains a link to the play instructions, which includes a simple diagram of the movement direction keys as well as simple statements about the game objectives. The button with the word “play” on it begins the game when it is clicked. The background of the main game space is designed to look like Facebook timeline, as the game is critiquing the activist potential of Facebook. The game title, “facechange,” is written in white Kartika Bold (similar to the Facebook font) on the dark blue bar across the top, where the title, “facebook,” would normally be. This blue title bar is iconic for Facebook, so it will immediately situate the game as a parody of Facebook. The layout of the page also follows the Timeline design closely, as there is a “cover image,” a default profile picture, the information bars under the cover image, and the light blue timeline with three “posts” on either side in chronological order (according to occurrence dates). As an extra nod to Facebook, we used the same font and colors as Facebook, kept the “like” icon, kept as many words as possible the same and in the same location on the comment boxes, and included the time span on the right side of the background (but with the earliest shown year being 2004—the year Facebook was launched).

We chose to use the default Facebook profile picture, as it is iconic and relatable to any Facebook user. As Scott McCloud pointed out in his graphic novel, “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art,” people are more likely to identify with a simply drawn character as it allows them to project their identity into the character’s form. The simple outline of a person is more universally relatable than an image of an actual person would be. This idea is also reflected in the simple 8-bit design of the player’s avatar in the game. The avatar resembles the generic default profile picture with his light blue, spiked hair, dark blue shirt with a white F on it, and gray pants. His only facial features are his eyes. We want this game to be a personal experience for each player, which requires the ability to relate personally to the game (important for critical learning, as Gee suggests with his Identity principle). With a default profile picture, players are welcome to interpret the Facebook-style background as a familiar Facebook page. Maybe a player has even posted or liked Kony, Occupy Wall Street, or SOPA information and images on Facebook before.

We pulled the Kony, blacked out Wikipedia, and Occupy Wall Street images from the Internet, as we wanted real photos similar to what Facebook slacktivists post. The Occupy Wall Street image came from public domain and is copyright free, as is the Wikipedia image according to its source. However, the Wikipedia image is a screenshot of Wikipedia on the day it was blacked out in honor of the STOP SOPA campaign, so it probably belongs to Wikipedia. In that case we should still be protected under fair use since the image is part of our educational commentary (even parody) on Facebook slacktivism, and because we are creating something new (a game) with the images. There is a similar situation with the image of Kony, as it is a screenshot from the video that Invisible Children circulated. It should be protected under fair use for the same reasons. These images represent the three different dungeons in the game, as they are each a major Facebook slacktivism fad: Occupy Wall Street – 2011, STOP SOPA – 2011-2012, and KONY 2012 – 2012. As the player moves up the line, he will encounter blue dots that act as portals into the correlating issue dungeon.

The first dungeon is about the Occupy Wall Street movement. The background/ground terrain is of a generic NYC setting. The buildings and sidewalks around the edges act as a containing barrier for the dungeon, and the other interspersed objects like traffic cones, light posts, newspaper stands, fire hydrants, and caution tape act as barriers within the level. There are enemies in the form of policemen that will follow the player, which the player has to evade as he moves the avatar toward the first transition door. The policemen enforcers are designed to look as intimidating as possible, but since their faces are obscured, they also represent the faceless power that enforces the laws created by the wealthy minority. The players have to make their way around these obstacles, bypassing enemies, to reach the transition doorway or dungeon boss. In this dungeon, the boss is the “fat cat.” He is a wealthy, fat, WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), which is shown through his white skin, business suit, and briefcase overflowing with money. He represents a business owner or a member of the elite 1%. He also has a piggy nose and double chin, to insinuate that he is greedy and getting fat off of the hard labor of the 99%.

The second dungeon is STOP SOPA. In this dungeon, the enemies are plain black censorship boxes, similar to the censorship barriers throughout the level. These black boxes represent the literal manifestation of censorship, which is attempting to censor the player (average internet user). There is slight irony in this dungeon: the background is the actual SOPA Wikipedia page, and the censorship barriers are censoring the text defining SOPA. The boss for this dungeon is an older, white politician dressed in a black suit and red tie. This was done in order to represent the male politicians, especially Lamar Smith, in charge of regulating the Internet, although it is a decision that should be made by the American people.

The third dungeon is STOP KONY 2012. The background is meant to look like an African village that is in the midst of being destroyed by Kony’s troops of child soldiers. The background is meant to be tranquil in contrast to the burning huts. These huts represent the turmoil of various Africa countries impacted by the civil unrest, making the user feel empathetic towards the actual cause. Kony is the dungeon boss, and is dressed in a simple olive military uniform that accents his evil red eyes. He does not even have a weapon, since his weapons are his child soldiers. The child soldiers are lighter skinned with clear complexions and bald heads to represent their youth. Their machetes are disproportionately large to make the children avatars look smaller than they really are (they are about the same size as Kony).

Aural rhetoric:

The music for Slackbook was carefully decided upon based on the rhetorical meanings that could be delivered through the audio medium. As discussed in Kevin Donnely’s analysis of film music, “we often barely notice music in films is usually highly effective. It creates tension, elicits emotion and is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of the cinematic experience.” The same is true of music in video games. Although most of the experience and delivery in a video game comes from the player’s interaction with his or her environment, music can also add to the experience. This is accomplished effectively when the music solidifies how immersed a player is in the game. By creating this third dimension of connectivity (the other two being touch from controlling the player and sight by seeing the game’s environment), the mind of the player is further set into the frame of mind we seek the player to attain after the game’s completion. This ‘frame of mind’ is a greater realization that what most of us do to change the world for its own betterment isn’t effective. In order to have a skeptical player truly be persuaded to go out and be more than a slacktivist, all points of entry to the senses and feelings must be approached. This is why music and sound is such an important addition to video games, Slackbook in particular.

At first, we had to decide what kind of music would be used for the game. Due to the NES-like nature of this game, it seemed immediately intuitive to pick music that was congruent with this style. In an effort to complete the “retro” feel of this game, 8-bit style music was quickly decided upon. The origin of the music came from diverse sources; that of open-source, unknown music, and a couple mainstream pieces converted to 8-bit emulations. The royalty free music was selected due to ease of access and availability. These relatively unknown, generic songs were perfect for most of the game. To add in a little variation and recognizability, two popular songs were also selected. The process of making these songs 8-bit is actually an illusion. The songs, once put in the game, were in fact .wav and .mp3 files. We used a program called GXSCC which took the original .midi files and created an emulation of 8-bit-sounding music with them. It was found with some research in Vanderbilt’s Journal of Entertainment & Technology that 8-bit music was originally used in order to dramatically save space on the limited storage of games back in the 1980s. A storage issue is clearly not a problem now, but the age of this style of music can be used to effectively pull in older participants who played older video games. In fact, virtually everyone who has played a video game and is old enough to drive has played a game that has 8-bit music. This allows for familiarity within the product.

The finale of the game is also assisted with music. Music that can convey specific feelings and understanding how to use them in the right places was crucial. In Triumphant Repetition in Music by Calvin Brown it is discussed how specific feelings can be created using the correct combination of notes and chord progressions. This was applied to the finale song, which inherently sounds like that “triumphant” song that is expected at the end of a game. For the sound effects, we used recognizable tones from other games. When the character attains a thumb up or “like”, the Facebook instant message sound goes off.

Procedural rhetoric: (as defined by Ian Bogost in Persuasive Games)

The player will navigate his avatar throughout each of the three dungeons and collect ‘likes’ (Facebook thumbs up icon) and donation icons: a clock with the number 30 or 60 on it representing donated minutes, and dollar bills with the number 5, 10, or 50 representing donated money (these icons are original creations to escape copyright). The ‘likes’ mark the path from spawn location to transition door or boss to inform the player where to go, and so will be plentiful and easily accessible. This is a remark on how easy it is to get ‘likes’ on Facebook posts about social issues like Occupy Wall Street. However, the ‘likes’ will be worth only one point each, and so will have very little impact on the player’s overall score. The donation icons, especially the clocks, are worth considerably more points (1000 points each for the hour clocks and 200 points each for the half hour clocks). These icons are rare and are considerably more difficult obtain due to barrier position and enemy location. This is designed so that the player will have to exert more time and effort to acquire these icons, just like it takes more time and effort in real life to create social change.

The dungeons are designed to become increasingly difficult from level to level, which we planned according to James Paul Gee’s Incremental principle. The first room in the Occupy Wall Street dungeon is the easiest, with a single enemy contained within barriers. This allows the player to get used to the game controls before moving on to more difficult levels that either have more enemies, faster enemies, a more complex dungeon layout, or harder to reach bosses and donation icons. The last level in the game is in the Kony dungeon, with four enemy children soldiers surrounding Kony (the boss) and moving toward the player’s avatar. If the player lingers too long, he will be caught by the soldiers and have to start the level over. We wanted to make the game hard enough to be interesting, but easy enough for the casual player to get through fairly quickly.

After the player has made it through all three dungeons, he will make his way up to the blue-checkered finish line, which will trigger a particular image based on the player’s score. The info bar contains the total number of likes collected, as well as the total amount of time and money donated. This information will be used to calculate the overall score. The donated time and money will count significantly more than the likes, so if the player put in minimal effort and only collected “likes,” his score will be very low and he will “lose” the game. In this instance, an extremely negative image will appear of a self-destructing Earth with the accompanying text: “Facebook ’likes’ won’t save the world.” We want to emphasize the negative effects of Facebook slacktivism, as this form of activism is primarily just a way for people to connect to others rather than create real social change. Joss Hands discusses the way technology provides a social network for people to collaboratively critique the social systems that govern them in his book, @ is for Activism. Hands also explains how activism can create change through technology, but it only does so if users of technology are willing to put effort in beyond just sharing opinions on Facebook. Technology is great for spreading awareness, but awareness only creates change if the newly educated and passionate people are willing to act on their knowledge. The article “Activism vs Slacktivism” addresses the amplification technology can lend to activism, but questions whether technology is just creating slacktivists instead of real social change. If no one gets involved beyond sharing or liking a Facebook post about an activist issue, nothing will change. Evgeny Morozov brings up the point that true activists embracing Facebook and other social networking sites is different than individuals who are not actively dedicated to creating change:

“It’s one thing for existing and committed activists who are risking their lives on a daily basis in opposition to the regime to embrace Facebook and Twitter and use those platforms to further their existing ends. They might be overestimating the overall effectiveness of digital campaigns or underestimating their risks, but their commitment is ‘authentic.’ It’s a completely different thing when individuals who may have only cursory interest in a given issue (or, for that matter, have no interest at all and support a particular cause only out of peer pressure) come together and start campaigning to save the world.”

It is this idea of the casual Facebook user pretending to care deeply about an issue when they share or like an issue post—even though they have no past interest in the issue and take no further action to aid the cause—that we are critiquing in our game. We want people to know that they can still be slacktivists, as it is a form of activism more suited to our busy, technology centered lives, but that they can engage in a more effective form of slacktivism than sharing Facebook posts. They can be better slacktivists by donating money through websites, playing games that benefit the world (like playing Free Rice instead of Facechange), sharing their spare computer cycles to help compute world solutions, writing an email to congressional staffers, signing a petition, etc.

We attempt to achieve this critique especially in our end-game images, even the supposed “win-state.” If a player’s score is high enough (over 2000 points), an image appears congratulating the player on his win in the game, though the image is very plain and only has white and navy text on a blue background (tying the message back to Facebook). This plain win-state image is intended to express our point that winning a game on the Internet, even if it is about slacktivism, is still not creating real change in the world (unless it is Free Rice). To further emphasize this point we included a game timer that shows the players how much time they wasted playing the game. Then to suggest ways to become a better slacktivist, we included a few examples of ways to make real world change in the amount of time spent playing the game.

Conclusion:

The reason we made a game about this issue is because the game format allows the player to assume the identity of a slacktivist, and through this identity become aware of how slacktivism creates a lot of awareness but little to no social change. A player can choose to play the game as quickly and with as little effort as possible, but then the resulting image is extremely negative. If the player chooses to put more effort into the game and get a higher score by donating time and money, he will be rewarded with congratulatory text, and a suggestion of how to have better spent the past several minutes. By playing the game, the player will learn how activism takes more effort than simply sharing a link or clicking the ‘like’ button. Since the game uses imagery directly from Facebook and uses real life slacktivism fads, the players may then reflect what they have learned in the game and apply it to their real life activism strategies. At the very least they will enjoy our parody of Facebook slacktivism and maybe “spread awareness” about slacktivism by sharing the link to our game. Oh the irony.