Policy-Heavy Play

'Fatworld' shows video games can tackle (urp) weighty issues.
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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" became something of a cyberspace scandal in 2005, when gleeful gamers discovered its graphic sex scenes. But Ian Bogost found himself intrigued by the best-selling video game for another reason entirely. He was fascinated by one of the characters, a thug whose physical appearance was virtually unheard of in the gaming universe.

This gangbanger had a gut.

"Depending on what and how much he ate, he would get fatter," says the veteran video game designer, a faculty member of the Georgia Institute of Technology. "You could have him work out and get buff. That had an impact on how the other members of the community viewed him."

Delving further into the game, Bogost discovered an acute if perhaps inadvertent sociological observation. The action is set in a poverty-stricken, gang-infested neighborhood, which provides the characters an extremely limited number of dining options. They can choose between three fast-food joints: one serving burgers, one pizza and one chicken. There is no sign of a Whole Foods market.

"I started thinking," Bogost says, "'What would it be like to have the relationship between socioeconomics, nutrition and obesity at the center of a game, rather than at the periphery?'"

The answer to his question became "Fatworld," a new online game created by Bogost's Persuasive Games studio and ITVS Interactive (a division of the Independent Television Service, best-known for producing the PBS series Independent Lens). Intended for teens and adults, it examines America's obesity epidemic from an impressively wide variety of angles, ranging from menu planning to health care costs.

"The idea we're trying to get across with the game is there is no simple answer to obesity," he says. "A lot of things are working together to create an environment in which we are not as healthy as we could be."

By "environment," Bogost is referring to both our physical surroundings (such as the presence or absence of parks or bike paths) and the sociopolitical realities that narrow our choices. While granting that individuals ultimately decide what goes into their bodies, he argues the cost and availability of certain foods is affected by political decisions, which in turn are influenced by campaign contributions.

To make this point, players choose the health and nutrition guidelines for their particular "Fatworld," deciding whether healthy snacks should be subsidized or fatty foods heavily taxed. The market can be manipulated any way you choose: Grease a politician’s pocket and you can lower the cost of greasy goodies, raise tariffs on imported produce or even ban certain products entirely. As one notably cynical instruction card reads: "If you want to buy off a politician, press 'Bribe.'"

And that's far from "Fatworld's" only biting reference. "The fact that health care is provided by vending machines can also be construed as cynical," Bogost concedes. "But it's not meant to be. It's meant to be a commentary. When I go to the doctor, I might as well be going to a vending machine sometimes.

"All of our work is hyper-stylized and cartoony. That's deliberate, but it's not necessarily because we're trying to appeal to kids. Rather, I want people to have a clear understanding that we are simplifying and abstracting these concepts."

To play "Fatworld" (which can be downloaded at fatworld.org), you begin by creating your virtual alter ego. His or her age, weight, skin color and hair color are all of your choosing. At your command, the figure then begins exploring the town on foot, panting occasionally if he or she is obese.

Most of the stops, which players can make in any order, are directly related to food or fitness. You can shop at the grocery store, and then go home and cook dinner. (Menus are provided). You can eat at one of the town’s many restaurants, which range from fast-food joints to fancy bistros. There are also numerous opportunities to work off the calories you ingest, including a running track and an aerobics fitness center.

A counter in the upper-left corner keeps track of how many calories you have accumulated and how many you have burned. If you dare, you can speed ahead through the years and discover where your nutrition decisions will ultimately lead you: in some cases, to a premature resting place in the town cemetery.

"There is a complaint about games that try to teach something about topics like this," Bogost says. "They're too pedagogical; they try to beat you over the head with a message. Their choices are always very obvious: They are the ones the sponsoring organization wants you to make. We wanted to do something different from that. In 'Fatworld,' you can do all the things you might choose not to do in your real life — and see the consequences."

Of course, deaths in video games tend to be the result of bullets or explosions, not clogged arteries. "This is not the sort of thing that people are expecting when they think of playing a game," Bogost admits. Indeed, even for a video game novice, there are times playing "Fatworld" when one wonders if he has bitten off more than he can chew. The "fun" parts of the game and the nutritional information aren't all that well integrated.

Consider the sequence where your character buys a restaurant. Players create menus and set their prices and profit margins (getting a no-extra-charge lesson in economics and entrepreneurship). Then comes the action-packed sequence, in which your character becomes a waiter, rushing back and forth between the kitchen and the dining area to serve as many customers as possible before they get frustrated and leave. Manipulating your little man is a fast-paced challenge, but does it have anything to do with health or the politics thereof?

Well, as Mary Poppins taught us, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. (She expressed no opinion on high-fructose corn syrup.) While different aspects of the game will probably appeal to different members of the family, Bogost hopes it will inspire meaningful parent-child conversations. "Multiple human players can occupy that same community, so this is a way for members of a family to have a common experience — and then to draw out ideas for informal discussion," he says.

Bogost's admirably ambitious goal is "to produce a measured experience that results in reflection." He notes that video gamers are used to mastering the intricacies of highly complex games and asks: Why can't those finely honed abilities be tapped to unravel complicated public-policy puzzles? Besides, he adds, virtually every art form was initially thought of as pure entertainment. Only through time did, say, the movies prove their ability to subtly convey social themes.

"We're pushing on the edge of the medium's conventions, trying to challenge players and future designers who will learn from our myriad mistakes," he says. "Building on what has been done in the past, we are slowly constructing a broader, deeper, more interesting medium than the one you may think of."

Not to mention weightier.

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