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Once More, (Games) With Feeling

This week, Anne reflects on games that aim to make us examine our emotions. Through the lens of the recent indie breakout game for adultsPapers Please , she reviews some games that evoke a strong emotional response in both adults and kids, highlighting recent examples of interactive products that are targeted explicitly at fostering emotional literacy in children.
March 31, 2014
PapersPlease (2)

Last week, I mentioned to a friend at work that I was going to start playing Papers Please, an indie game developed by Lucas Pope that’s racking up awards right and left these days, including winning big at the recent Game Developers Conference’s Independent Games Festival. “The game is terrific,” my colleague replied. “But you’re going to feel really bad playing it.”

What he meant was that Papers Please isn’t just a great game – it’s a game that truly challenges the player emotionally. You take on a seemingly mundane role, as an immigration inspector at the border of a fictitious country. At first, things go along fairly smoothly, as you stamp legitimate passports and send away a few sketchy characters whose details don’t add up, earning some desperately needed money for your family for each passport you process.

But things get complicated pretty quickly, as moral dilemmas arrive in various forms. A teenage girl begs you not to let the sexual trafficker who is victimizing her through the checkpoint despite the fact that he’s a citizen. An elderly man pressures you to overlook his wife’s incomplete documentation so they can immigrate together. A criminal with incomplete paperwork offers you a bribe amounting to more than you make in a day. Added to all of this is the pressure of a running tally, Oregon Trail-style, of the well-being of your family, whose health depends on your ability to stay on the right side of your supervisors and process as many passports as possible. (If you don’t have enough money to keep paying for heat, money, and medicine when they get sick, your family members will start to die off like so many dysentery victims.)

Playing Papers Please made me feel a lot of things, and my friend was right — it made me feel bad. More specifically, it made me feel guilty, conflicted, and overwhelmed. There’s basically no way to succeed, as you constantly are making the best of several bad options that inevitably lead to someone suffering. But, beyond my personal stress, the game reminded me how many great games challenge us, not only with scoring points or beating levels, but with reflecting on the actions we’re taking in the game and how they make us feel.

Simultaneous to falling down the Papers, Please rabbit hole, I was fortunate enough to be asked to sit on the jury for the Interactive Prize of the Prix Jeunesse, an international competition run by my friend (and fellow Kidscreen blogger) David Kleeman. The theme of this year’s competition is “Feelings in Focus,” and myself and my fellow jurors spent several weeks reviewing dozens of interactive products from around the world that speak in one way or another to themes around children’s emotions and media.

The confluence of these two experiences has me thinking a lot about kids games, and when and how they challenge kids to empathize with others and engage with their own emotions. Social and emotional learning is a category we often overlook when talking about interactive experiences, or that we see as a background to more explicit curricula like literacy or science concepts. And while Papers Please is operating at a level of emotional complexity and moral and political commentary that would be totally inappropriate for kids, there are certainly plenty of games and apps that pay thoughtful attention to the emotional world of children, as my Prix Jeunesse experience underlined. Here are a few recent interactive products that are doing interesting things around provoking and dealing with kids’ emotions.


Sesame Breathe, Think, Do 


This new app from Sesame Workshop takes a head-on approach to the emotional challenges that a preschooler faces on an average day. With voiceover in English or Spanish, the app asks children to help a monster that is struggling with everyday tasks – tying his shoes, waiting in line for the slide – to get his emotions under control. With a simple, repeated sequence, encouraging the monster to take a few deep breaths, think about a plan, and follow through on the plan they choose, this app gives children practical tools they can use when they find themselves frustrated, fearful, or sad.

Breathe, Think, Do is very explicit in how it approaches these issues – and might be even considered a little preachy – but I really admire the work Sesame Workshop does to help kids grapple with difficult emotions. (They also have wonderful interactive and broadcast initiatives for families in particularly stressful situations, including military families and those dealing with the challenge of having a family member incarcerated.) In a market with a lot of vaguely “pro-social” products, Sesame’s work stands out.


Arthur: So Funny I Forgot to Laugh  

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A very straightforward interactive book in some ways, this Arthur story uses one of my favorite advantages of interactive products to great effect – the ability to zoom in on a given character and see what they’re thinking. In this story, Arthur pushes a joke with his friend Sue Ellen too far, but isn’t aware he’s hurting her feelings and ultimately being a bit of a bully.

As the child pages through the story the action periodically pauses, and the user is asked pertinent questions (“Is Arthur laughing with Sue Ellen, or at her?”) and allowed to see what each character is thinking at the time. At the end, the child is allowed to choose what they feel like is the best path for each character to take, and see how their choices play out. Again, it’s a very direct take on the emotional world of young kids, but it’s thoughtfully and gently done in a way that’s sympathetic to all of the story’s characters.


Tee and Mo


Developed and produced by the excellent people at Plug-In Media, this CBeebies suite of web games – and the accompanying tv series – have a somewhat lighter but still very relevant emotional touch. The central characters, a monkey mother and toddler, are adorable and amusing for small kids, no question. But the standout feature of these games is that they’re designed for kids and parents to play together, with a two-player option available for every game and intuitive game play that’s fun for both parties. This simple and lovely setup provides ample opportunity for kids and their grown-ups to talk, collaborate, and play together in a simple, yet very emotionally resonant way.

These are just a few examples of kids games that really bring emotion and emotional literacy to the forefront, in an app store and web landscape that’s often crowded with ABCs and 123s. So, by all means, download and play Papers Please to have your own emotions challenged, and then take some time with a kid in your life to enjoy some of these kinder, gentler emotional experiences.


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