Twenty one years ago, on April 7, 1994, Hutu militias armed with clubs and machetes began a 100-day genocidal massacre of Rwanda’s minority Tutsi. When they were done, an estimated 800,000 people had perished.
In 2008, Jamie Antonisse, then a student at the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media MFA program, selected for a class project the ideas of “human rights” and “singing” as a topic and mechanic for the experimental game Hush.
The more he thought about it, singing appealed to Antonisse as an “empathetic, emotional mechanic.”
“What if this game was not about trying to solve a human rights crisis?” he said in an email interview. “What if it was about trying to survive? What does it mean, what does it feel like to sing for your survival?”
The idea gave birth to Hush, a game inspired by the horrors of the Rwandan genocide that had “crystallized” in his mind as “one of the most terrible [and under-reported] tragedies in recent history.”
Hush, a four-month collaboration that included Antonisse, Devon Johnson, Chris Baily, Joey Orton and Brittany Pirello, is about “feeling powerless in the face of violent oppression,” said Antonisse.
The award-winning game puts the player in the role of a mother in a Rwandan Tutsi community trying to calm her baby with a lullaby. As Hutu militias descend on her village, she continues to sing, shielding her child from the terror outside.
Few games focused on human rights and social action at the time. Those that did were “very idealistic attempts to fix the problem of human rights abuse logically,” he added.
Antonisse said that as an outsider, he was uncomfortable creating a piece of historical fiction about the Rwandan tragedy. But he found people wanted more games along these lines “despite our moral questions surrounding this game – our uncertainty about whether we had the ‘right’ to create a piece about this tragedy without first-hand experience.”
Antonisse said Hush has been taught in game design courses across the United States “as an example of how one can address a serious subject through gameplay.”
“Hopefully it has inspired other people to make games that are more than power fantasies, games that tell stories of the disenfranchised and the underserved,” he said.
Antonisse later got a chance to work on two other games – Spectre, which was inspired by his grandmother’s battle with dementia, and the Treasure of Bell Island, a game intended for soldiers returning from war with traumatic brain injuries.
Gamers as storytellers, not spectators
Thirty years since gaming entered pop culture, more games dealing with serious topics like preserving life, emotional trauma and human diversity are emerging.
As games continue to evolve, they are becoming as much works of art as entertainment, said Pawel Miechowski, a senior writer at Poland’s 11 bit studios. Last year, his company released This War of Mine, a game inspired by the1992-96 Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War and focuses on the hardships civilians must endure to stay alive as they are caught in the crossfire.
This War of Mine centers around the “human desire to live and [the] heavy emotional and physical difficulties people need to face to survive the siege of their city,” said Miechowski.
“Imagine yourself in such [a] situation, when you’re short on everything [food, water, medical care], but you still need to get those to save your friends or family,” he said. “And at the same time you want to stay human rather than turning into a bandit, stealing and robbing other civilians.”
Developers have since created an add-on to the game called War Child that features works from well-known artists. The additional component can be purchased for a low price; and all proceeds benefit U.K-based non-profit, War Child, which helps children in conflict zones.
Miechowski said these types of games can teach and can involve players interactively in telling serious stories, instead of treating them as spectators, as a movie would. In games, he said the player “is the storyteller. His/her actions and decisions create the … story and consequences of those decisions.”
He said perhaps it’s time for games to “grow up and be as mature [a] form of art as movies already are.”
“I’d like to think Hush is on the right side of that conversation,” Antonisse said, “and maybe helped get it going.”
“The idea of using game mechanics to help people through difficult situations is enormously interesting,” he said. “And I’d love to do more with that.”