Choice: Texas – a very serious game

Kyle McIntosh September 18, 2013 - 10:59 pm

In the final hours of the Choice: Texas IndieGoGo campaign, we talk with the creators of the brave new project about their personal background, the research behind the game, and the situation in Texas. This is a very serious game.

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Choice: Texas isn’t your ordinary videogame. Despite the recent bevy of serious releases, from Gone Home to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, games haven’t exactly gotten political. Abortion is at the heart of Choice: Texas, a controversial issue that once again entered mainstream debate this past June, through state senator Wendy Davis’ (attempted) filibuster of an abortion bill. Work on the game actually started last winter, but the filibuster invigorated the project, making “things feel more urgent… the work more timely,” according to one of the game’s developers, Carly Kocurek. Soon, all but five abortion clinics in the state will be closed.

Kocurek and co-developer Allyson Whipple go further back than this past winter, however. The two met in a dance class and became friends. When Kocurek was wed, Whipple was part of the wedding party. Despite varying backgrounds – Kocurek is a cultural historian of serious videogames, Whipple is a poet and college instructor – the two have been able to work together effectively. Both assert this stems from their friendship.

“[Abortion] isn’t really a topic discussed openly where I grew up,” says Kocurek, despite, today, the news cycle regularly raising abortion as an issue in Texas and nearby states. “I was so struck by how different people have such strikingly different levels of access to reproductive health services, including abortion. I was trying to make that work as a pen-and-paper game or a card game, and I just couldn’t.”

Most table top games we think of have options for everyone to come out a winner, even if there are preferred paths, such as going to college first in LIFE. And maybe LIFE isn’t the best comparison, because bringing true-to-life situations to games has a problem: “they’re fundamentally unfair.” Soon, games like Spent and Depression Quest would become inspirations, as “letting people play as one person and really having to think through the factors involved in decision-making seemed perfect.” An interactive web game would work. After all, abortion access is not always fair.

Educational interactive fiction

Kocurek and Whipple describe the game as “educational interactive fiction”, because the scenarios are made up, though they’re very much grounded in reality.

“In 2008 and 2009, I was a volunteer for the Lilith Fund [in Austin]… that helps low-income women with funding for abortions,” Whipple recalls. “Working the hotline, I talked to women from all over the state, and some from [other states]. These were women in some pretty desperate situations, and the stories I heard really stuck with me.”

The stories from Whipple’s time at the Lilith Fund were drawn on in creating the characters, but research beyond the anecdotal was conducted. The pair waded through medical and sociological research, legal codes, and research into the costs of having a child. According to Whipple, it’s this research that gives the situations presented in the game realism.

These scenarios include differing characters – one will feature a high school student, and another will feature a character that already has a family – and even outcomes. Players select a character, read a description of them, and then, through a set of options, make choices for that character. This seems standard enough, but it’s the information the player receives that makes things interesting.

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“The character, and by extension the player, gets different information depending on who they choose to talk to in the game,” explains Kocurek. “The story plays out differently depending on the choices you make.”

“I’d like to add,” says Whipple, “that [the characters and scenarios] were built based around issues of geography… financial stability, age, and family support. Some characters are going to have easier times than others based on the resources available to them.”

The considerations for game scenarios also impacted the pair’s choice of how to fund and distribute the game. The release philosophy is as such: make the game reach the widest possible audience, make it an educational tool, and hope it fosters conversation. With this in mind, a free web release made the most sense to the duo. As Whipple points out: “This is a game about access, so it’s natural that we want people to be able to access it without being stuck behind a paywall.”

Abortion is a hot-button topic, though, and the two have received “vitriolic reactions,” including hate-mail. But they’ve also received loads of support, ranging from family and friends to speaking with a former abortion counselor. More pressingly, Choice: Texas has reached its funding goal, and in these – its final hours – has added a modest stretch goal that will see a sex educator creating lesson plans for educators at the high school and college level to use freely.

“Carly and I are obviously passionate about this, but it’s encouraging when other people get excited. Yes, there are people who hate what we’re doing, but the number of people who have donated, who have spread the word, and who have cheered us on far outweigh that.”

With just over $10,000 raised (and currently just $500 short of the stretch goal), Choice: Texas will come to fruition whether naysayers like it or not, and will be available by February of next year.

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