Shoe the president: when games write themselves

Time for a little fun.  The latest flash game web sensation, Sock and Awe, gives you the opportunity to throw shoes at the president.  It’s supposed to be fun and funny, not a big political statement.  Go look at it now real quick.  We’ll wait…

Finished?  You may play it and agree that there’s no dialog or story in it, but I’m here to tell you just the opposite.  It’s fun and funny because of the story.  It’s just not written into the game itself; it’s been written by journalists and politicians for nearly five years.

Far too often, developers and gamers alike assume that because there’s no dialog or Star Wars-like scroll at the beginning that there is no story.  Part of the job of narrative in games is to provide context and meaning to players’ actions.  However, players often already have knowledge that can help your game and narrative, like in licensed games.  If you play a Batman game, chances are you don’t need to learn his origin story or what Gotham City is all about.  You have been exposed to his exposition perhaps through reading comics, watching movies or TV, or going to certain Halloween parties over the course of your life.  When you plug in the Batman game, you pretty much know what story you’re in for.

In Sock and Awe, just like with many licensed games, the player comes to the table with the story and context in mind.  You’re aware, for example, that Bush is president, that he was visiting Iraq years after the “Shock and Awe” campaign put US troops there, and that a man threw shoes at him.  The developers chose the right design and the right art to tell the story that has been buzzing on the internet this week.  Now imagine how you would react to playing this game if you had just woken up today from a nap that had lasted:

Two weeks
You would play this game and find the game funny, but you wouldn’t be sure why you’re throwing shoes.

Six years
You think it’s a little odd that you are throwing anything.

Nine years
You are wondering why you’re throwing things at this random man (or, if you’re knowledgeable, at the Texas governor).

Let’s face it.  The game is basically a low-rent re-skin of Duck Hunt.  I’m even playing Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass right now and there are several mini-games of the same type in it.  It’s what you know about the story and background that makes Sock and Awe fun.  And adding in which countries have thrown the most shoes… well, that’s the icing!

Which games have you played that assumed you knew a lot about the world or backstory?

Posted by Anne for Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.
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Published in: on December 18, 2008 at 2:42 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hehe, depends a bit on whom you put to sleep. A lot of Iraquis would know why they are throwing shoes at Bush even after a century of sleep.

    Some games come too late. In the first few months after Operation Iraq noone would have really made such a game. It’s easy to throw shoes now: in reality or in a game. It wasn’t so when Bush had power. I don’t think a journalist would have thrown a shoe back then. It was a time when some TV stations were “mistakenly” bombed. Just remember Al Jazeera TV. Opposition is easier when power has turned its back to you because it’s leaving. 😉

    Anyway, to come to your point: I completely agree that the whole fun of this game comes from the backstory which is based on real-life experience and knowledge. Otherwise the mechanic of the game is rather trivial and doesn’t spark much desire for exploration etc. There was a similar game about Bill Gates in the days when he was accused of trying to build a monopoly: You could throw a cake at him (if I remember correctly). But these are rather prank-games. Once played, the prank has been played out and you stop playing it.

    I don’t know if you agree, but the game is built on Schadenfreude. The only reason you like to play it is to see Bush being subject to an attack.

    The interesting part for me is that throwing shoes is very common in the Middle-East. Especially women use slippers when they have to “communicate” a message to their kids. If you’re not a “brave child”, you suddenly see a slipper flying through the air and coming at you. When we saw the game first with were joking with our friends what score our mothers would make. Oh, don’t worry, they’re often just nylon flip-flops, it doesn’t hurt. 😉

  2. Altug-
    Thanks for the comment! Just to clarify, I asked you to imagine how you would react if you had just woken up from a long sleep, not if you went to sleep today. Most people, if they had been asleep since 1998-ish, would not know who Bush was. I imagine if you played this game 10 years from now, everyone would get the joke, but that’s another story.

  3. Bill Gates did get a pie in a face. There’s a French prankster who specializes in throwing pies at famous people.
    – Sande

  4. […] The Writer’s Cabal is another blog recommended by Ben. A quick glance reveals a very nice, short piece on ‘Shoe the President: When Games Write Themselves’. […]

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