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Digital Culture

From surveillance to racism, how computer games tackle big issues

A waste of time? Not anymore. Today's computer games have become much more. Whether they deal with state surveillance or racism, the nominees for the German Computer Game Prize show what gaming is capable of achieving.

Games have become inextricable from our modern society. So-called Let's-Plays, guides to games hosted by experts on YouTube or via live stream, grab the attention of millions and have developed into their own entertainment format. It's not surprising that stars like gamer and YouTuber Gronkh are members of this year's German Computer Game Prize jury.

This year, the German Computer Game Prize (DCP) will pay out its highest prize money, amounting to a total of 550,000 euros (nearly $600,000) - 80,000 euros more than last year. The prize that links politics and the computer industry is offered by the industry associations BIU and GAME, as well as the federal ministry of traffic and digital infrastructure.

This year, more glamor has been added to the event with German television star Barbara Schöneberger hosting the award ceremony on Wednesday at Games Week Berlin. The best "made in Germany" games will be honored in 14 different categories. Good games are expected to be culturally valuable, technically innovative or simply entertaining. Although the criteria are a bit vague, interesting discoveries can certainly be made among the nominees.

Computer game On Rusty Trails (Black Pants Studio)

The players of "On Rusty Trails" can only proceed if they change colors 

In between privacy and surveillance

The game "On Rusty Trails" that has been nominated in three categories combines the mechanism of a classical jump and run game (think Super Mario) with controversial social topics. The players move around as the metallic creature Elvis. During his search for a new home, he is confronted by prejudices and misunderstandings over and over again. Trying to escape from these challenges, he presses a button and slips either into his hairy blue costume or into his metallic outfit - depending on his particular location. 

"People change their color, and subsequently, their surrounding changes. This basic mechanism somehow smacks of racism. We have tried to introduce this principle into all aspects of the game, including the design, music and animation," explains Sebastian Stramm, CEO and illustrator at Black Pants Studio, which developed the game.

"On Rusty Trails" deals with racism, the refugee crisis and the urban housing crisis in a playful way without moralizing.

And this game is not an exception. The prize in the category Best Serious Game, endowed with 40,000 euros, goes to the game with the biggest cultural or didactic value. Also nominated this year is the surveillance simulation "Orwell."

Osmotic Studios, Daniel Marx (Osmotic Studios)

Daniel Marx from Osmotic Studios

Here, the player assumes the role of a digital detective. His task is to monitor the private lives of others with the objective of detecting the backers of planned terror attacks. "We were looking for a theme in 2013, when Snowden's leaks came up," elaborates Daniel Marx, developer and producer at Osmotic Studios.

Games that center around the players

"In this game, players satisfy their own need for security while intruding into the private sphere of others. According to Marx, this discrepancy is intended to make people question their own motives - where do we stand, and how far may we go? In Marx's view, computer games have certain qualities that are lacking in other media, like interactivity and the do-it-yourself aspect.

"When it comes to other media, the consumers only consume, and there is always a certain distance. The figures that act are the others. But if you're thrown into the situation yourself - even if it's just a game - you have to deal with it differently and really think about what the right thing to do is," the developer sums up.

Nevertheless, games have not earned a positive image among older generations. Computer games are often seen as a waste of time - even though they've come a long way. Many games are based on interactive storytelling, which means no game over, and no competition.

Orwell computer game (Surprise Attack Games)

You can become a spy in the game Orwell

"It starts with the word 'play,' which suggests some kind of nonsense. But games can be very multifaceted. I would call them interactive experiences," Marx says. 

Still, most games nominated for this year's prize are entertainment products, even if the intention to promote quality and innovation is clearly visible. Stamm says, "It provides fantastic support, especially for smaller projects that no publisher would accept since they're too risky."

The only thing that the DCP lacks, in Marx's view, is international attention.

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