On Jan 14, Ian Bogost of Persuasive Games rolled out Fatworld — a digital work that illustrates the complex connections between health, class, economics, and politics, via the rhetoric of the sandbox game.
A sandbox game features open-ended play, with no single predetermined “winning” outcome. A target-shooting game such as Space Invaders forces the player to shoot waves of attacking enemies, because the game ends when the enemies encroach upon the player’s position. By contrast, an open-ended game such as Sim City permits the player to decide whether the goal of the game is to create a thriving gridlocked metropolis, a road-free utopia. a network of hamlets insulated by forests, or an urban wasteland.
Fatworld presents a series of interconnected systems, such as a socio-economic model, a political model, and (the most complex in the game) a nutrition and health model. Playing Fatworld is a matter of figuring out how the game depicts connections between these systems.
The release of Fatworld seems perfectly timed, after McDonalds UK CEO Steve Easterbrook, ruminating on the causes of childhood obesity, noted last week that “there’s fewer green spaces and kids are at home playing computer games on the TV when in the past they’d have been burning off energy outside.”
Bogost is an accomplished games scholar and proponent of what the field in general calls “serious games.” His studio produced the Howard Dean for Iowa game, and has provided editorial material to the New York Times in the form of “newsgames” (a cross between a game and a political cartoon) such as Food Import Folly.
His book Unit Operations introduces a universal method for analyzing texts from literary works to video games, and this week students in my Video Game Theory and Culture class are reading his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames.
Knowing Ian was behind Fatworld, I had high hopes. I really, really wanted to like it much better than I do.
I wanted to write a review that discusses the game’s educational potential, its elegance, and its rhetorical effectiveness at using the game format to communicate a message about health (and politics, economics, and lifestyle).
I wanted to say I loved the isometric cuteness of the game world, and that the puffy menu bars and the bloated cartoon hand that serves as the mouse pointer fit wonderfully with the theme of the game. I wanted to praise the Govern O Mat, where you can select food-related legislation and click the “Bribe” button to influence a politician. I wanted to try to work restaurant review clichés into my review.
I did not want to do what I’m about to do instead — bellyache about a confusing interface that violates basic UI principles; puzzle over displays with unexplained readouts that never change and clocks that count up by increments of four and down by increments of two (why?); grumble about design flaws that make mini-games unnecessarily confusing; and grouse about bugs that make minigames cut off abruptly for no reason.
Before I continue, I should point out that the only game I’ve ever released (other than Whack-a-Moliere) is a text-adventure that was hailed as “insanely buggy” and “such a disappointment.” Well, those were only some of the reactions, but even those who praised the writing and humor were among the most vocal about the technical errors that hurt their ability to appreciate the game’s accomplishments. My reaction to this version Fatworld is similar. (I wish someone would tell me that I accidentally downloaded a beta release… other Persuasive Games titles are much more polished.)
In Fatworld, you create a cute cartoon character, selecting stats such as age, body shape, food allergies (if any), and socioeconomic class. Right away, the game foregrounds an important issue — that many factors that influence our dietary health are out of our control. So far, so good.
The main game screen is an isometric display of a toylike neighborhood, and gameplay involves such Sim-plistic tasks as buying a house, going grocery shopping, and exercisiing. The interior of my middle-class house is all kitchen (with what seems to be a fully-stocked refrigerator– or is that just a list of what MIGHT be in my refrigerator, if I can go to the grocery store to buy the ingredients? I’m not sure). In my kitchen, I can select what I want to eat (but I never see a message that says “You’ve eaten a meal!” or an indication that I’ve taken in any calories, so am I just building a shopping list? I’m not sure).
I want to like a game that offers meaty commentary on the politics and economics of food, especially when it’s designed with such panache and served with heaping helpings of in-your-face satire. I want to be so intrigued by the presentation that I linger, soaking up the atmosphere, so that I stick around long enough to see what happens to the game model when click the “bribe” button at the Govern O Mat.
But the numerous technical problems were about as hard to stomach as the food-review clichés in this review.
When I first started up Fatworld, the program reduced the resolution in my primary monitor, but the game screen actually popped up in my crappy old secondary monitor. Even weirder? When I clicked on any application in my newly de-rezzed primary monitor (such as the word processor where I drafted this review), both screens minimized. This may be a problem with Windows, or my monitor drivers, but it has affected my experience with the game.
In various screens, the game world is full of floating signs labeled “enter” (even when I want to exit the room, not enter it; or when I want to open the fridge, not enter it). Like a well-conditioned computer drone, when faced with a floating sign that says “enter,” I keep pushing the “enter” key. My brain simply cannot get around the fact that I’m supposed to hit the space bar instead. No enter key… no mouse click. This becomes especially frustrating during the timed mini-games.
Exploring Fatworld on Foot
Between the character setup screens and the beginning of the main session, the game offers an apologetic note about how easy it is to get lost in the game map. The character moves very, very slowly at first. (Is that why Play This Thing says Fatworld has performance issues? Could be.) I imagine the game is set up to model the tempting convenience of fast food by making the player walk past restaurants and fast food joints in order to get to the grocery store. Making a character walk painfully slowly for several blocks emulates the difficulty faced by people who don’t have transportation to get from their low-cost housing to the nearest sources of healthy food. (The game model does include transportation by car, but my PC is carless.)
Right around the time I was getting VERY tired of how slowly my character walked, I came across an exercising minigame. You mash the G and H keys rapidly to represent the motion of your character’s feet. Very tedious, but a fair representation of the discipline required to make regular exercise a part of your life. After running the race course a few times, my character’s default speed was much, much faster, making exploration less tedious. I imagine that if I don’t exercise on a regular basis, my PC’s speed will slowly decline. But that pleasurable experience came only after I tried unsuccessfully to compete the running game several times. The first time, as I neared the finish line, the game reset and kicked me out into the main playing area. What was that about? Did I take too long? I didn’t see any countdown clock.
This happened two or three times, after which I noticed that immediately after I enter the running area, but before I push the button to start the race, the stopwatch is advancing at four steps per second. Isn’t that the clock that records my score? Why is it running so fast, and why is it running even before I’ve pressed “enter”?
Wait a minute… I’m supposed to “enter” the race by pressing the space bar. Okay… gotta remember that. (Is that what the problem was?)
A minor quibble… after I’ve finished the race a few times, when I duck back in to see if the clock has fixed itself, I’m trapped at the screen that tells me to “enter” the race (by pressing the space bar!) — I can’t back out to the main screen without running the whole race. (Forcing me to stay here once I’ve arrived was kind of a slap in the face, after the minigame kicked me out against my wishes three or four times in a row.)
In order to encourage the player to explore the game world, the game begins with a very simple tutorial that’s just a list of places to visit and things to do. If I had some in-game motivation for exploring — coupons that I could use in the game, or some other kind of food-related mini-quest that I have to complete before being permitted to do some of the things on the checklist — the exploration would happen more naturally.
The streets are all laid out on diagonals, but the arrow keys are set up to move you NSEW, so you have to press two keys in order to move diagonally. At least I’d like to be able to mouse over map inset and see labels for important stuff, so I don’t have to waste time wandering (s l o o o o w l y) around. Places that you buy are marked with stars in the isometric view, but I kept losing my house and my coffee shop. (I see my house marked on the map, but not my coffee shop.)
I’d like to be able to use the mouse to click the ground and have the PC walk to that spot. (I’d happily accept that it was necessary to use the keyboard for minigames.) I’d be more likely to accept the keyboard for moving the PC if you could also use the keyboard to adjust the menus, but you can’t — you have to click to scroll, select, and push dialog box buttons. As it is, you have to switch back and forth between using the keyboard to move the PC and using the mouse to micromanage lists of menu items and ingredients. Awkward.
And the game has a lot of lists of food items, displayed through a series of fairly standard nested popup windows and list boxes. Sometimes, to get out of an inset window, you click a little (x) icon that’s attached to the frame of the current window. At other times, such in this screen shot, the (X) icon is farther away from where the action is. (That’s a “Meals” button where the “OK” button would be in a standard dialog box.) Having already been burned by mini-games that close unexpectedly, I grew worried that that clicking on an X won’t just close my current window, but cancel out of the whole menu-selection process and dump me back in my kitchen (or out on the street).
Just as I’d like the “enter” key to let me “enter” a new mode, I’d like the “ESC” key to let me back out of it. Instead, the ESC key always pops up a thin game features panel (where you can set in-game volume levels, exit the game, or return to play). So a “fairly standard” set of windows and list boxes means “slightly non-standard,” which in turn means “makes you feel stupid every time you try to do what works for the hundreds of thousands of other programs that DO implement Enter for ‘I select this thing’ and and ESC for ‘take it away, I’m done.'”
In the game world, I own a modest little coffee house, and I’m well-stocked with inventory. (Or did I merely create a shopping list?) When I set up the menu for my customers to use, at first it looked like it cost me nothing at all to purchase the pancakes, salads, etc. that I planned to sell. I decided I’d charge a dollar for every breakfast item, so that I’d earn a dollar profit on each sale. But when I checked the menu a little later, reasonable default values had been filled in, and my profit margin was different. (Why did I see all those zeros at first, if the game had default values?)
Once I found the grocery store, I went shopping. (I’m pretty sure that’s what I was doing, anyway.) I tried to do it because the tutorial checklist told me to. But since the refrigerator in my new house is well-stocked and my inventory just seems to appear in my restaurant, I’m not sure what I gain from visiting the store. After I spent a long time carefully selecting items from the various shelves in the store, I noticed an option near the checkout counter that reads “Make New Grocery.” Was the button too short to say “Make New Grocery List”? Will that set up a standing order, so that I can return and ask for a basket full of the same contents next time? Or will clicking that button zero out the contents I’ve selected and make me start over again?
Why do I need to go shopping at all? Do I have to stock up my refrigerator so that when I shut the game off, my PC will have enough food to live until I return?
The items in the grocery store are labeled with information on nutritional content. But so far as I can tell, my PC hasn’t eaten anything since I started playing… (Or is my PC eating automatically? Is that part of the point of the game — that we have to make an effort to change our eating habits, because if we don’t we’ll just eat without thinking? Or not?)
By this time I had encountered enough bugs that I simply didn’t trust the game.
I didn’t bother clicking the “Make New Grocery” button. Maybe I missed out on a fantastic minigame in which the player genetically engineers a wonder food item. (Or not?)
Adding to the interface woes is the fact that I’ve encountered displays that don’t seem to do anything, and menu options that are cryptic. After two days of playing, the little hamburger under my PC portrait still reads “0 Calories” and the little running guy still says “0 Calories.”
What do those measurements mean? Many of the other screens have help icons, but not the main screen.
Am I supposed to do something to force my character to eat something, so that the game can record how many calories I’ve taken in, so that it can then start reporting how many I’m burning?
Likewise, while my PC’s savings have declined as I’ve purchased items, there are two other options with icons that suggest they are supposed to report income and expenses, but both of these have been zero the whole time I’ve played. (What am I missing?)
According to the health report, my PC is a healthy 39-year-old man who weighs 69 lbs. When I purchased a house, it cost only $2000, so obviously Fatworld dollars don’t map precisely to real-world dollars. I’ve also seen clocks that count up by four every second, and others that count down by two every second. If money and time operate in different scales in Fatworld, how do I interpret a clean bill of health for an adult male with a weight of 69lbs? My medical report doesn’t mention dwarfism. (Are the doctors here quacks? What am I missing?)
The Restaurant Minigame
I was prepared to enjoy a minigame in which I served meals to my customers.
Inside my coffee house is bouncing arrow that tells me to start the serving game by pressing enter. (No, dammit, I “enter” the game by pressing the space bar.) Then, another arrow flashes to tell me where to pick up food so I can serve it to my customers.
A display with a green checkmark reads “Ready to Serve,” which seems to mean that an order is ready to be picked up and taken to a table full of waiting customers, before a timer hovering over the table runs out.
But there I am, standing right in front of the “Get Food here!” sign, pressing enter (and space, and shift, and clicking with the mouse) but I don’t see anything happening to indicate that I have, in fact, gotten the food.
Is it because I have to go around to the other side of the counter? (That arrow is placed pretty far back. Is that what I’m missing?)
I finally realized that when the game is in this state — with the green checkmark on the plate and “Ready to serve” under it — I’ve picked up an order (any order) and now I have to deliver it to a table (any table).
So yeah, now I feel stupid, since I can see clearly that the label says “Ready to Serve” not “Ready to Pick Up.” So it was my fault for misinterpreting the sign.
But that “Get food here!” arrow seemed to be telling me that the green-checked order was sitting on the counter, where I’m supposed to pick it up. If that arrow disappeared after I’ve picked up the food, or there were a central label that changed from “Pick up Order!” to “Serve Any Table!” I wouldn’t be writing this paragraph now.
Three of the labels include arrows, and two move in unison, so the in-game experience is not quite as confusing as this still. Nevertheless, if the PC is placed right here, what action is cuing up? Am I positioned to start a minigame, game, enter some other mode (what mode?), or exit to the street?
Well… what do you think will happen when you push enter?
Take your time…
Actually, nothing happens… because you’re supposed to hit the space bar! (D’oh!)
Adding to the confusion, there are no customers in my coffee shop at this point, but there is a floating clock that counts down 9, 7, 5, 3, 1, and then repeats. I’m guessing that there’s some scripting error — a function that’s supposed to subtract one from the clock each second is being called twice, and some other function that’s supposed to make the clock disappear when it reaches 0 is never being called because the clock never reaches zero.
Fatworld Begins to Work for Me…
Once I finally figured out the food-service game, I felt like the game was growing on me.
It was crazy-awkward to have to hold down shift to make your character run instead of walk, hit two arrow keys at once to make the character move diagonally, hit the small hotspot that permits you to serve a given table, and hitting space (not enter!) to drop off or pick up food.
But the action being simulated — waiting tables — is also crazy-awkward if you’ve never experienced the lunch rush from the other side of the counter. Like the button-mashing minigame that emulated the tedium of running along a linear track, playing Twister with your fingers emulates the stress I still remember clearly from waiting tables as a grad student. When I finally found a rhythm that had me delivering food at a good pace, I felt a rush of accomplishment.
Suddenly, in the middle of a good shift, my PC got tired and had to stop and catch his breath. Very annoying — but annoying isn’t necessarily bad.
The ghosts in Pac-Man are annoying, the text parser in Zork is annoying, and snipers in Half-Life 2 are annoying, but I can accept all of those as part of the challenge, just as it made sense that my PC would get tired while waiting tables. Fatworld has taught me not to come to work right after running all the way across town.
For a moment, the game was starting to come together, and I wasn’t just forcing myself to appreciate its intentions, I was really feeling the power of the embedded rhetoric.
Then, I must have walked over that “exit” sign on the floor (right between the service counter and one of the tables), because I suddenly found myself out on the street.
Was this, too, part of the game? Have angry customers thrown me out of my own restaurant? Or is this just the game’s way of telling me I can go home because I’ve finished my shift? Does my shift end after a certain number of customers are served, or after I miss serving a certain number of customers, or after a certain amount of time has passed? Or does my shift only end when I say it has, because I want to do something else? (Once again, I am left wondering, what did I miss?)
I had read about Fatworld in Wired months ago, and have been eagerly looking forward to it. Now, I’ve found enough user-interface issues that perhaps… well, you pick your favorite food-related cliché.
- Fatworld looks good on the plate, but it’s hard to swallow?
- The bugs leave a bitter aftertaste?
- Like the ginger-bread boy, Fatworld escaped the kitchen only half-baked?
A complex game is going to require complex instructions, but the minigames that are supposed to motivate me to learn the subtleties of the larger game aren’t stable enough, and the feedback doesn’t make sense (c.f my healthy 69-lb adult frame).
Diner Dash already does “serve the customers” well, and I’ve already used Lemonade Tycoon to introduce my kids to the basics of capitalism and inventory management. The Sims offers a strong (if blatantly materialistic) argument about economics and lifestyle. Plenty games touch on politics. But so far, nothing out there tries to mix all these up, with the goal of fostering thought about nutrition and health.
Unfortunately, because I was too frustrated by basic problems with the interface, I barely noticed the parts of Fatworld that are the most original — and the most important. I think the premise is worth patching. If Fatworld 1.1 is released, I’ll gladly cleanse my pallet and give the game another shot.