Are we moving forward or backward by making a video game about abortion?
Choice: Texas, a now fully crowdfunded game developed by Carly Kocurek and Allyson Whipple, is slated for release next January and has already garnered attention from outlets like NYDaily News, Polygon and Indie Game Mag. Described as a “choose-your-own adventure story,” the game will follow five women of different races, circumstances, and privileges in Texas, the developers’ home state and one of the most difficult states in the country to legally obtain a safe abortion. While not fulltime game devs, both Kocurek and Whipple have impressive backgrounds in education, feminism, and writing and Whipple cites her volunteer experience with the Lilith Fund, which provides financial assistance to Texas women seeking abortions, as a major influence for the game.
Full ‘liberal bias’ disclosure: I’m pro-choice. I live in a state where an elected official likened pro-choice protesters to demons from hell, grew up attending mostly black schools with dozens of teenaged mothers, once saw a mangled fetus on a pro-life pamphlet a woman gave me on my way to class in college, and was one of the thousands of people worldwide #standing with Wendy Davis during her Austin, Texas filibuster against Texas SB5, a bill many pro-choice advocates say may forces dozens of clinics in the state to close. Bias aside, abortion is a topic that demands an intermingling of the personal and the political. Gamers’ own personal experiences with motherhood, poverty, life, and religion shape their views on the subject and will undoubtedly determine how they will engage with this game.
Smartly, developers Whipple and Kocurek are counting on this, providing gamers on both sides with an interactive context for why women seek abortions. Speaking with Persephone Magazine Kocurek said, “Games always have this lure of being able to create sort of experiential knowledge …my hope is that this game provides a means for people to maybe think through what it might be like to face some of these types of issues not as abstract news, but as a fact of daily life.”
Kocurek and Whipple endeavor to meld both abstractions and ‘daily life’ by presenting a different take on the vaunted ‘realism’ many games aspire to; invoking it not through visuals but by having the harshness of reality reflected in the gameplay. Whipple explained how ‘daily life’ will inform the play experience: “Each character represents a different level of difficulty based on the obstacles facing her. None of them have it easy, because even if you have the privilege of money and paid sick days at work, there are still other obstacles to deal with. But certain characters will be much harder than others. The obstacles each character faces (geography, money, time, transportation) will influence which choices a player can make throughout the game.”
Whipple and Kocurek’s implementation of structural barriers into the gameplay speaks to John Scalzi’s brilliant “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,” which theorized that the intersecting privileges of the straight, white male are analogous to choosing an easier difficulty setting in a video game.The developers cite “serious” games like Spent and Depression Quest as influences, and other recent releases like Papers, Please, Cart Life and I Get This Call Everyday have all attempted an evolved take on“realism” that is not tied to polygon count, but accurately representing varying aspects of life.
These releases are especially subversive, not just for their subject matter, but because they require different benchmarks for judging their success than the AAA template of being visually stunning, “fun” and above all else – profitable. There’s a wealth of potential for new and exciting stories to be told if developers are allowed to think outside the boxes of sales figures and focus group responses. In fact, let’s not limit this potential to “developers.” Creative people with the talent and resources to build new games from these subjects, ranging from overlooked to explicitly taboo, are the only headway we seem to be making from the frankly circular conversations about gender and inclusion in major releases.This wave of “serious” games: crowd-funded, controversial, maybe even political, offer gamers an expanded diversity of play experiences.
This is where the full progressive potential of Choice: Texas can be seen. Left-learning, sure, but rather than omit structural consequences, Whipple and Kocurek have put them at the game’s core. All within the context of a subject too divisive to ever be a money maker for studios. By highlighting the restrictions of race, gender, class, etc., they present a level of tangibility for these issues not usually seen in video games. As Whipple said, “I would hope that this game would put a more concrete, human face on the issue, that players would not see these women as evil or shameful, but understand the difficult (often impossible) situations they’re in, and the difficulties they faced in making and achieving their choice.”