Project Leaders: Lisa Lynch and Sandra Gabriele

PLEASE NOTE: This project is a work-in-progress.  As a team, we are deeply concerned about how to best represent and advocate for sex workers in our game, and are collaborating with a Canadian sex worker to ensure the depiction we create is empowering and respectful. We will provide updates about these on-going discussions on the blog, so as to be as transparent as possible. We are currently have a working prototype of the game, and will soon be entering the beta-test phase of the creative process.

The Oldest Game is a web-based newsgame that explores the complex issue of the legalization of the sex trade in Ontario and Quebec. Drawing inspiration from games such as Budget Hero, in which players learn the parameters of a complex system, and from role-playing games that provoke empathy and identification, “The Oldest Game” focuses on the motivations on the debate over legalized prostitution. This debate has figured prominently the news since 2012, when three prostitution laws that were up for dispute in the Ontario Court of Appeal (ruling made in March 2012). In December 2013, Canadian sex work laws were struck down after being ruled unconstitutional, and a year later, the controversial Bill C-36, written to replace the previous legislation, was signed into law. The Oldest Game seeks to demonstrate the ways in which these recent changes to Canadian law will have an impact on the lives and livelihoods of sex workers.

Why a newsgame?

The Oldest Game designed to address a crucial flaw in the media coverage: news articles, in trying to portray a sense of impartiality, often set up a false balance between those against changing the laws and those in favour of changing them. Our game seeks to move beyond this polarized style of issue coverage, immersing the player in the complexity of the issue while making them aware of the tensions between the competing narratives used to frame prostitution: on one hand, as a moral issue, on the other, as an issue of labour rights.

Changes in the media landscape have significantly impacted the way people consume the news.  More and more Canadians are ceasing to buy print newspapers and are instead turning to new online mediums. A recent survey found that most Canadians think the internet is the best source for news (The Canadian Press 2011). Youtube, social networks and online videos have also impacted how readers consume their news. Two-thirds of Canadians who belong to social networking sites use them as way to stay up to date with the news (Shaw 2011).

This is exactly why Bogost, Ferrari and Schweizer (2010) argue that newsgames may be an innovative new way for news providers to adapt to the changing climate. Offering stories in an online, interactive model reflects the shifting consumption habits of readers.  Furthermore, it allows for journalism to capitalize on the high interest in video games. According to recent research by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (2012), 58% of Canadians are “gamers” (someone who has played a video game in the past four weeks), and 61% own at least one video console.  “While traditional print news continues to decline, the use of online news and video games rises” (Bogost et al. 2010). Consequently, major news providers like the BBC and the New York Times have started experimenting with the genre. Ian Bogost reports his newsgames series The Arcade Wire was used by 10 million players (Bogost 2007). Very little research has been done on newsgame audiences (O’Brien 2011). However, the large demographics using internet news sites and video games indicate that many Canadians might be interested in newsgames.

We’d like to use a newsgame to revisit the three prostitution laws that were up for dispute in the Ontario Court of Appeal (ruling made in March 2012), as the media coverage may have made it difficult for readers to fully comprehend the potential consequences at risk. Articles, in trying to portray a sense of impartiality, often went back and forth between citing those against changing the laws and citing those for changing them. This may have made it challenging for readers to get a clear picture of what was at stake. Furthermore, many may have not engaged fully with the story, dismissing issues relating to prostitution as being inconsequential to them.

Video games as a medium can be superior to traditional news stories in clearly conveying the complexities of systemic issues by synthesizing the coverage of the case into a visual format to make the stakes clear (Bogost et al. 2010). Furthermore, players are encouraged to critically reflect on the information presented and can be persuaded to take a stance on the issues at play. This leads a player to engage with a particular story, rather than remaining disinterested in its outcome.

A newsgame would also offer the opportunity to portray sex work in a new light. Sex workers are widely stigmatized in the Canadian mainstream news, often presented as either victims of abuse or violence or the cause of social problems (Van Brunschot, Sydie, Krull 2000). In this game, the player must take on the role of sex worker, understanding their ability to make choices and their potential to be active agents in control of their own lives. With the goal of paying bills, the game normalizes sex work by stressing that, just like any other type of worker, sex workers are striving to meet their financial needs. When a player must constantly risk being arrested, hurt or killed, the implications of the three laws at stake cannot be brushed aside. A player experiences these laws’ consequences, rather than simply reading about them.

This game is impossible to win, highlighting that sex workers cannot earn their livelihood safely and legally while it remains illegal to keep a brothel, to live off the avails of prostitution, and to communicate in public for the purposes of prostitution. This will hopefully lead players to empathize with the plight of sex workers. It will help them to understand how monumental the Ontario changes to two laws is for sex workers, as well has how problematic it is that the third law (to communicate in public for the purposes of prostitution) still remains illegal.

Editorial newgames that have a strong bias such as this one have shown to be particularly successful, and demonstrate a long shelf life, according to Bogost, Ferrari and Schweizer. “Social comment games often cover highly visible, ongoing public policy issues, thus they remain relevant as long as a situation persists” (Bogost et al. 2010). Though a ruling has been made on these three laws in Ontario, it has yet to be seen how this case will affect the rest of Canada. These prostitution laws will likely be a contentious issue for years to come.  Furthermore, the game addresses the stigmatization of and violence against sex workers, much larger social issues than this particular court case.