Today Channel 4 unveiled a new selection of gently educational web gamelets for 2011, funded by its educational division. Like this year's previous commissions, which included Littleloud's The Curfew, Zombie Cow's Privates, and SuperMe - a whole set of games from Preloaded intended to make teenagers “better at life” by mucking about on the internet - they're all being made by UK indies. What are the titles? Who's involved? Should we be paying attention?
We probably should be, as Channel 4 is one of the most significant investors in our indie scene right now. It's not just the money, it's the attitude. These aren't prescription educational tools, intended to be forced in front of bored teenagers by reluctant teachers in depressing classrooms; these games are competing with everything else on the internet for young adults' spare time, necessitating a creative approach from developers that Channel 4 really encourages.
The focus has shifted a wee bit from last year's commissions, away from responsible citizenship and sex education and towards financial management and ethical retailing (clearly the recession has given teens new preoccupations). There's also an extra £1 million of provision for games targeted at the neglected tweenaged 10-14 year-old demographic, on top of the usual £4 million for games aimed at 14-19 year-olds.
There's one citizenship-themed game in the pipeline – Walking City, by Big Robot (I swear I recognise that name from somewhere). It's a modern city-management sim about social responsibility, based on broken windows theory (briefly: take care of a city and restore vandalised areas, and citizens will behave more respectably rather than escalating to more serious crime).
Littleloud's new effort is called Sweatshop, and it frames the horrible moral issues involved in the mass production of cheap high-street clothing in a tower-defence game. Commissioning Editor for Education, Alice Taylor, claimed that there'd be actual child labour and awful machinery accidents involved, which is certainly brave, if a little heavy-handed.
Another potential highlight is the cheery-sounding The End, a platform web-game about death and belief, also made by Preloaded and produced by Tom Chatfield (who wrote a book about vidyagames, so he MUST know what he's doing). It puts players in a sort of suspended time state and encourages them to explore their beliefs about life and death by asking them serious philosophical questions, as if teenagers needed any more encouragement towards gloom, intellectual suffering and existential crisis. Channel 4's research shows that half of all teenagers are agnostic (and a quarter religious, and a quarter firmly atheistic), incidentally, so helping them work through their notions about death via the magic of running and jumping might actually be more of a public service than you think.
It will be interesting to see what of the 2011 list can match the ambition, budget and cross-media wizardry of The Curfew, or the absurd adolescent giggle factor of attacking sperm with an anti-fungal hose inside someone's anus. This is just the first wave – there's more to come. Here's a full list of the ten newly announced games and their developers:
Footfall (Preloaded): a business management sim based around a chain of shoe shops, with extra emphasis on corporate responsibility and social entrepreneurship.
Vinyltopia (Proper Games): a bit like Footfall, really, but aimed at boys, and so based around a record shop instead.
International Racing Squirrels (Playniac): bit of a weird one, this. Described as “Champ Man with squirrels”, you manage a sports team made up of squirrels. Decidedly non-cutesy squirrels, we're assured. Just in case you were worried.
Walking City (Big Robot): city management sim based around modern urban life.
The End (Preloaded): atheist and agnostic teens need to think about death too, you know.
Yes Chef! (playerthree): a restaurant game with a healthy eating theme, in which feeding customers bad recipes will make them chuck up everywhere. Good good, we need more bodily fluids in this selection.
Closet Swap (Inensu): not a game as such, but a community-based site and app combo encouraging teens not to chuck out their old clothes, but swap them around instead.
Sweatshop (Littleloud): factory life in Mauritius as told through tower-defence.
Who I Am (Zoe Mode): an exploration of personal identity aimed at 10-14-year-olds.
Truth Specs (working title) (Somethin' Else): this one's a bit of a mystery, but it will be a cross-media thing involving video and games designed to help younger kids with the transition through puberty.
This is about two thirds of Channel 4's planned content for 2011, according to Taylor – we'll see the first of them in April (beginning with The End, confusingly), then a glut over the summer to take advantage of the time of the year when teenagers might otherwise be outside drinking cider in parks or whatever it is they do now. Obviously we've not had the chance to play them yet, but there are a few worth keeping an eye on (especially Walking City - Completely Unbiased Ed). International Racing Squirrels just has me desperate to know what it is.