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An Interview With A Social Justice Warrior
‘Social Justice Warrior’ is a term that’s been all around the gaming community over the last few weeks. While I don’t think this preview is the right place to discuss recent events, let’s just say I’ve found the whole affair pretty disheartening.
The folks over over at the Nonadecimal Creative have a much lighter take on the whole affair. The developer recently put out a small, satirical role playing game called Social Justice Warriors and I spoke with Eric Ford about this inspired little title and what he hoped to achieve by making it.
Hi, thanks for agreeing to talk to me about the game. Can you give readers a quick pitch for Social Justice Warriors?
Social Justice Warriors is a satirical role-playing game about dismissive labels and the pitfalls of online interaction. It’s the familiar RPG battle system but the trolls you battle are of the internet variety. The player assumes the role of a Social Justice Paladin dueling with tweets, a Social Justice Cleric channeling the power of a patron deity subreddit, a Social Justice Mage weaving words into powerful spells of online journalism, or a Social Justice Rogue striking from the shadows of the internet.
Where did the idea for the game come from?
A few months ago there was an image circulating called “SJWs in videogame journalism” which simultaneously labeled and dismissed a number of writers from the big gaming news sites. The term “social justice warrior” was new to me, but persuading people to broadly ignore a group of people using nothing more than a label really bothered me.
It’s something you see all the time on the internet. Using name-calling and defamation to discredit and silence people. Any time I read an article or thread about any subject, not just games, I skim through the comments and always find back-and-forth arguments that rapidly descend into personal attacks. While at first glance people assume my Social Justice Warriors game is either advocating or admonishing the behavior of people labeled as “social justice warriors,” it’s actually an expression of my frustration with interpersonal conduct online.
Obviously, it struck me that SJW is the kind of game that tries to make players think by incorporating ideas and themes into its mechanics. Did you design the mechanics around these themes or find themes that fit the mechanics?
I’m glad you noticed that. Video games’ interactivity are their greatest strength over other forms of media. You’re not limited to describing a perspective with language, you can let someone experience it directly. With Social Justice Warriors, the goal wasn’t to tell people to think one thing or another, but to place them in a thought experiment that simplified real life interaction and then let them form their own conclusions.
When I had the idea for the game, it came together all at once. The mechanics of an RPG battle system with just a few attack options matched the stereotypes of the SJW and troll labels: people who say and do the same things again and again. The health meters became reputation – which seems to get destroyed frequently in online fights – and sanity – as in “this person on the internet is driving me crazy!”
I saw the same parallels with the endless grind, the constant stream of repetitive foes, and the uncertainty of whether defeating enemies is advancing the story, with only a single incrementing counter to represent your progress.
What kind of message do you hope players take away from Social Justice Warriors?
I knew that people who played the game would be coming from radically different backgrounds and perspectives so I tried to weave a variety messages into the gameplay to improve the odds each person would find at least one insight.
The game is a thought experiment that removes a lot of the ambiguity from real life interaction. The trolls in the game are blatantly bigoted so the would-be warrior is justified in standing up against them. However, the attack options let the player make an inflammatory character attack that is more effective than logical arguments. Without this choice, the game would have been a one-dimensional exercise. Since the game’s high-score rankings encourage you to defeat more trolls, the temptation is always there to level personal attacks at the troll instead of being civil. After all, it’s just a troll, right?
The trolls you fight in the game are endless, just like real life. Over time, they will slowly but surely chip away at your Sanity and Reputation meters so defeat is inevitable. You have the choice to keep fighting one more individual battle with what you have left or to walk away with your reputation and patience intact, free to pursue more productive endeavors than correcting one more angry person on the internet. The game’s main menu presents that choice from the start: “Battle for Social Justice” or “Don’t Battle for Social Justice”. You can interpret this as whether you’ll engage in interpersonal conflict or not or whether you’ll view it as a “battle” or not. For example, labeling your opponent as a “social justice warrior” or “troll” dehumanizes them and makes it easier to view the conflict as an us-vs-them battle which places the focus on your opponent instead of the issues.
On the other side of things, were there any particular games that influenced the gameplay of SJW?
I’m usually inspired to make games in genres that I haven’t played much myself. This game was mostly derived from having watched people playing Pokemon and old Final Fantasy games. I did my best to translate D&D classes and attacks into the social-media-wielding warriors of the game. Tweets felt like dueling sabers, Reddit’s subreddit communities and karma system seemed like gaining favor with one of many deities, and journalists are clearly weaving words together into powerful area-of-effect spells. As with D&D, the Rogue is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and a bit of a wild card, fighting the trolls using their own tactics.
How is the Greenlight campaign going?
I’m really grateful for all the support the game’s received on Greenlight. It’s currently 90% of the way to the Top 100 with almost 5000 votes in its favor. It looks like all it would take is another thousand votes to get it released on Steam!
Do you have any plans to expand on what’s currently in SJW? Can we expect new classes or a more fleshed-out single player component to the game?
I actually just released a major update to the game that added 40 sound effects and doubled the number of logical fallacies the trolls use to attack you. There’s a unique sound effect for each of the 24 player attacks now, which spices up the text-based gameplay.
I feel good about the way the game’s four classes are balanced now and how the mechanics convey the game’s message so I’m not inclined to change those, but I see a lot of people asking for a Druid class. Maybe I can recruit the internet to help me match more D&D classes to social media platforms. I will be updating the game when it releases on Steam to add achievements and possibly some new troll attacks and hidden easter eggs. Ultimately, it’s a $1 game and I think it gives the player a good value for those 100 pennies.
What kind of response has the game been getting? Is it what you were aiming for?
I knew that everybody would find a different message while playing SJW based on the personal views they brought into the game. I made an effort to keep the game accessible to people on every side of the debate, not just catering to one specific point of view.
Unfortunately, the one outcome I overlooked was that many people judged the game solely by its title and never actually played it. After the game was released, the irony was that a lot of people assigned the game dismissive labels of “pro-SJW game” and “anti-SJW game” and there were a lot of contradictory arguments raging while the people who actually played the game watched and had a good laugh. I turned screenshots of the contradictions into a collage in a blog post I wrote about the game’s release.
I guess I should have known better, considering the behavior that inspired the game in the first place. Nonetheless, I received a lot of really positive feedback from people, even ones who self-identified as “social justice warriors” and even as “trolls”. The best reactions I’ve seen are when people have cited the game as a lesson in knowing when to break off their online confrontations and walk away with their Sanity and Reputation meters intact.
What lies in the future for Social Justice Warriors and Nonadecimal?
Hopefully SJW will get the last few votes it needs to release on Steam in the not too distant future. As for Nonadecimal, the reason I got interested in game development originally was because I wanted to tell stories, not because I wanted to make games. I think that video games have a lot of potential for storytelling and the interactivity adds even more layers to the kinds of stories you can tell. Unfortunately it takes a lot of time and resources just to develop the basic foundation of a game to serve as a vessel for the story. It’s very slow progress working a day job and only putting in a few hours of game dev a night.
Right now I’m pursuing some collaborations to write stories for other developers’ games so I can focus on the work I love. I’m also working on a longer term project to generate unscripted narratives from what the player does in the game, so look for other interesting releases from Nonadecimal in the future.
Thank you to Eric Ford for the interview. You can find more information on Social Justice Warriors at its official website.