March 17th, 2013 | By Meg Stivison
GameTheNews.net, a game studio focused on rapid development of topical, headline games, has recently released a new title called ‘My Cotton Picking Life’ This social awareness game has the player take on the role of a child worker in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. It’s meant to raise awareness of the plight of child laborers, by challenging players to experience the difficulty and monotony of the situation.
I’m fascinated by serious sim games as a concept. McVideogame, a chilling look at processed food, is a great example of how effective this can be. But although My Cotton Picking Life succeeds at its state goal of monotony, it fails at everything else. Players click repeatedly on buttons marked “Pick Cotton” until they get bored and try the exit button. Then they’re told that child workers don’t have the luxury of quitting, and told how much money they would have made if they were actually picking cotton and not clicking “Pick Cotton”. The developers say the game was built in a day, and, with one game screen and one player action, it’s not hard to believe.
Players don’t receive injuries, pick extra-small cotton, or suffer other random events that would add gameplay value. Players aren’t forced back into the fields on their first quit attempt, which would make a nice point on a game about forced labour (and was honestly what I expected to happen). It’s possible to be berated for not working, though, but nothing comes of it.
There’s no emotional connection to the when taking on the role of an MS Paint cotton picker (although I did feel vaguely guilty about liking the stylized cotton plant art when I was meant to be thinking about suffering). If there was ever a time for avatar customization, this is it! Players might respond better to the plight of a cotton-clicker if they were first asked to design a super cute child to play and then sent as that child, to work in the fields.
A game with terrible and boring gameplay to show that the topic is terrible and boring is an interesting thought exercise. I like the mental meta circles when I think about a game that’s designed not to be played in order to make a social point. But it reminds me more of the guy in the creative writing workshop who insists that his poems aren’t supposed to make sense because life is confusing too!
I really admire the goals in making a socially conscious game, even as more of a talking point than an experience, but I don’t see of My Cotton Picking Life raising anyone’s awareness of child labor. Looks like there are fifty or so Facebook likes on the game, which reads more like folks interested in serious games or folks already connected to GameTheNet than a growing awareness of child labor.
There could still be a socially conscious game in the cotton industry. McVideogame and Train both play with the concept of game rules and exploitation and the common narrative of middleman who were “just following orders” A similar theme could be done here, asking players to take on the role of a manager profiting from child labor, instead of a child worker themselves. Maybe a short time management game where players are tasked with producing a quota at the lowest price. They’re able to choose subcontractors by the value of their proposed bids, and then discover they’ve gotten their success on the back of child labour. There might even be replay value in a game so carefully balanced game that when the player tries to avoid exploitative practices, he gets fired for wasting money.
There’s a lot of potential in meaningful sim games, and GameTheNews.net’s goal is to create relevant games based on real events and news. Their previous titles include Endgame Syria, a battle sim that asks players to explore the choices in the Syrian conflict, and Save The Rhino, a game about the effects of poaching. Although My Cotton-Picking Life is a flop, I’m really interested in the concept of rapidly developed, relevant games, and am interested to see what else they’ll release.
‘My Cotton Picking Life’ is free and available to be played now. If you do play it (and with so many brilliant indie games, I can see giving this one a miss), I’d be really interested in hearing what you thought of it.