More tempest re: Tempest in Crescent City

Another developer for Tempest in Crescent City has written me. He did so in confidence, so I don’t feel comfortable posting his email, but here’s my response–slightly redacted–which pretty well sums up my feelings at this point:

Thanks for the note. I’m happy to hear that you spoke to a New Orleanian about the project…. And rest assured, I didn’t dismiss your project simply because it’s a game. Obviously, I’m a pretty avid gamer myself–otherwise, I never would’ve stumbled across the link at

Here’s my problem: I don’t believe you’ve fully and honestly addressed the “shock” factor of Tempest. You could’ve focused the plot on any number of disaster scenarios, real or imagined: fires in the Southwest, tornadoes in the Midwest, an earthquake in San Francisco, etc. I’m guessing you chose Hurricane Katrina because it’s known to students and because it’s emotionally and politically charged.

Which is fine, but many New Orleanians–myself included–are tired of Katrina being used to foment race/class conflict and for other political ends. We just want our city, homes, lives back. You’ve appropriated the disaster for your own purposes, with little obvious benefit to the people who’ve actually suffered from the disaster. (FYI, if you were intending to use it to ease the stress of school children in New Orleans, you’re probably a couple of years too late.)

I hate to sound essentialist or parochial, but here’s the fact of the matter: for the past three years or so, we’ve had non-locals giving us advice–mostly unsolicited. What we’re doing wrong. What we ought to be doing. How we ought to feel. They don’t speak with us so much as at us. Their hearts may be in the right place, but their words are often patronizing and very, very offensive. Whether you like it or not, your team and this game have fallen into exactly the same trap.

So my suggestion to you–and can take it for what it’s worth, but bear in mind, I have the pleasure of negotiating these issues every day–is don’t worry about the New Orleans market, because you’re probably pretty doomed on that front. If nothing else, your identity as a non-New Orleanian–to say nothing of your race/class identity, about which I know nothing (beyond a pretty accurate Google Image search)–will prevent you from being taken seriously by many here. Although a lot of people have moved on from the disaster, Katrina is still a HIGHLY volatile issue, and the mere fact that you’ve made it a game will render it offensive to most. Add to that the fact that you’ve done little on-the-ground outreach here in New Orleans, and you sink another few inches.

I don’t speak for all New Orleanians. I can only guess at what they’d say. But based on my experience of the city and its communities and outreach efforts and everything else, I can pretty much guarantee that the cards are stacked against you.

Your target demo, as I’ve said, may be more comfortable with the game, but if I were you, I’d use this for the kids in your own neighborhood who aren’t weighed down by the baggage of homes, lives, and family members lost to a sudden, violent, unstoppable meteorological event–one that, given climate trends, is likely to re-occur any summer now.

Am I way off base?

4 Comments so far

  1. jaygk on October 27th, 2008 @ 7:49 am

    Hi, my name is Jay and I’m one of the Global Kids trainers that worked with students design Tempest. I’m glad to have this public forum to respond to some of the issues raised in this letter. Obviously, being outsiders creating a game about such a sensitive issue, we expected to have mixed reactions, and so I welcome these criticisms and concerns.

    First, I want to explain that Global Kids trainers (such as myself) are facilitators more than trainers, and our goal is to always to empower the youth we work with to take leadership roles and make their own decisions. While we facilitators presented issues to the students for the first few months of the program, they were ultimately responsible for picking the game’s topics. The students chose Katrina for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being their demographic similarities with the majority of Katrina’s victims. Our students aren’t from New Orleans, but they are, unfortunately, all too familiar with the race and class issues that pervaded Katrina. We discussed the sensitivity of the topic and how some people might react, but in the end I supported their decision.

    As you rightly point out, however, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina should never be “used to foment race/class conflict and for other political ends.” You seem to think that we appropriated the disaster for our own purposes. I’m sorry you think that is the effect of the game. Our intention was the exact opposite. When we spoke with advocacy groups and victims, we asked what they thought the focus of our game should be. The resounding answer we got was very close to what you seem to want. People spoke of relief agencies and federal agencies refusing to simply give the people of New Orleans the resources and decision-making power to rebuild their city as they wanted. We began working on the game not long after the uproar at city hall over reconstruction, and the implications of it were prominent in our minds.

    We decided the principle messages of our game should be that in the disaster neighbors banded together to help each other (in the absence of federal support) and in the aftermath, community members have a right to control the resources for rebuilding.
    In all games, the principle means of communicating a message is through the “core mechanic” the main activity of the player, and to communicate our message, we decided the core mechanics of the game should be communicating with neighborhood residents and helping them distribute supplies to each other. Every item given out in the game is passed from one neighbor to another. While the National Guard appears in the game, many of the rescuers are regular people in their own boats. The game is all about communities helping themselves through communication, generosity, and bravery.

    While some people may doubt that a game can communicate serious ideas, we believe they have a powerful, and unique ability to communicate. Games allow players to have agency in the perspective of another character, and this experience can teach empathy in a way no other medium can. While games are a relatively new medium and we’re still learning how to communicate effectively through them, film, television, graphic novels, and other media went through the these growth periods. People thoughtfully using a medium how it’s "not supposed to be used" is what pushes the art to a higher level.

    We’ve seen serious games (there’s a whole genre exploring these ideas) like September 12 create nuanced critiques of difficult issues. Hush is a game about the Rwandan genocide that is incredibly powerful. And yes, there have been games about 9/11 including one where players were trapped in one of the towers and had no options other than to die in the fires or jump to their deaths. The game horrified people, and yet, some survivors’ families were actually supportive of the game and found it therapeutic.

    If our game comes across as patronizing, didactic, or intending to tell locals what they’re doing wrong, what they ought to be doing, or how they ought to feel, that’s a major problem. That means our game communicates the exact opposite of the message it was intended to. I don’t know how to rectify that interpretation, but I also know that some people have understood our intentions. We haven’t been able to work with as many New Orleans groups as we’d like to, but many people that we’ve showed it to have gained a new understanding of New Orleans residents, what happened in the disaster, and they’re motivated to learn more and get involved..

    Everyone won’t have such a positive experience, but I hope more people react as I’ve seen them do than react as you have. Finally, I would say that our game is definitely aimed more for people outside New Orleans, than people inside. If you survived the storm then you already know who you are and what happened. It’s the people who only know what they saw on TV who need to expand their perceptions. On the website the game’s embedded in, we included many links to New Orleans groups like Common Ground who are doing amazing grassroots work. Our intention is to motivate players of the game to contact these groups and find out how they can help. We want the approval of New Orleans residents, but in no way is the game intended to educate them.

  2. richard (rico) on October 27th, 2008 @ 11:17 am

    So, in sum: you and your students took what you saw on the news and made a game of it, without really engaging with the very people you were depicting. That’s your call, I suppose, but it tends to lead to a lot of grand, sweeping generalizations–like the assumption that most people who suffered from Katrina were poor and African American, when in fact everyone within a five-parish radius was deeply affected by the storm. (And that’s to say nothing of the many, many people in Mississippi who didn’t even have homes to return to.)

    The Lower Ninth levee breach made the biggest headlines because it was dramatic–and of course, very, very tragic–but the other major breach was in Lakeview, which is about as white and middle class as a neighborhood can be. Then of course there was St. Bernard Parish, which took water from two sides; it’s also heavily white. To say that your students identified with "demographic similarities" they shared "with the majority of Katrina’s victims" is to be reductive in the extreme. And to lay blame for the game on their shoulders, claiming that you just stood back and "facilitated", is cowardly. If you purport to offer any sort of education for these students, you should encourage them to be critical, to ask questions, to see things from a variety of angles. It is more than just an issue of sensitivity; it is also an issue of accuracy and fairness–an issue of tackling a complex, real-world problem in a complex, intelligent way. If they can’t do that, they should move to the next game concept.

    (NB: South Park often deals with complicated issues like these; however, they’re usually smart enough to avoid talking about real-world people and situations and deal instead with topics in the abstract, or change scenarios altogether. Just a thought.)

    At the end of the day, not only did you and your students turn Katrina into a game (and a fairly tedious, low-stakes game at that), but you were also half-informed. That’s not exactly "best practices" territory, especially for a group that alleges to be a social service organization. If you really wanted the approval of New Orleans residents, you might’ve thought to talk with them to begin with.

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