Gaming with drug policy

This post is also available in: Português (Portuguese (Brazil))

What about playing out with some of the complexities around drug use and trade to think of new policy alternatives? This year, together with a group of researchers from Utrecht University, I got a small grant to explore the possibilities of designing a game which can bring awareness related to drug policies and harm reduction. We will be talking to stakeholders from the drug policy field to think about drug-related situations they face daily and will look into the process of applying those complexities into a game. Think, for instance, of a person who use drugs who must decide whether to buy drugs online or from a phone-based drug dealer. Or a policymaker who wonders which consequences the regulation of a drug would have on its producers, the drug market and the drug using behavior of a population. How could you translate those experiences into a game? Our focus at this stage will be to learn from the process of developing a game with community participation. This is what game researchers call “collaborative game design”. We will look into ways of modeling these lived experiences while complementing it with data already available, forming an iterative and experimental process of game design. With this, we expect to find ways of improving game development around complex situations – such as drug use and trade- for learning and awareness purposes. 

Our trans-disciplinary group binds together researchers coming from history, criminology, neurobiology, computing sciences, pharmaceutics, game research and psychology, as well as a non-profit organization working with harm reduction. One challenge is to fully understand each other’s disciplinary language and reasoning; now, a serious challenge is to combine these different approaches into the process of collaboratively designing a game! So far, the journey has been delicious. And it only started. The project will last for nine months, and I’m looking forward to following every step of it.

Here you can see some of my first discoveries in this gaming journey. Warning: these are for those who, like me, are still dummies in the game world. Follow the links for more fun. ?

First: there are way more games out there than when I last played Krazy Chase with my Odyssey or Prince of Persia at an MS-DOS computer . And nowadays, games look much more like movies and have even cinematic trailers!

Second: Besides commercial games, there is a growing place for “serious games”: games related to education, training and awareness raising. It is in this last category that our project is. There are various exciting examples of serious games, including those focused on healthdiversity, games made to raise funds to socio-political causes and games to meaningfully contribute to social changes.

Third: Entering gaming and game design outside the game industry, means entering a whole new world! There are game jams (inspired on music jam sessions), online platforms for collaborative game design, experimental game design. Considerable knowledge on all that and much more is being produced by the Utrecht Center for Game Research.

Fourth: Partaking the process of developing a game can help people to understand and shape their social environment. It is about assuming not just the player’s perspective, but the game designer’s as well. You don’t just try to master a game but to understand it in terms of its possibilities and potential alternative ‘design choices’ – like changing the game’s rules, its character’s features and its end goal. In that sense, the analytical design of a game (what we will do) is a methodology to translate game-making to the educational domain and, potentially, to political awareness and participation.

Fifth: there is a bunch of drugs related board games out there! It is interesting to see how these games communicate cultural frames and stereotypes depending on what is considered to be a good or a bad behavior or end result. Below you find a list:

  • Just say no! As you may guess, endorsed by the National Just Say No! Foundation. Players answer card questions such as “How would you say No if someone tried to give you a pill?”.
  • Don’t play with drugs. Players take turns trying to push drugs on each other while trying to keep themselves clean.
  • Downward spiral. Players face potential downfalls related to family, health, friendships, finances and self-esteem. They strive to survive without losing all social and financial resources due to substance abuse.
  • Crack hore. Solitaire dice game where the player engages in the character of a prostitute trying to escape the street life. Pimps, drugs, diseases and bad dates are challenges to be overcome.
  • Drug recovery game. Players go through the journey of quitting a substance. “Recovery” and “Trigger” cards present situations which might trigger a relapse or lead to a positive change in behaviour.
  • After Pablo. Each player controls a cartel and must establish leadership and control of the drug market. The cartel with the greatest control of narcotrafficking will fill the gap left by Escobar’s death.
  • Andean Abyss. Players use four factions (FARC, government, cartels, AUC) to influence Colombian affairs and achieve differing goals.
  • Drugopoly. Like a Monopoly for drugs. The aim is to control most of the drugs using your dealers.
  • Contraband. The objective of players is to become the richest by purchasing foreign and domestic grown plants and smuggling them into the United States or Canada.

 Have you ever played with one of these? Or maybe you know of other interesting (and more modern) drug-related games? Let me know!

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