Pregnancy: A Game About Abortion

What follows is a column I wrote for a technology magazine. I’ve written the same column since about 1996, and it was the first ever rejected. It was also the second to last column I wrote. They didn’t say they were dropping me because of it, and I didn’t press the issue because, honestly, the new editor was a jerk about it (he didn’t even bother telling me I was fired: I had to find out by accident) and I wasn’t interested in continuing any longer. But, as they say in politics, the timing was suspect. 

I’ve left this column as I wrote it so you can see how very mild and balanced it was, with a tone chosen to get a message across to a secular (potentially hostile) audience. I’ve certainly covered political and controversial issues in the same place before, and my previous editors at the magazine liked me to stir things up because it got people engaged. It was not out line considering what I’ve done in the past. I even cued the controversy in the column assuming my editors would back me, just to acknowledge that the subject was more challenging than others I’d tackled, but we’re grownup and can talk about grownup things.

Apparently not.

The game itself was gibberish: moral relativism encapsulated in interactive form. But that wasn’t the issue I was tackling here, because frankly that issue would have been inappropriate for that audience. Although I may be an opinionated so-and-so, I’m also professional with 25 years experience. I don’t pitch pieces about video cards to a Catholic newspaper and I don’t do moral theology for a computer magazine.

What I wanted to get across was that interactive media can tackle serious issues in a personal, potentially powerful way. Pregnancy is not a good example of it. It’s overwrought, morally confused, and poorly constructed. Really, it’s pretty much junk. However, the creator took a chance and made something personal in an unexpected medium, and that deserved some recognition. 

Games as Moral and Political Dialog

Let’s get political for the next five minutes.preg3

I am pro-life, and comprehensively so. I believe that America’s drone war is monstrous, capital punishment is immoral, “enhanced interrogation” is a disgusting euphemism for barbaric acts of torture, and killing another human being is murder, whether or not that human being is inside a mother’s womb or out.

Most people who would agree with the first three things I just wrote would not agree with the last, and many who believe passionately in the last would not accept the first three.

The issues are so fraught and polarizing that I had doubts that Maximum PC would even run this column. We can’t really talk to each other any more: we just kind of talk past each other, conditioned by a poisonous media/political environment that can only grasp binaries and not subtleties, and makes ideology, rather than our shared humanity, the polestar for all controversy.

That’s why I found reactions to a little game called “Pregnancy” kind of fascinating. It’s on Steam for $2, and is a lightly interactive short-story with minimal graphics and a playing time of about 15 minutes.

This is just the kind of game I wrote about in the March issue: small titles that are as personal as a blog post, and take about as long to experience. They use the medium of “games” (very broadly defined) for purposes of personal expression and to explore ideas in a new way.

As a game, “Pregnancy” isn’t particularly good, with bland visuals, some wobbly dialog, and a description of a rape that’s too graphic for the context. You play as the conscience of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated, experiencing her thoughts and experiences as she wrestles with what to do. You can encourage her in one way or another, but for some really bizarre reason she always chooses the opposite of your council. Tell her about her strength and the preciousness of life, and she has an abortion. Tell her everything is going to be awful and she keeps the baby. The final screen provides an equal number of resources for exploring both the pro-life and the pro-abortion side. The idea is to show that whatever we believe or argue, individuals will make their own choices for their own reasons, but it was a bit of a muddle in the end.

The reactions of some gamers are more interesting than the game itself. I read comments from people offended that the choice was even being offered since OBVIOUSLY you would [insert what commenter thinks you should do here], thus missing the point of making this experience interactive. I also found people angry that a trivial medium like a “game” would be used for such an important issue.

But, of course, that’s exactly what small games should be doing: using new media to discuss fraught issues. I doubt it will change people’s minds in the long run, but using the game format to speak to controversy in a fresh way is exactly what indie developers should be doing.