Burn The Boards: Making an unpleasant reality into an immersive gaming experience
Published 5 years ago
A reflection on our recent game about the perils of electronic waste
Have you ever wondered, what happens to the old phone you threw away? Probably not. We did wonder and we made a game called Burn The Boards about it. It's a casual puzzle simulation that portrays the life of an Indian e-waste recycler that has to harvest old electronics in a small backyard factory to make a living for himself and his family. "And why would anyone want to make a game about that?“ you might ask yourself right now.
This kind of thing is just what we do. Some of us came into game design via making rather political mods and we are quite happy being in a small yet growing niche of designers that are interested in the intersections of politics, game design and activism. It certainly never feels like a disadvantage, when you realize you aren't making the 25334th game with generic science fiction or orcs. Though we really do like orcs, no offense meant.
There was no straight path leading to the concept and design of Burn The Boards, rather a cross-pollination from various projects. It came around a particular time, when we worked on two projects that adressed the cost of mining and the conflicts that are fueled by large scale mining operations in Africa and India. The value chain of electronics is a particular sinister one and so we became curious what actually happens with our precious toys and trinkets, once we get rid of them.
This is not a theatrical exageration. Many places where electronic waste is recycled look like 21st century versions of Dante's inferno, thick black smoke, limping figures throwing styrofoam into the fire, on which cables are burned for their copper, large containers with acid to dissolve electronics and get valuable ingredients such as gold and platinum out of them. All done without any regulation, protection or knowledge of the dire consequences of such work: death, a few decades before everyone else, poisoned by berylium, mercury, lead, cadmium, chlorine compounds, etc. Naturally, it's the most vulnerable people that are drawn into this kind of work, the poorest of the poor. In India, where Burn The Boards takes place, the people in this line of work are mostly Dalits, the so called „untouchable“ caste.
We never made a mobile game before Burn The Boards, so we thought this would be a perfect opportunity: let's make people get to know the perils of electronic waste on a device that is involved in the scenario itself. Also, we wanted to make the game accessible to the broadest possible audience. Yes, that last idea was conceived just before the mobile game market became so crowded, that without a few millions for marketing you might as well give up on marketing. One of our founders was so kind to put some money into the operation and so we could make a first prototype. Then we partnered with Vienna's Technical University to also have some scientific angle to our particular approach, applied for a grant, got it and went straight to work with a rather humble budget.
This brings us to the key question of this article: How did we take such a serious issue to make it into a game? Successful titles such as "Papers, Please“ and "Cart Life“ have taught us, that designers can push the player's boundaries nowadays quite a bit, making the term "fun to play“ apply to a broader variation of types of experiences than previously imagined. We started quite humble, but simply looking at the work and its mechanics. One of the possible working tasks of an e-waste recycler is removing components from boards and sorting them according to their quality. Often motherboards are held over a fire to remove the components easier. We found this to be one of the most "fitting“ tasks for a game and devised a puzzle game play, where the player has to remove components in certain combination that allowed for more points and therefore money.
The player's income had then to be used to purchase medicine and support his family. Often cruel decision have to be make, does the player get to buy medicine for himself, food for the family, will there be enough money to finally fix that hole in the roof or maybe even purchase a new tool, that might allow to work more safely. This part of the game also allowed us to tell more about the family itself, their living conditions and how they try to cope with their hardship. The wife of the game's "hero“ is telling those stories, just like her husband, she has to work to sustain the family.
Of course the game can be lost. The boards get increasingly complicated and more poisonous, if the player doesn't take care of the depleting health, permanent illness makes working impossible and the family declines in even worse poverty. It's fair to say, that we give the player an optimistic chance. Unlike the reality for millions, he has the chance to win. This means beating the 140 puzzles by solving them in a decent efficient way and making enough money to be able to quit this job. There are three exit/win points, that the player can choose, once enough money is being made: either open a little street side kitchen, go back to college to get a better education or open up one's own electronic store. Here's a fun devlog from the middle of the process, if you still can't quit imagine it.
We were also interested in allowing the game to have a certain impact apart from informing people. So we partnered up with a German NGO, Action for World Solidarity, who would receive 50% of our revenue as a donation and support the situation of Dalits in India with that money. Monetization was fairly simple, we had micropayments for special tools, that made the game easier. However the game wasn't balanced in a way, that this made a "payment wall“ and people could turn them off to play the game unaffected by them. We also put in interstitial ads, that the player could access by doing "Telemarketing with Ms Chopra“. So by participating in this fictional market research, the player gets paid a few coins of in-game currency, enough for two days of food and we got some money for our donations.
The funding for our undertaking was of course not comparable with a full production, but we pushed things as far as possible. Thing is, in 2015, having no budget for user acquisition or marketing that means not especially far. That game got a handful of very nice reviews in Pocketgamer and on Killscreen, we were interviewed by a few newspapers and news outlets, we gave talks on various conferences to explain our special approaches and of course we were asked to write articles about our work, such as this one. It's safe to say, that the project has a few design flaws, it was our first mobile game after all, that it has enough uniqueness and quality to make us proud and that it taught us many valuable lessons. Certainly, there is a potential for the game to raise money and it did well with the users that played the game, but now we are also aware, how very much we have to be aware of user acquisition when making another attempt in the mobile market. All in all, it was a great investment for the future of our work. The fundraising market hasn't discovered games yet, but it will come in the next decade and then we are happy to participate and make more games about the unpleasant reality out there, while figuring out ways to change it.
Georg Hobmeier