Here's a conundrum: when the world is deep into hysteria over a potential pandemic like the swine flu, how does someone who wants to poke fun at the problem do so?
For Jude Gomilla and Immad Akhund, the answer was a single sleepless night about 10 days ago during which the two San Francisco entrepreneurs built what has become a massively popular Flash game called Swinefighters.
In Swinefighters, players--dressed as giant-syringe-wielding and mask-wearing doctors--are tasked with killing off rogue viruses in the form of sneering pigs. Each time you hit a pig with the syringe, it is wiped out, and the goal is to do that as many times as possible in 20 seconds. And because the game presents a running total of all the pig-like viruses killed by everyone who has played the game, we know that in total, Swinefighters have destroyed nearly 14.5 million viruses since the game's launch.
Swinefighter is hardly the only game of its kind. In fact, in the last few months, there's been a proliferation of what some call "news games," little Flash-based exercises that are based on the very latest mega-stories sweeping the globe. Among the targets of these titles' satirical eye have been things like the George W. Bush shoe-throwing incident, the water landing of US Airways flight 1549, the British financial bailout, and even Britney Spears' haircut. And next up is a game that is expected to be released in a few days parodying the Bernard Madoff scandal in which players can manage their own Ponzi scheme.
Controversial? Or not?
And while some may find such premises beyond objectionable, those making the games--not surprisingly--don't think they're crossing any social taboos.
"To me, it's a bit strange, because some people see these games as controversial," said Gomilla, "when usually the point is a positive one. Most are expressing something that users want to be. They want to be the heroes of landing the plane, or they want to beat the virus, but they can't (personally) make political decisions. (So) in a sily way, they can go and vent their frustrations in the game."
Others feel that those who are up in arms are missing the point, or overreacting. After all, no one was ever harmed by a flying digital shoe.
"We were quite surprised at the level of controversy (our game) created," said Louise Doherty, of Fubra, which currently publishes Sock and Awe, one of at least seven games devoted to the Bush shoe-throwing incident. It's only a bit of fun, but we had hundreds of emails telling us that we were evil, that we should close the site (and) that no matter what Bush had done, 'no one deserves to have shoes thrown at them.' They're virtual shoes. Even the real shoe that was thrown didn't hit him."
Of course, there are different ways of approaching delicate subjects, and the people behind some of these games have chosen different ways to have fun with the subject matter. In both Hero on the Hudson and Double Bird Strike, for example, players must try to land an airplane that has had its engines knocked out by birds.
But in Hero on the Hudson, if you don't handle the rapidly descending plane properly, it crashes into the water. To Dominic Tocci, the creator of Double Bird Strike, that's not the best way to confront the potentially impolitic nature of a game based on a well-publicized airplane accident.
"Some topics are a little delicate, but it's all in how you present them," said Tocci. "For example, when I designed Double Bird Strike, I intentionally made it so that crashing the plane was impossible."
Tocci's attempts at political correctness aside, not everyone would agree that making play out of a near disaster is funny, or useful, even if players don't have to actually see the plane crash. And not everyone would agree with Tocci's assessment of what's fair game and what's not.
"Personally, if I think a game idea is in poor taste, I won't make it," Tocci said. "Of course, there will always be someone out there who might get offended by something I made, but you can't please everyone."
One such group might be fans of Britney Spears or those who feel for the personal travails the pop superstar has gone through in recent years. Yet Tocci took Spears' dramatics head-on with his first news game, Britney Wigged Out, in which players have to try to place a wig on the head of a bobbing and weaving Spears caricature.
Money to be made
But there's no denying that these projects, most of which are created by individuals or small teams, are resonating with the Internet public. And that can be profitable.
Doherty's Fubra bought Sock and Awe from its original creator on eBay for more than $8,000, but said ads on the game earned the money back in just 48 hours. And Tocci said his creations earn money from royalties paid by the casual games sites that host the titles.
Not everyone is trying to profit though. Gomilla said that he and his partner decided not to attach ads to Swinefighter because of the sensitive nature of the game. But he suggested he wouldn't have a problem making money off of less controversial topics.
Flash games like these have been around almost as long as Flash itself. But in the past, they've tended to center on harmless fare like throwing things at penguins. And while they've managed to spread far and wide, it's likely they haven't done so with the urgency of the news games. And that has to do with the fact that these new titles, like so many other Web-based projects these days, can spread like wildfire on social-networking services like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.
That leads to staggering numbers like the 14.5 million viruses tackled in Swinefighter and the 93.5 million shoes tossed at Bush in Sock and Awe alone. Tocci's Double Bird Strike has been played more than 400,000 times.
The games are also coming faster these days because the tools available make it possible for someone with even rudimentary skills to make something like Swinefighter in an evening.
To Sree Sreenivasan, the dean of student affairs and a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, things like news games and other Web phenomena prove that there's little point in trying to understand people's sensibilities or taste. After all, he points out, someone might post a video on YouTube of their grandmother's funeral only to have others' mocking responses to the video catch viral fire.
"On the Internet, you've lost control of this stuff," Sreenivasan said. "It would be nice if everything on the Internet had redeeming value, but I don't think that's possible."
News game creators like Gomilla and Doherty, however, think their offerings do present some social value, even as they poke fun at topics that make some people very nervous.
Gomilla, for example, points out that Swinefighters features advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to combat things like swine flu. And Doherty indicated that while she might have little sympathy for Bush having had to dodge flying shoes, she cared about the fate of the Iraqi journalist who threw the footwear at the president.
"When it became clear that reporter Muntadar al-Zaidi could be in serious trouble as a result of his actions we decided to display news about his arrest and charges on the site so people would be kept aware of his plight," Doherty said. "People that were visiting the site to play the game and laugh were also getting news that they may not have seen otherwise."
News games as education
In fact, Doherty said that the educational value of these games can outstrip even what respected government institutions offer the public.
"It's a shame the innovation (of providing CDC advice about swine flu in Swinefighters) was left to two entrepreneurs," said Doherty. "It would have been great if the World Health Organization had realized they could use a game to raise awareness about preventing swine flu."
Sreenivasan, too, recognizes that the creators of news games have the time and energy on their hands to move a lot faster than traditional organizations.
"I think (news games) can be engaging and helpful," Sreenivasan said, "and that's why you see some news organizations trying to do this. The problem is when breaking news happens, structured organizations don't have the time or work flow (to act), whereas someone working alone in the basement" does."
On June 22, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and South and North Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.