I really love that video games have become so accessible to create that we’re starting to see games that exist solely to facilitate thought on social and economic issues. What The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne did for social anxiety is what Jacob is attempting to do for socioeconomic disparity as a measure of success, but I can’t help but feel like it kind of misses the mark.
The people behind Jacob don’t seem to understand what the developers of edutainment children’s titles have known for years – if you want to teach, you have to do it through fun. If your only goal is to bring awareness to an issue, fine, toss up that wall of text and don’t really look at how you’re reinforcing the information. But if you want people to dig in and really get it, the game itself has to be fun, and Jacob is – sadly – not at all fun.
But maybe that’s its own point. What’s fun about socioeconomic inequality anyway?
At game start, you’re randomly assigned a value between 1 and 6, representing the social class of the male parent. One is most privileged and will give you the easiest play. Six is then least privileged, and will result in much harder circumstances to overcome. The goal is to build a ladder that will enable Jacob to climb as high as possible in a short amount of time.
Which is exactly where the game starts working against itself. Because of the timer, and the awkwardness of the UI which doesn’t allow you to see all your pieces without a ridiculous amount of scrolling, it’s not really a puzzle game. You don’t have time to think about the possible combinations and figure out how to best obtain upward motion. I think the point would have been made better without the timer, but with a limited number of pieces – give more (and better) pieces to the people with a greater advantage and the concept becomes a lot more clearly illustrated.
I know I couldn’t build fast enough to utilize even half of what was given to me, but I’m not sure how much of that was due to the game allowing me the best starting circumstances. Each turn seems to fully reset your progress, but there’s no indication of that, since the only score you can see is a certain ranking. Although the option exists to share your score, by default, you’re only competing with yourself (albeit at different randomized difficulty levels), so it’s hard to judge just how you’re doing when you’re first starting out.
Overall, I don’t think Jacob succeeds at what it set out to do. I’m far from an expert on the topic, but I can’t help but feel that there is some credibility lost by only referencing studies that are over 50 years old – the world’s changed a lot in that time. But really, it comes down to having the same problem that all games have – if it’s not fun, no one will play it. At least not more than once.