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About the Story
Learning to Be Human was a commissioned piece as part of an anti-bullying campaign for the North London Collegiate School Jeju in South Korea. The interactive piece is designed to discuss different aspects of bullying behaviors, and how to change them. By focusing on the android character as an outside observer, players are able to understand and help improve the lives and actions of bullies, victims, and even bystanders when they choose to spend their days with the different characters. It's satisfying to see their work have an impact, over time.
Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: October 19, 2016
Current Version: Unknown
Development System: ChoiceScript
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Your mind blinks into existence: You are an android at FutureBright tech company. Two humans, Dr. Jeongmin Kim and Dr. Jinn Hong, have brought you online for a social experiment. You are going to be making your public debut in… a school.
They want you to learn about what it means to be human.
The game takes place in an international school in South Korea attended by students from different backgrounds and native languages. The gist is that you will spend time with four students in the same class, devoting an entire day to each student. Details about the school are kept to a minimum, but my guess is that the class is about “middle school” aged (the author reminds us that school system structures are not universal).
Gameplay is straightforward. School days are basic but uniquely influenced by the student. This ranges from talkative strolls around the campus to spending time in the cafeteria. You learn about students’ struggles with their lives inside and outside of school. You also see them experience bullying (Spoiler - click to show) (Yeon & David), and you see them causing it (Spoiler - click to show) (Soojin & Sangho). In both cases you develop an understanding of their deeper selves that includes sensitivity, a lack of confidence, and a desire of fitting in. You engage them about their behavior, so they think critically on why they do it and how it harms others.
There are multiple endings, but it feels more like two endings, the second of which comes in several flavors. You can either choose to (Spoiler - click to show) keep participating at the school or to move on with FutureBright’s next experiment. Choosing to move on prompts you to reflect on your experience with the students. What did you learn about being human? Arguably these reflections count as separate endings. You can even request changes in your programming.
Also: I appreciate how the author provides the player with chapter codes so they can revisit their progress rather than having to start over. That makes it easier to explore different outcomes.
This is the main event. Learning to Be Human is ultimately about bullying and seeks to shine a light on how it can manifest in everyday situations. It also functions as a tool for resolving attitudes that lead to bullying. While bullying can be spontaneous and take one by surprise, so can behavioral solutions. The term “behavior solutions” sounds clinical, but the game puts it into context.
Themes about bullying and social dynamics are partly explored through restrictions placed on the protagonist. A defining element in the gameplay are Laws. At the start of the game, Dr. Jeongmin Kim and Dr. Jinn Hong explain that they programmed you to follow three Laws as follows:
- 1: Do not harm sentient life forms.
- 2: Do not interfere with human development.
- 3: Protect yourself from harm.
The second Law turns out to be a real pain. In ChoiceScript, the player selects choices from a menu. But in Learning to Be Human, some of these choices are greyed out and made unavailable because the choice violates a Law.
"Hey, maybe the rest of you should be nicer to David." [This would be interfering.]
"I'm happy to let David figure out what we do for today."
"I'm happy to go to the cafe with everyone as a group."
"Maybe there's some other way I can play the games?"
In example above, the top choice is greyed out because the player is trying to interfere with an exchange between a student and his classmates. This interference seems benign. The PC just wants David to be heard. But the Law interpreted this as overstepping, leaving the PC unable to promote a more inclusive environment. I thought this was an effective way at showcasing these programmed restrictions in the gameplay. More of these scenes appear in the game that also bring up implications about bullying in today’s world.
The Laws’ influence over the protagonist simulates real challenges about addressing conflict in group situations. Often youth are given simple instructions to merely “stand up if you see someone is being treated unfairly!” A valid lesson, but easier said than done. As we see in Learning to Be Human, bystanders suddenly turn into an intimidating audience. The person initiating the harassment may be higher in social status or have considerable sway over how everyone else views an individual. That’s a common theme in this game, the feeling that you could be more inclusive to [insert name] but worry that it would be at the expensive of your peers’ perception of you.
There are countless variables present in these scenarios that make “standing up” the opposite of an easy task. The game puts the player in the shoes of someone who is presented with these predicaments. While the protagonist’s reason for freezing is because of android programming, it captures the experience of witnessing an icky situation but feeling unable to respond.
On a funky side note, the PC can still entertain dubious ideas. The Laws do not prevent the protagonist from thinking about certain actions, only to prevents them from acting on it. Sometimes these actions feel like suppressed impulses. In more heated scenes, we see "so-and-so punched my friend so I'll punch them back" type of responses are fortunately disabled by the protagonist’s programming.
Hit him back. "How do you like it?" [This would be causing harm.]
"No. I couldn't interfere with that."
"I'm sorry that I couldn't interfere."
In these cases, I do not think the protagonist is seriously considering being violent. For the most part.
"There will be a bloody revolution." [This would be causing harm.]
(To clarify, the PC cannot wage war on classmates.)
Rather, these responses seem like an emotional byproduct of input from their surroundings. Being unable to carry out violent actions is a good thing, but sometimes this prevents the protagonist by standing up for others in nonviolent ways.
In my review’s title I call the game lackluster. I should elaborate.
If you approach this game looking for a sci-fi adventure like I initially did, you may find it dull or underwhelming. All I saw was “android protagonist” and dug in. I confess that I have a habit of zooming through ChoiceScript games to orient myself with its structure before replaying it to focus on the details.
My first impression felt like this: You hang out with Character A. You hang out with Character B. You hang out with Character C. And, finally, you hang out with Character D. Thanks for playing. What a bland story. Now, hold on a moment. I was missing the whole point. What changed for me (and no doubt people will pick up on this sooner than I did) was taking a closer look at the implementation of the game’s main idea in the gameplay.
The game may have sci-fi elements, but its genre is ultimately listed as Educational. As I’ve mentioned, it is about bullying, an important subject. However, Learning to Be Human takes this an extra step further with a solid and consistent gameplay structure to back it up. This makes it easier to absorb its key points.
After slowly and earnestly playing the game with a learning objective in mind, it became more than just “hanging out” with NPCs. Instead, Characters “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D” are Yeon, Soojin, Sangho, and David, and each have extremely earnest and down-to-Earth life experiences that are relatable, and compelling because we view them through a unique vantage point: An android programmed for human interaction.
It becomes meaningful, and I’m not just saying that to be polite. Just don’t expect a wild sci-fi story.
A cool design feature is how the game subtly allows you to customize yourself when the researchers ask you to describe yourself. When I saw the “I am a human” option (one of seven options, actually) I figured that the researchers would snicker and say, “if you say so, android,” when instead they hand you a mirror so you can assess your appearance. The game then gives you a list of attributes that you describe, such as the colour of your synthetic flesh. If you describe yourself as an android the game assumes that your appearance is that of a standard android. You also choose your name and gender.
Oddly enough, being an android makes you a neutral party, especially as an observer. A common pattern is that students wage war on each other when the adult in the room leaves, only to pretend like nothing happened when a teacher returns. They have no hesitations around you. They are also more likely to listen to you. You are not a parent or stuffy adult giving them a lecture. You have no allegiance to anyone at the school or belong in a clique. You are cool, or at least novel enough to be interesting. Knowing every language doesn’t hurt either. As we see in the game, students are more receptive to your advice. And that feels nice.
There are six students, four of which you spend time with, plus a few adults. The game has a nifty bio page for reference that lists name, race, and role for all NPCs.
It's tough because some kids are not as likeable. Ouch. This is where we want to be careful lest we repeat the issues we are trying to address. Let’s put it this way: One of the students is the “main bully” whom you have- correction, you get (they matter too)- to hang out with for an entire day. When he hears about your Law against interfering, he (Spoiler - click to show) pinches a bullied classmate to see if you can do anything about. You can’t. It’s frustrating. And yet, you slowly learn his side of the story and form a connection with him with the understanding that “the bully” only skims the surface of who he is. Simply talking goes a long way. That is where the human element emerges.
Be aware, you get placed in some awkward situations. The biggest challenge is when you have great one-on-one time with one student only to see them harass someone else. (Spoiler - click to show) Yeon, a shy and soft-spoken student, is often the target. Someone might toss out the “b-word” or make derogatory remarks about one’s race. Cultural stigma also appears. The author does a nice job of sitting on a fence between being frank about bullying without making it too extreme for players.
But yes, difficult situations can spring out of nowhere, almost casually. In one case a random student (Spoiler - click to show) calls Yeon fat while standing in the lunch line. There are parts of the game where your android self is thinking, I swear to God if it weren't for these stupid Laws...
Learning to Be Human is a powerful resource about human interaction, particularly for kids and tweens. It looks at intersections of daily life (schoolwork, language barriers, parental expectations, feeling cool) and how it can fuel bullying behaviors.
The android protagonist has unique freedoms that puts them in the role of observer but is also bound by the Laws that prevents them for standing up for someone being bullied. This highlights the complexities and challenges that come with recognizing bullying, stopping it, and preventing it from happening again.
I think the gameplay has a realistic view about change. You do not waltz into the classroom and convince everyone to be friends. You certainly make a positive impression, but since the game only occurs over four days, there is no way of seeing the long-term effects on students’ behavior and relationships with one another. It does not set major expectations because small changes matter. That, I believe, is where the game will be helpful for real-world people.
The objective is to show ways of initiating a conversation with a peer, making amends in small ways, and understanding how seemingly perfect people likely have hidden struggles of their own. And on that note, the game provides resources about bullying at the end of the gameplay. I encourage you to check out the link to the author’s notes.
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