Privates (2010)

Privates is a quickly played side-scrolling platformer which can be downloaded for free on the E4 website. It is one of a number of (vaguely) educational games commissioned by British Channel 4/E4 a couple of years ago (that being, maybe not coincidentally, the television group responsible for Skins and Wank Week). I fondly remember playing Trafalgar Origins, a game that combined ship-to-ship combat with dispensing historical trivia. For an educational game, it was surprisingly elaborate, even including a multiplayer mode.

Privates is a different type of game, but it, too, tries to combine professional game design with didactics and, at least a little bit, morals. Its premise is rather silly and based entirely around the title pun: the privates from the title are both a military unit sent on dangerous missions and the locations of these missions (namely: human private parts). Their job: clean the sexual organs of misbehaving men and women (strongly implied to all be teenagers) off any nasty infections. By shooting at the various viruses, bacteria, and (curiously) sperm cells.

Are they normal human soldiers who were shrunk down? Relatives of the Borrowers? Why do they think wearing condoms on their heads will protect them? Why do the sperm have teeth and what kind of command structure exists outside the bodies? These questions aren’t really answered.

Not that they need to be. It’s a silly game, doesn’t take long to complete, and while there is an inkling of a larger storyline in the final two of the six levels, worldbuilding isn’t really something the game seems to be interested in. Besides entertainment, its purpose is more teaching teenagers about all the various sexually transmitted diseases they can catch by having unprotected sex, how dangerous they are and what, if anything, they can do about the symptoms. It’s only logical and good game design that some of the enemies (like sperm) are much easier to defeat than others (like syphilis, which makes the screen lose focus if it touches the player character); AIDS can’t be defeated at all, and the game tries to make very sure the player gets that.

The game isn’t particularly difficult even for someone who tends to not be very good at action games (I died exactly once, in a level not-at-all-cryptically named “Campaign in the Arse”; I won’t elaborate how I died, but if you play the level, you’ll know instantly). It’s challenging enough to be fun, and the mildly dirty humour and vaguely taboo subject matter might indeed make it attractive for teenagers. But I’m not sure the other goal of the game – the educational one – is as easily fulfilled.

I can certainly say that I was thoroughly disgusted with the human body and what it looks like up close after letting infections take root (albeit in very simplified, cartoony form). And the little tidbits of information about the various diseases are built into the game quite cleverly: the main player character is supported by subordinates who follow him around and who get better at shooting at any given opponent only when the player listens to a sarcastic description of whatever infection they’re up against.

But because of the level design, which throws more and more different types of infection at the player the deeper one penetrates a level, a teenage player might conclude that the situation has nothing to do with his or her own. The humans whose innards these privates are crawling around in are quite obviously huge sluts, after all, riddled with a large number of different diseases thanks to lots of sleeping around. I don’t think many teenagers are (or see themselves as) overly promiscuous, and the game could have driven its point home better by focusing more on one-time accidents and uninformed negligence. Or maybe that would have been too obviously didactic, who knows.

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