911 recordings can be painful reminders of what was potentially the worst day of someone’s life. Since these recordings and their transcripts are a matter of public record, news outlets frequently air them without issue. They are seen as merely reporting the news. Things become more muddled when a game developer decides to use these very real situations in a form of media typically associated with entertainment. It can be a fine line for a video game between trivializing someone’s trauma as opposed to authenticating an experience.
911 Operator is attempting to deliver a realistic look at the job of emergency service providers. Developer Jutsu Games used real 911 transcripts to develop the in-game calls. While the moral implications of such an idea might seem fuzzy, the resulting narrative is certainly compelling.
I reached out to Jutsu Games Head Developer, Bartek Gajewski, regarding the ethics of modeling the calls in the game on actual 911 emergencies. Publicly available 911 transcripts were modified with additional dialogue options and alternative outcomes for the game. Despite the necessary modifications in-game calls remain very close to the original transcripts. Sometimes word for word.
“For the proof of concept we actually used real calls that were easily available online for a long time,” Gajewski said in an email. He elaborated that the First Aid procedures and call lengths had been drastically simplified for the purpose of the game.
While hesitant to call 911 Operator a simulation, Grajewski hopes that the game’s mission will justify the source material. The goal of 911 Operator is to present an accurate portrayal of the difficulties of the job. By making the game as realistic as possible, he hopes people will have a better understanding of how complicated it is to be a real 911 operator. “We hope that some people will have a lesson out of playing, and might think twice before calling an emergency line unnecessarily,” he said.
Using real-life trauma as the basis for a game’s story is hardly a new idea. War games do this regularly. “Life writes the best scenarios,” Gajewski said. “This game is not really meant to be entertaining, nor easy.”
I can confirm that 911 Operator’s alpha is suitably stressful after having spent time with it. Particularly when I couldn’t respond fast enough to all the calls coming in. Gajewski pointed out that the emergency units in the game actually move 5X faster than they do in reality. A sobering thought when you have a child on the line crying for help and no squads nearby to dispatch.
Knowing that parts of the calls are real may make some players uncomfortable, particularly on calls where the voice acting really stands out. Still, I feel like 911 Operator accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. Being an emergency operator is distressing and occasionally frustrating. It would have felt more trivializing of the actual victims if Jutsu Games had just fabricated scenarios to be entertaining.
Currently the calls used in 911 Operator are occasionally unnerving and emotional. For many of us, this may be the closest we get to experiencing these situations. I prefer the ability to turn off the game when I’m done and to walk away. Real operators don’t have that option.