Escapism has become well-rooted in today’s culture. It is the practice of habitually engaging with various media (sometimes all at the same time) in order to divert one’s mind from the prescribed routines that come with functioning in reality and contributing to society.
According to The World Factbook, 66% (2022 est.) of the world’s population has access to the internet, with South Africa’s numbers standing at 72% (2021 est.). These high percentages tell us that the majority of people today engage in escapism to differing extents and with particular platforms. Gaming has become one of the most popular mediums of escape.
Given these facts, there is a need to critically assess what this actually means for humanity, the individual identity, and overall wellness when games have permeated so many stages of development and self-actualisation. Additionally, these stages need to account for cultural differences – the values, traditions, and national ideologies that one’s family has subscribed to. We have to question the many digital worlds that we enter into for at least a few hours a day and the role that these worlds play in the construction of significant parts of our psyche.
“Many video games in today’s market include violent acts or overly sexualised characters. Although the space for educational games continues to grow, there are very few games that encourage emotional intelligence and none in Afrikaans,” says Janneke van Zyl, the creator of Woorde het Vlerke. It is a 2D game that aims to address the toxicities plaguing escapism culture by creating an environment that is wholesome and educational for children and teenagers who are proficient in Afrikaans (or want to better their grasp of the language).
The game aims to enrich players with valuable inter- and intra-personal skills as they journey through life. “Woorde het Vlerke is a prototype game that I developed in my final year of studies. The dream is to take it further in the future, but for now it is still a concept presentation. The purpose of the game is to make the player think about the power of words – the words they tell others and the words they tell themselves. The playing experience teaches emotional intelligence by encouraging the player to dodge the bad words and hold on to good words. I hope that this could be a game of healing,” says van Zyl.
Van Zyl says, “There are many layers to language, it is not entirely made up by words themselves. The meanings behind words are very valuable. Languages are cultural, and culture is a part of who we are as people and part of defining the experiences we get to have. The game was purposefully designed to create an environment that reflects vulnerability. The characters and elements were stitched onto paper to create the delicate, handmade atmosphere.” In South Africa, it is very common to switch between different languages when we speak. That is, we find ourselves stitching together distinct words from languages like Afrikaans, English, and isiZulu in one sentence.
Because we have cultivated a culture of embracing each other’s language, many children and youth are able to understand some Afrikaans words even if it is not their mother tongue. A game of this visual and psychological nature, even if it was designed for Afrikaans-speaking audiences, is inviting to people who would appreciate a wholesome escape, the children and youth who can be inspired to embrace the meaning of the game in spite of any potential language barriers.
In the Woorde het Vlerke universe, “words have wings” – the literal translation of the title – and words are everywhere. The title of the game draws inspiration from a poem of the same name by Lize Beekman. In the game, the player follows a girl with wings of her own on a journey to discover what her world holds. Along the way, she encounters words such as “goed”, “gaaf”, and “mooi” (good, kind, and beautiful) that she must engage with and keep to herself because they help her to become strong and her actualised self. However, there are also words such as “HAAT”, “DONKER”, “BREEK”, “DOOD”, and “KWAAD” (hatred, darkness, breaking, death, and anger), which are all in caps to emphasise the danger that surrounds them, that are the obstacles she must avoid because they are detrimental to her self-esteem and happiness.
The very first encounter we have with words comes from the family unit. It begins with a mother or guardian teaching you how to call out to them when you need to, and in so doing, they teach you about who they are. Janneke van Zyl recalls her own experiences with words. She says, “My family believes that words are the greatest gift you can give someone. Growing up we would give letters on special occasions, and it is so special to read them again and almost go back in time. It captures a sense of love and appreciation.” Indeed, families have been archiving their bonds to each other throughout history through the power of words – either recorded on paper or recollected through oral tradition. You take words with you from your childhood into the person you are today, and those words spill out into the art you create and the actions you take on a daily basis.
Woorde het Vlerke won a Gold Pendoring Award and the Overall Student Prize at the 2022 ceremony. The Pendoring Awards is a celebration of South African languages held annually to give a spotlight to creative individuals, schools and agencies making meaningful advances in the fields of design, communication, and other various media, and in their native languages. “Getting a call to fly out to Johannesburg, going to the ceremony and winning the award was such an amazing experience. I was so inspired by seeing the amazing work being done by local agencies and creatives. But the greatest gift was that the award opened a door by giving me credibility in an industry that is built on experience. I was able to network with some creatives at the Pendoring Awards which led to the opportunity of starting my creative career at Joe Public – one of the best advertising agencies in South Africa.”
Although Woorde het Vlerke is not yet on the market, it is very much a living project that we can look to, to paint a picture of the potential in South Africa’s arts and culture sector. Van Zyl’s dream that it will see the light of day someday gives a sense of hope for the future of game development. Until then, van Zyl recommends GRIS. Although it was created by a company based in Spain, it is another game of serenity that has encapsulated similar ideas of learning wondrous things about the world. It also speaks to the complex beauties of journeying, exploring, growing, and becoming an emotionally intelligent and well-rounded individual.