Gaming on the campaign trail

The last video game I bought was Ghost Recon Advance Warfighter for the Xbox 360: It scored rave reviews and can be bought for a cheap price. The first warning sign should have been the feeling of embarrassment that was slowly creeping up when I took it home with me on the bus. It actually felt more like meeting a friend when you just bought a pile of toilet paper (so much for videogames being the new rock’n’roll – did that ever happen to you after got the new [insert band here]-album?).What followed was a technologically sophisticated tactical shooter coated in thick jingoistic paint and dressed up as the ultimate male fantasy. But what did I expect? Maybe an industry that is not as insecure about itself as the gaming scene, but even after 30 years innovation is little (though not completely absent). And then I came across Peacemaker, a game inspired by real events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It let’s you play as either the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian President and the aim is to bring peace to the region. Now I have to admit that I didn’t play this game yet, the main reason being that my laptop needs to be fixed and I’m currently using a steam powered iMac. But I think these are the games the industry needs to mature. Says Ernest Adams:

PeaceMaker is fun – challenging, tense at times, and extremely well-presented. But it’s also an important game with the potential to enlighten people about one of the great issues of our time. That’s a noble goal and one to which I would like to see more designers aspire.

And video games seem very suited for enlightenment. They represent a fundamental paradigm shift in popular culture. They are the first simulational media for the masses. They not only represent an object on an audiovisual level, but also model its behaviour according to the user’s input and allow him to explore a dynamic system (though this always must be a necessary simplification of the system it’s based on). In short: They are a very powerful tool to convey political messages. Think about it: Why give long, complicated explanations of the situation in Iraq if you could let a game do the work? Or why not let potential voters play your planned tax reform with a game that can be downloaded from your campaigning website. The dangerous part here is that ideology can be disguised even better. Not only would you have to analyse different audiovisual representations but grasp the main conveyor of ideology in games: the rules. Peacemaker is explicitly addressing these issues by stating its design assumptions and explaining the underlying rationale: The two state solution is a desirable outcome; small concrete steps, not grandiose plans lead to success etc. Since every simulated system is a simplification of the system it’s based on, by just leaving out certain elements the message would be altered. The game about tax reform might not take the development of interest rates into account; a game about the situation in Iraq might solely rely on your military successes and not diplomacy. Also: There might be the issue that you are able to save the game at any given point. This would allow you to just start over again once your tactic failed, so you wouldn’t have to face the consequences of your action. So, what do you think? Will games be an integral part of official campaigning? And how could these games look like? A nice overview of the developments in the field can be found here.

- Jens "Schredd" Schroeder