The Ethical Problems of Alternate Reality Gaming and Party Politics

This is Gaming 2.0 at its best:

World Without Oil is a month-long collaborative alternate reality project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and ITVS. It’s the first alternate reality game to tackle a real-world problem: oil dependency.

World Without Oil imagines we are already living on the other side of the “peak oil” moment. The alternate reality game presents a “reality dashboard” that updates daily with gas prices, fuel shortages, and measures of chaos, suffering and economic impact for different parts of the country. Players are invited to document their own lives in this new reality, through blog posts, videos, photos, web comics, geocaches, audio messages, and any other means necessary!

“Play it before you live it”: I love the idea of this game and how it utilizes the resources of the web. The idea of utilizing a game to gather the wisdom of the masses (a medium most suited for this purpose) to deal with an issue we will have to face is enthralling (for more info on the game see this piece and this one). Though, as fascinating and educating as alternate reality gaming is, I think its applicability to political campaigns is somewhat limited, the main reason being its This Is Not A Game (TINAG) Aesthetic. This basically means that the game is not supposed to act like a game, e.g. phone numbers in the game should actually work: A recipe for ethical problems. Imagine the Republicans introducing an alternate reality game on the negative effects of the introduction of universal healthcare, including several fictitious institutions – all with their own websites, email-addresses and phone numbers. The risk of people mistaking the incompetent, fictitious “National Health Council”, solely created for the purpose of the game, with a real-world institution is high. Instead of receiving the medical advice they seek, people are confronted with ideologically biased information that has a potentially devastating effect – an easy target for the political opponent. Maybe this sort of gaming is more suited for policy making, e.g. bringing up solutions for a city that has to undergo budget cuts. Community members could get actively involved in issues and contribute content in a playful yet serious and engaging way. Still: The ethical problem of telling where the game ends and reality begins remains – and the ideologically charged roles of the puppet masters gain more weight. Since they are creating obstacles and providing resources for overcoming them in the course of telling the game's story, they control the rules, the ideological framework of the game. Achieving a neutral standpoint here is challenging, particularly since games are necessarily always a simplification and allow for very subtle bias.