political games

The Ron Paul WoW March: Preaching to the Converted

What I find most interesting about Ron Paul is how massive internet support does not translate into mainstream success. And I doubt that stunts like the recent World of Warcraft rally will change anything about this interesting imbalance. One of the reasons being that despite its apparent popularity, WoW is simply anything but mainstream – as a game based on a subscription service with its own codes and vocabulary it certainly isn't accessible to a large part of the population (= the ones on the other side of the digital divide, people not interested in MMORPGs etc.). Even if the rationale behind the march was to receive mainstream media coverage, it is likely that it would have been too cryptic for the people beyond the constituency that is going to vote for him in any event.

As a commentator on gamepolitics remarks:

… I think this was the wrong venue, and a badly misguided idea, if for no other reason than Ron Paul is already regarded as the crazy candidate, and having a bunch of warlocks and mages and gnomes marching in support doesn’t make him look any more sane to the mainstream.

What's left is a unique, self-congratulatory stunt, that would have been more interesting if the march would have been raided (to the confined group of WoW-adherents anyway) – and certainly did not pushed the envelope in utilizing a game space for political means since it didn't take advantage of the unique qualities of games (namely their simulational nature). Had Paul's supporters created a Facebook application that explained his agenda in the form of a game all the while being as accessible as Scrabulous (according to Level Up the most important game of 2007 – "a game that most people know with a well-populated community of people with whom users have a real-world connection") we'd be talking.


How to understand the Motivation behind Suicide Bombing – with Halo 3

If you want to put yourself in the position of a suicide bomber look no further than… Halo 3. Clive Thompson over at Wired explains that due him leading a normal life he just doesn't have the time to improve his skills to keep up with homophobic teenagers around the world. In short: He sucks at the game, the consequences being humiliation and despair. But Thompson strikes back: While the best Halo players love life, he loves death. From the piece:

But at the last second, before I die, I'll whip out a sticky plasma grenade -- and throw it at them. Because I've run up so close, I almost always hit my opponent successfully. I'll die -- but he'll die too, a few seconds later when the grenade goes off. (When you pull off the trick, the game pops up a little dialog box noting that you killed someone "from beyond the grave.")

It was after pulling this maneuver a couple of dozen times that it suddenly hit me: I had, quite unconsciously, adopted the tactics of a suicide bomber -- or a kamikaze pilot.

Because after all, the really elite Halo players don't want to die. If they die too often, they won't win the round, and if they don't win the round, they won't advance up the Xbox Live rankings. And for the elite players, it's all about bragging rights. Thompson knows he can't win; the system discriminates against him because he doesn't have the most valuable resource at his disposal: time; the time to train for him is a luxury. Consequently he has nothing to lose but tries to screw the system as much as he can. Maybe even to the point where the hardcore players change their patterns of play or start to abandon the game. The only difference being here that the game promises instant resurrection rather than 40 horny virgins in heaven.

Of course there are some issues with this view. Surely despair might play a role in the motivation of a suicide bomber, but eventually he just a follows a blind, basically fascist ideology imposed from above that doesn't care so much about haves and have-nots but about the rule of its religious world-view. Osama bin Laden is a member of one of the wealthiest families of the Middle East showing that it's not solely about having resources at one’s disposal. It certainly is an incredible complex issue, something which Thompson readily acknowledges:

I do not mean, of course, to trivialize the ghastly, horrific impact of real-life suicide bombing. Nor do I mean to gloss over the incredible complexity of the real-life personal, geopolitical and spiritual reasons why suicide bombers are willing to kill themselves. These are all impossibly more nuanced and perverse than what's happening inside a trifling, low-stakes videogame.

But the fact remains that something quite interesting happened to me because of Halo. Even though I've read scores of articles, white papers and books on the psychology of terrorists in recent years, and even though I have (I think) a strong intellectual grasp of the roots of suicide terrorism, something about playing the game gave me an "aha" moment that I'd never had before: an ability to feel, in whatever tiny fashion, the strategic logic and emotional calculus behind the act.

I think the interesting question here under a design perspective is: How would we be able to convey this ability to feel a motivation, this feeling of comprehension into other games designed for political purposes and campaigning? If games are able to convey the "aha" moment of one the most horrendous acts they surely must be able to communicate a party's stand on healthcare or fiscal policy.


Iran Releases Anti US/ Anti Israel Game

The Iranian government recently introduced the propaganda PC game Rescue the Nuke Scientist (the kind of name only a totalitarian regime can come up with…). Reports Gamepolitics:

The PC game was created by the Union of Islamic Student Societies, a radical student group. It is said to be a riposte to Kuma Games’ Assault on Iran mission for its reality-based Kuma Wars military series.Mohammad Taqi Fakhrian, a leader of the student group, was in what passes for full game hype mode in Tehran these days:This is our defense against the enemy’s cultural onslaught. We tried to promote the idea of defense, sacrifice and martyrdom in this game.Game play, as described by the AP, is as follows:In Rescue the Nuke Scientist, U.S. troops capture a husband-and-wife team of nuclear engineers on a pilgrimage to Karbala, a Shiite holy site in Iraq. Players take on the role of Iranian security forces carrying out a mission code-named “The Special Operation” to free the scientists, who are moved from Iraq to Israel. Players have to kill U.S. and Israeli troops and seize laptops containing secret information.Players who lose the game receive an onscreen message which says, “With resistance, you can battle the enemy.”The Union of Islamic Student Societies, which created the game, also sponsored the 2005  World Without Zionism conference at which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”  

This made me think: Do these kind of games really do have an effect on players? And if that's the case, what can we learn from them?  When it comes to the representational level the degree of realism certainly seems to be quite high, even though it's still way behind Western state-of-the-art FPPs. But is that enough to be engaging?

In his paper "Social Realism in Gaming" Alexander Galloway explains that realism 'requires "a more-or-less direct criticism of current society and morals" which America's Army does not do, nor does it aspire to do. In fact the game can be viewed in exactly the opposite framework: as a bold and brutal reinforcement of current American society and its positive moral perspective on military intervention, be it the war on terrorism or "shock and awe" in Iraq'. Simply replace America's Army with Rescue the Nuke Scientist, American society with Iranian society and the war on terrorism with the war on zionism and there's not much left of any form of realism – realism in Galloway's definition that is. Basically it amounts to a challenge of hegemony which I think is too simplistic, one of the consequences being that if a game corresponds with the political positions of the author it's deemed to be realistic (such is the case with State of Emergency: 'While the game is more or less realistically rendered, its connection to realism is seen primarily in the representation of marginalized communities... but also in the narrative itself, a fantasy of unbridled, orgiastic anti-corporate rebellion). Also it seems that Galloway's position amounts to a simple binary opposition of escapism and "realism" with nothing inbetween respectively no potential for subversive readings.

He nevertheless has a point when he brings up his so called "congruence requirement": 'I suggest there must be some kind of congruence, some type of fidelity of context that transliterates itself from the social reality of the gamer, through one's thumbs, into the game environment and back again. This is what I call the "congruence requirement (…) So, it is because games are an active medium that realism in gaming requires a special congruence between the social reality depicted in the game and the social reality known and lived by the gamer'Now saving kidnapped nuclear scientists is hardly the social reality of the average Iranian (who probably has other things to worry about) but I would suggest that the fidelity of context here is nevertheless bigger than in America's Army, simply because of the dogmatic indoctrination of a suppressive regime that tries to eliminate any deviant opinions and instead perpetuates a propaganda induced struggle against the forces portrayed in the games. (The uncompromising Left might point out that this is not too different to the USA, but the last time I checked they were still a democracy that didn't stone women accused of adultery to death nor did they want to wipe any countries of the map.)  

So the effect of a game very much depends on its social and instructional/ informational contexts (amongst other things); if you want to design a game to effectively convey your message you have to pick up the people where they coming from and establish a strong link to the minutia of their everyday lives (something that might explain Ian Bogost's interest in the mundane and boring) – and give extensive background information to strengthen the instructional context of the game and the information it tries to bring across. As Squire points out 'the instructional context that envelopes gaming is a more important predictor of learning that the game itself. Specifically, how the game is contextualized, the kinds of cooperative and collaborative learning activities embedded in gameplay, and the quality and nature of debriefing are all critically important elements of the gaming experience'. Likewise his colleague Christian Arnseth suggests that 'the contextualisation of gaming is in regard to learning is probably more important than specific features of the same game in its own right. That is to say, the instructional context is probably a more important predictor of learning'.  

Now if you want to publish a game designed to convey your ideas/ agenda you of course can't put them back into the classroom or expose them to a totalitarian regime; but what you can do is enhance the quality of the debriefing. A good example for this is The District Game which to ensure that the perceived information really gets across the game sets the mechanics in a real-world context by providing extensive background information and quotes for every form of redistricting as well as links to websites and several reports dealing with the issue (not limiting itself to a political direction) – being linked these kinds of resources is definitely a crucial point. A little improvement, taking the congruence requirement into account, might be the possibility to influence the borders of the districts you're living in or replay a recent gerrymandering that led to the passing of a law whose impact you're starting to feel so that the social reality of the gamer plays a more important role.

 In short: Pick them up where they're coming from, show the connection to their lives and embed the game in a well thought about instructional context to bring the message across and explain yourself extensively and thoroughly.

The World of Borecraft Pt.2

The World of Borecraft Pt.2 As a counterpoint to Justin Peter's rather critical account of the serious game phenomenon over at Slate, Gamasutra takes a more sympathetic look at digital games with an agenda. In Who Says Video Games Have to be Fun? The Rise of Serious Games some major players in the field get a chance to voice their opinions on the current state of the discipline, its potentials and problems – one of them being that despite the increased media coverage, these gaming forms still lack some mainstream success. Says Chris Swain, assistant professor in the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Division and a co-director of the school’s Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab:

"the field of political/activist games is very young. We need some success stories to prove our value because right now political games mostly grab headlines and have little real impact.”

But the cause is legitimate and important and in the long run can only benefit the medium:

“I’m all for escapism,” Frasca [Gonzalo Frasca, co-founder of Powerful Robot Games] of says, “but I think that games that deal with serious topics can be more engaging to certain people.” “For 30 years now we’ve focused on making games produce fun,” adds Bogost [Ian Bogost, founding partner of Persuasive Games]. “Isn’t it about time we started working toward other kinds of emotional responses?” Bogost believes that will happen eventually. “I know that comparisons to the film industry have grown tired and overused,” he says, “but indulge me in this one: when you watch the Academy Awards this year, how many films in the running for awards are about big explosions and other forms of immediate gratification, and how many are about the more complex subtleties of human experience? “Someday, hopefully someday soon, we'll look back at video games and laugh at how unsophisticated we are today,” Bogost adds. “It's like going to the cineplex and every screen is showing a Michael Bay flick.”

Good call. Even though taking fun out of games while keeping them engaging is a very thin and delicate line. Which also leads to the question: can a game about such an issue as Israeli-Palestine conflict be "fun"? Or rather: should it be fun? Wouldn't that trivialize the horror and the casualties of the conflict? It certainly can be engaging, as PeaceMaker demonstrates. But then again, as I pointed out before, the decision for a certain form of game design always depends on the kind of agenda-game you're working on. Taking the fun out of games might work better for Bogost's newsgame approach and his focus on the mundane. The annoying issues these games are dealing with are mainly conveyed by annoying mechanics, which constitute the main message (actually that's the case with all games since they aren't a narrative medium – they, so far, just aren't suited to tell stories – but here this fact is put to the front).


The World of Borecraft?

Justin Peters over at Slate takes a critical look at games that are trying to teach you something. And he has some interesting arguments:

In taking the fun out of video games, companies like Persuasive make them less alluring to people who love games and more alluring to people who don't. Your boss, for example (…)I think game designer and theorist Raph Koster has it right. "[J]ust strapping an incentive structure on rote practice doesn't work very well, compared to ... building a long-term goal structure, and then presenting challenges on the way," Koster writes on his personal blog. The perfect embodiment of this idea is Sid Meier's Civilization series. In these games, players build a society from the ground up, interacting with other, competing civilizations along the way. It's addictively fun, and you learn a lot about history along the way… The basic issue here is that it's easier to make a fun game educational than it is to inject fun into an educational game.  

In his reply to the article Ian Bogost, founding partner of Persuasive Games, explains that

'the idea of making games more alluring to people who don't love games is actually something of a noble goal, in my mind, especially as those who do love games become ever more narrow-minded about what a game experience needs to be'.  

And he gets support from Gamasutra who in their coverage of the 2007 Games For Change Conference point out:

'It follows, then, that concerns about the number of copies sold, or number of audience members reached, while common to the commercial market, might actually be less important for socially-conscious games. “In terms of changing people’s attitudes about things,” Sawyer [Ben Sawyer, co-director of the Serious Games Initiative] noted, “it actually matters who plays the games. Let’s make a game that only ten people need to play—because it’s the right ten people and the right game."'  

So designing games for your boss or other people's bosses to pick up might not be a bad idea after all. I can see where Peters is coming from though when he writes that it's easier to make a fun game educational than it is to inject fun into an educational game. The implicit allegation here is that the designers of educational software somehow lack the knowledge or will to design compelling games respectively don't exploit their full potential. Writes Gamasutra

'“The games that we’re seeing—and I think we all sort of share this frustration—are not really fulfilling on the promise of what brings us to conferences like this, what makes us work on this field,” said Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of GameLab. Zimmerman cautioned against activist designers who, in their eagerness to convey a positive socially-conscious message, judge certain aspects of gaming as “bad”—for example, the conflict, the hyperstimulation or the addictive qualities—and attempt to siphon those elements out of the games they make. Zimmerman noted that much of games’ pleasurable qualities are actually derived from those elements, and designers of socially-conscious games can make more effective products by embracing the nature of games, rather than combating them'.   

Fair enough. At the same time what one has to keep in mind though is the variety of serious and educational games and therefore a variety of designs, purposes and audiences. Just like there are editorials there are books. While they're both using the same medium to convey an opinion or educational message to their viewers they utilize it in different styles. So while a simple newsgame at the New York Times takes over the role of the editorial column and reaches a broader audience (including influential non-gamers), a complex game like Peacemaker is more akin to reading a book; the audience might be smaller, but the information conveyed is much more extensive. The only difference being the simulational and interactive nature of the game is more suited to explain the underlying mechanisms and processes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and unlike in a narrative medium there're of course no fixed sequences. Both game-genres can co-exist, they both have their merits and distinctive forms and designs; they only thing they eventually have in common is that they use the same medium. But to improve a newsgame it doesn't necessarily have to be influenced by in-depth simulators which rely more on the traditional game mechanics Zimmerman talks about since it serves a different purpose through a very different engagement of the medium – maybe boredom works for it better than hyperstimulation. Just like we divide texts into editorials and books and other categories and see their differences and different aims and styles, we should also clarify which kind of serious game we're talking about – to improve each genre and to avoid generalisations and confusions. 


Learn the Art of Gerrymandering by Playing the District Game

Gerrymandering is a form of redistricting in which electoral district or constituency boundaries are manipulated for an electoral advantage. You can read the rest of the Wikipedia article here. Or you can play the Redistricting Game by the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab – another perfect example of how the simulational nature of digital games enables them to explain complex political processes like no other medium. And this is finallycomes to politicians' attention:

The Redistricting Game, playable online, was recently shown to members of Congress by Rep. John Tanner (D-TN). Tanner realizes that his colleagues are unlikely to be swayed from the practice, which is less politely known as gerrymandering. The Tennessee Democrat told NPR’s Andrea Seabrook:You’re asking people - and I realize this - to give up an awful lot of power.Seabrook added:Maybe if voters play The Redistricting Game and have fun gaming the system themselves, they’ll see how the system is gaming them and then maybe they’ll demand change. 

The game allows to you to enact different forms of gerrymandering (The Fundamentals, Partisan Gerrymander, Bipartisan Gerrymander, Voting Rights Act, Reform) in a basic or advanced setting. To ensure that the perceived information really gets across the game sets the mechanics in a real-world context by providing background information and quotes for every form of redistricting as well as links to websites and reports dealing with the issue – a crucial yet sometimes neglected component of every serious game. As Norm Ornstein from American Enterprise Institute explains of the game's website:  

"It is not easy to make the redistricting process understandable -- and near-miraculous to be able to do so in a highly entertaining way. But that is just what The Redistricting Game does, to the gratitude of all who want Americans to understand how this process is working, and why it needs real reform."    

This high-profile political example is another step towards the realisation of the full potential of digital games and its accompanying enhancement of public valuation. Maybe it can also serve as an inspiration for campaigning games which not only can explain complicated issues and policies in an easily accesible way but also reach a young, rather unpolitical demographic in a more effective (and cheaper) way than traditional media.


New York Times Publishes Newsgames

This is exactly what I'm talking about: Using the power and simulational nature of digital games to explain and comment on political processes and procedures. And now it reached the mainstream: The New York Times teamed up with Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games to release a series of "newsgames", a mixture of videogames and political cartoons:

Today, I'm excited to announce that Persuasive Games has a new publishing relationship with The New York Times, in which they will be publishing newsgames we create on their op-ed page, as editorial content, not just as games. This is unprecedented, and at the risk of tooting my own horn, I think it represents another important shift in videogames as a medium. This is news/editorial in videogame form, rather than videogames trying to make news fun. The fact that the Times is often considered the national newspaper of record makes this moment even more notable, and gratifying.

Toot that horn, Ian! Toot it like an Alphorn. This is an important step for games indeed – it not only introduces them to a broader audience that probably never considered gaming before but it also shows what the medium is capable of. Unfortunately, the games are only available to paying subscribers. For an impression of what to expect you can still try Persuasive Games' Arcade Wire series: Airport Security, Oil God, Bacteria Salad, Xtreme Xmas Shopping.


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.


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