Sep 182006

There’s a Wired News article on games about the Arab-Israeli conflict out, in which I am quoted a fair bit.

As I told Quinn Norton, there’s a long history of games that deal with political issues. One of my favorites is Hidden Agenda, which is apparently abandonware today and still playable on a WinXP box. In this game, you take on the role of president of a newly democratic fictional Central American country called Chimerica. It’s dated today, set in the midst of the Cold War, but still packs a massive punch when you play it; trying to juggle the priorities of agrarian reform, free market economics, improved health care and education, and keeping the left and right wings of your populace is still an eye-opening experience.

This sort of game is unlikely to be made by major publishers; instead, we see titles like Food Force made by NGOs, essentially as propaganda tools in a good cause. The MTVu game Darfur is Dying, which I have referenced before, is a noble attempt to convey the horrors going on there. Most of these games aren,t on the average, as rich and compelling an experience as Hidden Agenda despite their newer, flashier graphics. Hidden Agenda was accused of having political biases to it, by forcing the user to cater to the extreme left, but it’s precisely the need to reach accommodations that makes it a richer experience. It’s the difference between games as propaganda and games as education.

This all has resonance because of the Dawson College shootings in Montreal, which may have begun as apolitical as you get, the actions of a deeply troubled individual; but which are now politicized just as most major acts of violence are. The latest video game scapegoat is Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a totally indie game made in RPGMaker. On a mailing list I am on, a fellow developer described the game as “sick,” yet my experience with it is quite different; it’s more akin to a novel that tackles trying to understand the mind of the serial killer than anything else. Whether it succeeds, I am not sure.

In other words, it’s a game that no game publisher would touch, but that a book publisher might take on based on its artistic merits. I mean, this is a game that opens with a quote from André Breton and features a delivery quest to Nietzsche; it’s a far cry from a glorification of what Klebold and Harris did, and indeed the second half sends them to Hell. Whether or not Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is effective at accomplishing its goal is an open question; the real question is whether it’s a statement, and that it most definitely is, commenting on political issues ranging from separation of church and state to gun control.

Games are a medium; we’re therefore going to see a lot more statements made using games. Some will be simplistic, and some will be complex. Some, like Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, may well be confused and confusing. Given the entertainment media’s infrastructure, getting complex statements through can be hard; big companies try not to offend anyone, so the messages they espouse tend to be inoffensive at best. At worst, they are bombastic oversimplifications, summer movie exaggerations that can end up espousing rather disturbing points of view when considered in the cold light of reason (vigilanteism being a popular one).

Audiences, by and large, don’t like complex statements either, and this is why something like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! will always have trouble gaining acceptance. You can be sure that a balanced and comprehensive treatment of the Middle Eastern political situation would piss off people from all sides, as well. People tend to gravitate towards that which confirms their worldview, not that which challenges it.

In general, the entire debate surrounding games as addictions reflects this sort of polarization; Aaron Ruby’s recent article on the subject prompted a reply from Jack Thompson — yes, that Jack Thompson — that reads in part

Aaron Ruby is simply a flack for an industry with blood on it’s hands, now in Montreal.

In general, reductionist thinking gets humanity into trouble. Here we see propaganda being used in the opposite direction. The difficulty, of course, is that simple or simplistic messages are easier to hammer home, and discussions with nuance tend to get lost.

Long-term, one can hope that we continue to see games that push the boundaries of games for mere entertainment. I tend to think that most likely, the games artistically successful on this front will be the ones that leverage the power of games to model systems, rather than the games that are presenting typical borrowed gameplay with a propagandistic wrapper. But there’s room for all sorts, from grand NGO-driven efforts to educate about the challenges in delivering food to disaster areas, all the way to games that are intended as little more than tone poems.

In the long run, it’s precisely the most ambitious endeavors that we in the games biz need to be encouraging and defending — yes, even the stuff we may not like — precisely because those then form the outer bounds of what we are capable of doing — and perhaps, what we are allowed to do.

Edit: while I wasn’t looking, CAMRA passed.

  20 Responses to “Games as propaganda, games as statement”

  1. Koster posted an interesting blog the other day called “Games as propoganda, games as statement” (

  2. I think didactic media are most effective when they are indirect; when they are presented allegorically. An explicit statement typically demands less consideration than a metaphor, which better encourages the audience to think laterally and creatively.

    A well-designed allegory makes its real-world tie-ins apparent enough that they are not easily ignored, thereby directing the audience’s attention toward specific objects; but it also leaves enough room for wonder that the audience applies the story’s suggestions beyond the immediate. A game about a massacre that sticks strictly to the facts does not encourage players to apply its lessons to other massacres as well as a more universal and archetypal game.

  3. I tend to think that most likely, the games artistically successful on this front will be the ones that leverage the power of games to model systems, rather than the games that are presenting typical borrowed gameplay with a propagandistic wrapper.

    I agree.

    There’s a large pool of games already doing this but they’re not video games as we understand them. Look at the work of Dennis Meadows, for example, Fish Banks which runs more as a workshop exercise, with a pool of direct participants and a behind-the-scenes simulation. It attempts to teach, as I understand it, the tragedy of the commons, by allowing players to experience this tragedt as they create it, inadverently, in a game with a realistic ecological model.

    And I agree that confirmation bias is a big problem with all of this and it will be there even with a simulation backing up the game. If you get to the end of a game like Fish Banks and it doesn’t confirm your biases then you’re likely to just blame the simulation as not true to the world (or at least the world as you’d like to believe it exists).

    Part of the reason why these games tend to be delivered directly and not electronically is probably that it gives a chance to talk directly to the people in a manner that they is less likely to dismissed as just propaganda.

  4. If there’s a problem with how “games as propaganda” suffer from a perceived failure to confirm the player’s biases, it’s probably from calling them “games.”

    For most people, playing a game means there’s a chance to win. But if the purpose of the designer is to advance a personal agenda, rather than to entertain a player, then winning is about satisfying the designer, not the player. The player can only win by conforming to the designer’s beliefs — if you don’t think the way the designer wants you to think, you can’t win.

    How is that a game?

    Is “game” the right word for something that is only secondarily about the player’s fun? Wouldn’t “simulation” be more a honest term?

    If it’s possible to successfully proselytize in a game format at all, Aaron is probably right: it’s best done allegorically. Win or lose, you’re still exposed to the message, and you’re treated as enough of an adult to decide for yourself whether or not to accept the message as true.

    But if it’s a game, then it has to be about the player’s fun, first and foremost. Otherwise, calling it a “game” is dishonest, and players will react accordingly to that dishonesty.

  5. […] Comments […]

  6. Bart Stewart wrote:

    Is “game” the right word for something that is only secondarily about the player’s fun? Wouldn’t “simulation” be more a honest term?

    Pac Man designer Toru Iwatani said in a 1986 interview:

    I’ve felt I would like to make the people who enjoy playing games cry — give them an emotion different from the ones they’re used to when they play video games. I’d like to come up with some kind of very dramatic game.

    I want them to have the opportunity to experience other emotions, like sadness. They’re not going to cry because they are hurt. They will cry when they play my game for the same reasons people cry when they see a movie like E.T., because it touches them.

    They go to sad movies of their own free will because they like to be moved, even though it’s a sad feeling. I’d like to create a game that would affect people that way.

    Would a game designed by Toru Iwatani that focuses on eliciting emotions throughout the range of the human experience not be a “game” then? The emotion of “fun” is one of many possible experiences. Games that focus on eliciting fun are shallow at best.

  7. To take a step further Aaron’s point (Miller, first commenter), I think that even “modeling systems” is not enough, because those systems carry an ideological bias, as you point out. Obviously there will be a bias somewhere in the game, but I think a clash of systems is the ideal, letting people have some verbs and organize how they will. I haven’t played Hidden Agenda, but it sounds like its hidden agenda, in the context of good ‘ol fashioned “fun-oriented” design, is a dominant strategy, not a desirable feature. If someone wants to play a right winger, they should have contrasting advantages to the opposite strategy.

    I’d really like to know what you though about Ian Bogost’s Unit Operations, since this notion is discussed in a variety of forms, and your theory of fun is discussed specfically in the “Alternative To Fun” chapter. The books thesis suggests an alternative mode of analysis that looks at lower level interactions, the microgames if you will, that compose the greater system, rather than the system as a whole. Maybe thats seems reductionist, I prefer to think of it as reductholist.

    These issues will only really be sorted out through the hard evidence of play, and that requires some sort of a buisiness model. Games of this sort can be funded for 100-500k, the question is how can they be marketed to return that comparatively meager budget. If I can fish you over my way, I wrote on this topic just recently, referencing another Aaron Ruby article.

  8. That’s a good point, bringing up Iwatani’s interview. I’d also ask, what’s the difference between a game and a simulation, and are the two mutually exclusive?

    If the only way you can win a game is by adopting the designer’s beliefs, then it has at least served the purpose of letting you into the mind of the designer, to play against him or her, rather than playing against the coded systems. (Even if you disagree, you at least get something out of it.) The gameplay can be fun, or not, just like a non-propoganda game.

    I disagree with most of Nation States, but I have a lot of fun disagreeing.

  9. There’s no reason you can’t have fun playing a game and still learn something too. Hidden Agenda was an excellent example of this. In the same way that reading Cold War spy novels makes you cynical about the things governments do in secret, playing Hidden Agenda makes you realize what an impossible job running a country is.

    Some of the most memorable games I’ve ever played were memorable precisely because they stirred up other emotions besides just enjoyment. ICO, anyone?

    In general, I think that games that challenge people to think for themselves and critically re-evaluate their beliefs are a good thing. There’s no reason they can’t subtly do that at the same time as they entertain. This formula is employed by many successful novels, too—I think for many of us, that’s the only reason we make it to the end of one like Left Hand of Darkness.

    The question is: how can you preach your moral or ethical message (or at least get them thinking critically) without being so overt as to distract the player from their fun? The more uncomfortable your message, the less likely they are to want to hear it. Maybe the way to do it is to weave it subtly into the fabric of your world so that it permeates their experience on a subconcious level, but doesn’t get ‘in their face’ and ruin the enjoyment of the game.

  10. from the CAMRA article: “sooner rather than later”

    Im betting sooner rather later, its another thing for them to flog to voters through November, then pick up later once the results come out and following the next related media event thats even tangentally related to games.

    Eventually followed by some federal breaucracy vetting your game releases that have a rating over “mature” (not your rating system btw, thiers). Im sure anything actually making a statement or considered propoganda will be reciving the “mature” rating as well.

    I guess this may seem far fetched, until you realize that media and entertainment fall under the auspices of the politically sensative, fine levying FCC. Movies, Radio, TV….

    No market stays unregulated (or self regulated) for long, not one that produces 20+ billion in revenues annually. How much regulation is depandant on the industries willingness to fight, or at least offer alternatives to slanted research, research apparently with an ETA of 2-5 years.

  11. what’s the difference between a game and a simulation

    I can’t believe I’m getting into another potential definition tussle, but meh. Can’t resist, either.

    I would say that all games are subsets of simulations. However, in terms of connotations by the words, games are frequently more abstract and simulations more specific; neither should be a definitional requirement. What makes a simulation a game, I think, is the ability to determine your own destiny, but the extent to which you can do that goes across this amazingly long continuum such that there frequently isn’t a noticeable difference.

  12. I can’t believe I’m getting into another potential definition tussle, but meh. Can’t resist, either.

    I think you just defined this particular blogosphere right there. 🙂

    I like how games are a subset of a simulation; I’d add that games need victory/defeat conditions, while simulations don’t.

  13. That’s the primary difference I see between games and simulations as well. You play a game to win; you run a simulation to see what happens. One is about dominance; the other is about learning.

    (That’s not a hard-and-fast distinction; it’s possible to define “seeing what happens” as “winning,” in which case you could reasonably discuss a sim as a game. Most of the time, however, the two approaches are distinct.)

    I’m also open to defining “fun” as something other than a struggle for dominance, but that’s just me. Most gamers aren’t like me — most gamers (I believe; I’m open to data showing otherwise) are Achiever-types who most certainly do define fun as “winning,” as beating an opponent, and who expect their games to be rules-based competitions that can be won.

    If game propagandists want to focus on me, then sure, they can define fun as something other than the thrill of victory over a foe and still have a chance of getting their message through. But I’m just one guy; persuading me won’t accomplish much. It’s persuading the masses that matters… and to do that, you have to deal with the masses on their own terms.

    And their terms are that “games” are a dominance-oriented entertainment experience — they’re about having fun through beating an opponent. To focus on providing something other than that as your primary product but still insist on calling it a “game” is to mislabel your product.

    Which is the kind of thing that tends to upset consumers once they realize it, so it’s probably not an optimal strategy for persuading people to your point of view. Calling it a game may attract the masses to hear your message, but if they decide that you weren’t honest about what they were buying then they can only be more likely to ignore or reject your message.

    It may be hard to accept that being honest about what you’re offering means that fewer people will try your product. But what if doing so increases the probability that those who try your product will listen to the message?

    Or are those with a message to push so convinced of the rightness of their cause that any means of reaching users — including deliberately mislabeling their educational message as a game — seems justified?

    Is “It’s for their own good” thinking OK for game developers if it’s not OK for others?

  14. Since the discussion is at least partly about games as an educational tool I’ll feel free to comment.

    For a number of years I used something in MBA and undergraduate classes which is a game and a simulation [both in its descriptions and in the sense that Slyfiend used]. The current incarnation can be seen here

    I no longer use it. Why? In a nutshell, its a very good tool but not the best tool. People here are gaming professionals and ‘insiders’ so I can understand the enthusiasm about expanding the outer bounds of games and gaming. But in your enthusiam try to remember that there are other media, other mechanisms. Games and simulations can be very good tools but there are other tools in the toolkit.

  15. When I was in Business School we used an actual interactive 2D game to simulate logistics/inventory/cost limitations, it was pretty slick, but I cant remember who made it.

  16. Scientifically, a simulation is a model of some external process. It doesn’t have to be fun, it is judged on its ability to capture the actual properties of that process. For example, a good model would be one that actually had an ability to predict future events. In scientific analysis and understanding it is important here that the simulation conform to understood and verified scientific principles and not just whatever is convenient or what are the personal beliefs of the simulationist.

    Games may use simulations in order to encode interesting external systems into them but I do not think that they are themselves simulations. And typically the simulations that games use are poor when judged by their predictive power. The priority to create something that is managle, understandable by a player and works well within the framework of the game overrides the necessity of correctly modelling something real.

    In this sense, when using somewhat compromised simulations, the creators personal beliefs become important. Simulating the economy of a 3rd world country is simply too hard to do correctly for a game and might be too complex to be fun for a player and so a game like Hidden Agenda is going to have to cop out and create a crude and inaccurate representation. As it’s up to the creator to figure out where to take shortcuts and what assumptions to make, the creator’s ideas get transferred into the game.

    Ideally a learning game needs a more scientifically verified simulation to back it up. I think that a game like Fish Banks would want to claim to have this. A simulation relying on verified, peer-reviewed techniques which are known to have a certain degree of accuracy can be reasonable believed to be independent of outside bias. Unfortunately, such techniques are going to be very sparse for some of the more interesting conflicts and ideas that a game might like to explore.

  17. How about games such as nuclear war which was popular among my crowd about 15 years ago. At least to me and my friend it gave a sense of how productive nuclear weapons are when used with the purpose to win.

    Games like this can help with the process of teaching a lot of people how to discard bad ideas quickly. A modern type of gameplay might be able to prove that certain types of conflict sollutions are not worth investing your voting power into.

  18. I went to click on “Darfur is Dying,” prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt, and found I came to be revolted by the idea of making this subject into any kind of rote game.

    I tried to force myself to go through the menus…and it was too contrived, and too awful — the idea that you’d be conned into thinking you were “doing something” or “raising your awareness” by this strange little removed and remote exercise. The drop-downs of appeals to your Congressman were strange useless artifacts, bereft of the realization that you don’t get to Congressman that way, really; calling and faxing are more effective.

    Seeing the generic family with their names, lined up like Sims, I felt really turned off. I just don’t think this works — at all. I’d feel a deep sense of shame if a real Darfurian refugee family saw me minimizing their plight like this with this hugely artificial notion that I was helping them by doing this game.

  19. Yea, it really is a lot like the Sims, except your characters get raped, killed, and/or starve to death. As far as “Darfur is Dying” convincing me to call my Congressman, no, it made me feel like it was too late for that. I didn’t see any solutions, and I don’t see Congress writing a check as helping.

  20. […] Where is games’ Alan Moore? I was reading Raph Koster’s post about my article where I quote him, (proving the media really does talk to itself too much) and it got me thinking about games as evolving along similar lines as comics. He talks about games outside of the usual formats ranging from political statements to audio poetry. And he makes a very good point- a computer game is a medium. He’s starting to make that point before the medium has grown up, whereas I think Scott McCloud made that point (very articulately) about the funny picture books in Understanding Comics well after the medium had really matured. […]

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