Protest Games

by L.B. Jeffries

16 March 2009

 

A while back I posted an essay on how a video game placed in a relevant setting would be able to raise awareness of important issues. Since then, a little digging has revealed that there are already several games covering that ground. Although there is nothing quite on the scale of an FPS set in a real world conflict, there are now many groups on the internet that are trying to raise awareness by using the medium of video games. The results are often mixed depending on how much they actually utilize the strengths of the medium. As Ian Bogost explains thoroughly in his work with Persuasive Games, a properly designed setting and appropriate means of interaction is able to induce a mental response in the player. If you’re able to create a game design where the player needs to collect information to win, they are going to pick up on whatever that information is presenting while they pursue the goal of winning. If the player must participate in an unpleasant activity to win, they are going to maintain serious doubts about the merits of such an activity in the real world. And if you give the player the choice of trying to win in an inherently corrupt system, you might actually communicate something in a way that only video games can. Here are a couple of examples of hits and misses with these goals.

First up is the controversial PETA parody of the Cooking Mama series, Mama Kills Animals. As with PETA’s other protest games, the production values are really impressive while the actual game design revolves more around parody than actual communication. It relies on the conventions of the Cooking Mama series to coerce the player into participating in disgusting activities. To prepare Thanksgiving dinner the player must pluck feathers, remove vital organs, and stuff the Turkey while blood and squishing noises make the entire experience thoroughly uncomfortable. Intermixed with these sessions are videos depicting the horrible treatment of turkeys in farms. It’s an interesting protest game because it makes the decision to aim low in terms of getting a message across to the player. Given that PETA’s goal is to promote the ethical treatment of animals, they may have missed the mark somewhat by making the turkey so disgusting that they don’t really generate empathy for the creature.  It just makes me want to not eat turkey, which is certainly a much simpler goal that still accomplishes PETA’s agenda. This is a flash game, and the designers are presuming that you’re only going to be playing for about five minutes. Generating the kinds of emotions that would involve the player questioning society’s treatment of animals would involve a playtime that’s probably unreasonable. They grab your attention with the outrageous parody, they get you to play long enough to absorb their point, and you walk away with the unshakable knowledge that the turkey industry is not exactly a wholesome affair.

The website Global Conflicts has a flash game about the harsh conditions of the maquiladoras along the Mexican-American border. The game that I played was just a demo of the full version but the setup was interesting. You have a finite amount of time to interview people in the area before the main interview with the manager of the factory. The majority of the game then involves manipulating a resource management dialogue tree with each question taking 5 minutes of your time while the clock ticks. Specific angles must be explored, questions must be left unanswered, and the resounding chime of discovering an incriminating fact hard codes information into your memory. The player ticks through lists of info like a scavenger hunt: factories often pollute without any concern for environmental laws, they abandon native workers for those in countries that pay lower wages, or they have no interest in the community. You learn all of this because you have to click through all of it, study the information, and decide whether or not it is strategically relevant. The only flaw of the game is the excessive amounts of text it throws at you. You don’t have to make everything about shooting evil aliens, but it helps to remember that there’s more than one way to communicate your message than just blocks of text. Images, game design, mission variety, and countless other options allow the player to collect information in different ways. Telling me that the maquiladoras are bad for the community is one thing, letting me see it or even better, letting me suffer consequences because of it is far more effective.

The best protest game to this day is still the McDonald’s Video Game and its success comes on several levels. The game creates a satirical business simulation because in order to succeed you must eventually compromise your own morals. It’s perfectly possible for you to run your franchise in a legitimate manner that helps the employees and doesn’t damage the third world countries that you rely on for food. But, you don’t make any money when you play this way. In order to succeed at the game, you have to turn a profit and keep the shareholders happy, which means maybe paying a bribe to government officials so you can cut corners on the meat production or slashing the salary of employees so that you can get a few points ahead. Of all the protest games that I played, this one was by far the most effective because it didn’t just communicate something as simple as PETA’s “Turkey farms are bad” or Global Conflicts’ countless rattling off of facts. It made me comprehend the dilemma on a very personal and empathetic level. Playing this game makes you realize that the people who run McDonalds aren’t evil, instead the entire system encourages corruption as the only viable way to run a corporation. It’s subversive in a way that none of the other games even bother to attempt because it communicates its message through choice. What better way to make a person realize that an entire system is corrupt than by making them realize that they would do the exact same thing if they were running a company? It’s not a question of how receptive or smart your audience is. The game uses cute graphics and an easy interface to rapidly engage any unsuspecting player. As with their later game Oiligarchy, the point is not to offend the player for becoming corrupt. The point is to make them comprehend how corruption works and why it happens.

 

Each of these games succeeds at their basic objective. PETA’s Mama Kills Animals was a massive experiment for the group that relies on satire to slip their message between the cracks. The Global Conflicts game on the maquiladoras creates a game where the player must pay attention to information in order to progress. We’re reading the information because we’re looking for the clue that will let us beat the factory manager, and it is not until after the game is over that we realize we’ve just learned a great deal. Yet I think the last one may still be the most effective of the trio because it communicates its message through the player rather than just barking it at them. There’s no arguing with their critique of Fast Food Corporations because there is no argument to be made in the face of the experience provided. I played the game, destroyed third world countries, ripped off my employees, and realized that by winning I had just made myself complicit in the entire system. Whether or not the player is bothered by this conduct is irrelevant, they now know that anytime they are dealing with a fast food franchise that the business must always face the temptation to operate in the most corrupt manner possible to gain a profit. They know it because it’s the same experience that they had experienced firsthand. Choice is what makes video games powerful, not the fact that lots of people play them or that you can trick people into absorbing information while they’re playing. If your cause is so righteous and true, then let the experience of that injustice speak for itself.


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