Playing the "Powerless"

MissionUS, WNET Thirteen, 2011

If we abandon our flawed assumptions about games, there are no limits on the evocative power of the “powerless”.

Mark Sample of Play the Past recently asked an interesting and thought provoking question to his readers: “What are the limits of playing the powerless?” Even more specifically, he asked, “What are the limitations of playing the powerless in videogames about the powerless?” ("The Limits of Playing the Powerless and the Doomed in Video Games", Play the Past, 10 April 2012). Sparked by Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames, Sample goes on to raise and allude to a variety of questions about viewership and participation, player detachment, historical obligations, and developer responsibility. All games can -- and more should -- address sensitive issues with tact, including emotional topics and historically significant time periods or events marked by troubling power relations. The only limits to playing the “powerless” are the limits we set when we carry our game design assumptions into the development process.

The concept of fun inevitably arises when discussing serious games and powerlessness in particular. Time and again others have exhaustively argued for "engagement" as a more descriptive ideal than "fun," which fails to capture why we engage with melancholy media at all. So let's leave that concept behind entirely.

Looking at engagement, there is a legitimate concern regarding player involvement in a play experience. Playing the powerless, one might argue, is an exercise in futility because there is very little "play" at all. Of course we can turn to games like Passage and the more recent Dear Esther to argue that the level of interactivity players have in a play experience has little effect on the potential emotional reaction that games can evoke in a player. Both games limit player interaction to simple movement but have nevertheless received an array of critical acclaim. Both games, I would argue, also address a somber narrative perhaps in line with the narrative of the "powerless."

Even so, I do not want to relegate games about the "powerless" to the borderlands of interactivity and passive viewership. Surely we can find immense value in playing the oppressed. Setting fun aside, we might still argue the act of playing the losing side in any conflict is unappealing and would never hold a player's attention. The win/lose dichotomy remains painfully obtrusive to the design of "powerless" play experiences. Gonzalo Frasco rightly points out in "Videogames of the Oppressed" (, 2004) that it may be immoral to allow players to win by rewriting the history of, say, Anne Frank, by letting her escape Nazi Germany.

The problem is the general obsession with winning and the term's narrow definition. Shuen-shing Lee accurately points out that the act of losing can powerfully affect players and express a great deal (“I Lose, Therefore I Think”, Games Studies, December 2003). Even so, he maintains the win/lose dichotomy. Instead, in contexts of unfair power relations, we should redefine what it means to win. Success need not rely on survival alone. We can call The Diary of Anne Frank a success not because the author survived but because the young girl’s audacity to remain overwhelmingly human despite her situation of “powerlessness” survives today through the potency of her words.

Sample asks readers to play Mission US: Flight to Freedom, a game that very much redefines success. This second entry into the educational game series follows Lucy King, a 14-year-old runaway slave. Of course single-handedly abolishing slavery, an ideal outcome, is off the table here. Likewise, Lucy is not simply swept away from the horrors of slavery by kind-hearted abolitionists. Naturally, if Lucy is caught, players encounter a lose condition of sorts, but her survival is not the game’s only measurement of success. Flight to Freedom includes multiple endings that vary based on player decisions and performance. How well players maneuver themselves amongst suspicious NPCs and how educated Lucy becomes during the game affects its conclusion. The game’s endings vary as well, some resulting in Lucy building a family for herself or becoming a writer and outspoken abolitionist -- both of which are perfectly acceptable conclusions to her story. For Lucy, success has a variety of meanings, despite her relative “powerlessness”.

Yet perhaps the act of embodying the “powerless” as a player is itself an act of power and therefore fails to tell a story of “powerlessness”. As Sample might ask, is it dangerous or unethical to give players too much freedom in situations marked by a pointed lack of freedom?

The answer lies in how we understand autonomy and power. A person completely devoid of freedom is an automaton, a being with no autonomy whatsoever. A person with some freedom, however, is not someone with only partial autonomy. Such a concept implies the possibility of “full autonomy”, as though if we simply had enough options we would be complete human beings. To treat the “powerless” solely as beings upon which oppressors enact their will would be to repeat the errors of numerous historians before the growth of the new social history. Instead, depending upon the stories we seek to tell, characters like Lucy should be understood as autonomous actors living within parameters established by imbalanced power relations.

In relation to games, the word “powerless” is a poor choice of words that misrepresents the contexts of the actors that we seek to represent through play. Which brings me to Michel Foucault and his conceptions of power (I apologize, it could not be helped):

Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere...Power is not an institution and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society. (The History of Sexuality, 1978)

We can better understand situations of “powerlessness,” those of Lucy or countless others suffering the yoke of oppression, as systems of power built of numerous components and a myriad of relationships in which non-power holders resist. As Foucault states, “Where there is power, there is resistance.” These acts of resistance, be they an individual’s or a group’s, violent or subtle, reactionary or slow and deliberate, make up points of engagement for players. Foucault continues:

A power relationship can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are each indispensable if it is really to be a power relationship: that ‘the other’ (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts; and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up.

Even those considered “powerless” in their ignorance could be excellent game subjects as their success is measured by a growing knowledge of systems of power. Lucy in Flight to Freedom -- and by extension the player -- learns a great deal about the system of slavery. Understanding systems of power can be a tool of resistance itself. In fact, as complex systems, power relations may lend themselves quite well to game design. Games uniquely allow players to poke and prod at the very limits of a digital system modeled after a real world counterpart.

Of course, making a game about systems of power and oppression is not an easy task. Designers do have a responsibility to understand the systems and forms of resistance that they seek to represent. There are stories to create from complex power relations, stories about resistance -- both tangible and intangible -- exhibited in grand display or subtly enacted over generations. If we abandon our flawed assumptions about games, there are no limits on the evocative power of the “powerless”.

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