Making political videogames may not work. But we have to try

2 weeks ago by John Brindle

We don't need a "Gamer in Chief," but we do need games which explore the systems that control our lives

It is tremendously tempting for anyone who plays videogames, and who suspects that the thousands of hours they’ve spent doing so might have been utterly wasted, to conclude instead that games are Important and that they can change the world. I always wonder how many attempts to make that case have this secret fear at their heart. The latest is Asi Burak’s suggestion that maybe things would be better if Donald Trump was a gamer – a fantasy combining all the narcissistic exceptionalism of the games industry with an implication that financial support for the games industry is worth parlaying with a Cheetos-caked ur-fascist.

For context: Burak is the chairman of the board of Games for Change, a non-profit founded in 2004 to create and promote games with real-world political impact as part of the wider “serious games” movement. Since then, its annual conference has served as a jamboree connecting serious game developers with benefactors from large institutions such as universities, newspapers and corporations who want to use games to support their cause. And to be fair, Burak doesn’t actually say Trump’s heart can be changed: he’s making an inoffensive argument for more arts funding, which just happens to be wrapped in tasteless DC-universe fanfic.

But the Games for Change model has been widely criticized: for exaggerating the power of games to drive social change and ignoring their complexities, for instrumentalizing them as empty containers for whatever political message you want to convey, for an inherent bias towards advocating the kind of “change” those big institutions are comfortable with funding, and for focusing more on burnishing egos and CVs than on real progress (if such a thing were even measurable).

Meanwhile, its best ideas have spread out through wider game culture – queered, rejuvenated, and given subversive bite by independent creators who actively critique the most reductive characterizations of their work. So Burak’s piece reads like a kind of serious games Quixotism which continues, despite everything that has happened, to imply that games are magic and to petition hostile higher powers for a comfortable seat at the table instead of trying to seize one or overturn it.

Burak partially disputes this description. Yet the question he touches on is still of urgent importance. Game developers who oppose Trump are now wondering with renewed force: what they do from within games culture to fight for their beliefs? Can they do anything at all? Is it frivolous to imagine they can, when so much is at stake?

That conversation is ongoing, but if the idea of a “gamer in chief” sounds as ludicrous an answer to you as it does to me, there are better ones. I want to highlight three perspectives from the Game Developers’ Conference last week, part of a series of five-minute “microtalks” organised by former Uncharted designer Richard Lemarchand. Taken together, they represent a subtler discussion about how and to what extent games can really change the world.

The first talk on that theme was by Darby McDevitt, lead writer on four Assassin’s Creed games. McDevitt believes that we are increasingly governed by “intricate dynamic systems that are guiding us whether we know it or not.” The banking crash of 2008 and the phenomenon of climate change are both good examples, but there is also a whole school of punditry which characterizes the 2016 US election and the British vote to leave the EU as resulting from a misunderstanding of such systems.  In this view voters who didn’t understand the systems that screwed them over opted for crude solutions which ignored this truth – or perhaps sections of the political elite were surprised when systems they thought they understood lashed back against them through said voters.

As an example, McDevitt cited the French sociologist Maurice Duverger, who argued that two-party duopolies are a natural emergent consequence of first-past-the-post voting systems. Ignorance of this fact leads politicians and commentators into a fruitless debate which treats the failure of small parties as an issue of voter virtue or of technocratic suppression. McDevitt contrasted Ralph Nader’s bizarre claim that calling a third party candidate a “spoiler” is “bigoted” with a browser game by Nicky Case called To Build A Better Ballot, a walkthrough of different voting systems which lets the player try figure out their advantages and drawbacks for themselves.

“Unfortunately this level of abstract thinking doesn’t come naturally to many people, but a well-designed game could make this abundantly clear,” said McDevitt. “Because of their interactive nature games…communicate meaning through dynamic systems, and by interacting with these systems, players can learn how to recognize them, how to think about them, and how to change them if need be.” This “systems literacy” can help voters understand “evolution, climate change, institutional racism, the war on drugs” – and help make these “interesting times” a little more comprehensible.

This argument has been made before – indeed, it underpinned the wider “games for change” movement – and I’m sympathetic to it. Exploring complex systems through games has fundamentally changed my worldview, and I’m sure I’m not alone. But players come to games for a diversity of reasons and with a diversity of goals which aren’t always in sympathy with the designer’s. For instance, Spent, a budgeting game intended to make players more sympathetic towards poor people, actually had the opposite effect on some players.  Since they could ‘win’ the game, they concluded that poor people should be able to win capitalism. This is not to say games can’t build “systems literacy” – I really believe they can. But their educational benefits may be more limited in scope, and apply to fewer people, than their bounciest boosters believe. To be clear, I don’t think McDevitt is in that category: his talk was sober and modest in the power it attributed to games. Systems education should be at least part of any vision of how games can change the world.

That theme was picked up by Meg Jayanth, writer of the fantastic iPad game 80 Days and some of Sunless Sea (disclosure: Meg is a friend). Jayanth described her experience trying to renew her Indian passport in India: waiting in line after line, arguing at desk after desk, over two weeks of bureaucratic grind. At one point she had the passing thought: “I should have just bribed someone.” Then she realized that this was exactly the effect the bureaucrats were trying to produce. “What I had seen as inefficiency – a broken or ill-functioning system – was actually working as intended,” she told her audience. “My frustration had been commoditized…and as a game designer, that felt so familiar.”

Specifically, she was referring to the design of free-to-play games, which, at their worst, are structured to get the player hooked with rapid early rewards but then make further progress so frustrating or boring they give in and buy something with real money. “Many of us in this room have made a game that does this to players, or at the very least we have played one,” said Jayanth. “It felt so terrifying to realize that the same design techniques that sustain abusively monetized games sustain institutional corruption.”  John Scalzi once called the world a role-playing game in which “straight white male” was the easiest difficulty setting; now Jayanth could see that it was “actually a free to play nightmare.”

Of course, when she got home, she bought a horse in Elder Scrolls Online. And that was fine: not all microtransactions are bad, monetization isn’t always abusive, and everyone has bills to pay. But when developers choose to exploit their players, “we are in some small and real ways training our players to accept broken and disrespectful systems by normalizing them. What we train our players to do in games leaks out into the real world.” Like McDevitt, Jayanth argued that, while games can’t “change the world all on their own”, they can “change how a person thinks”.

Indeed, her own realization about how corruption works is a small win for systems literacy; partly due to videogames, we are living in an unprecedented age of it. “Games are a space – a creative, open, and as yet largely undefined space – where we can experiment with different ways of being, interacting, participating, collaborating, and competing,” she concluded. “So when history asks us ‘what did you do?’… I don’t want my answer to be ‘I made a slot machine.’”

The final talk I want to report tackled these subjects more obliquely, but from a crucial angle. Brie Code is a developer who was lead programmer on Child of Light and who last year wrote a perceptive, stirring essay called “videogames are boring” (though see here and here for counterpoints). Code explained the common stress reaction we call “fight or flight”, which videogames commonly seek to provoke: the nervous system releases adrenalin and then dopamine, making your pupils dilate, your heart beat faster, and your airways open up. But then she recounted the history of a far less well-studied stress reaction, which was only discovered this century, called “tend and befriend.”

This reaction is disproportionately but not exclusively experienced by women and AFAB people – and for a long time most stress research was done by men on male animals (“researchers traditionally prefer bodies that don’t menstruate”, said Code). In tend and befriend mode, your body releases oxycotin, and then opioids. “You become fearless and you’re less sensitive to pain,” said Code. “You instinctively want to protect your loved ones, to seek our your allies and form new alliances. It isn’t limited to threatening interactions; it’s also there when you touch or even think about someone you love, when you play fetch with your dog, or when you exclude someone you don’t like.”

Videogames, Code argued, have historically had a similar patriarchal bias to biology (one games researcher told her he didn’t study women because “you can’t predict” them), so few developers consciously try to provoke tend and befriend responses. But for Code its absence stands in for all the possible physiological, cultural and design dynamics which we might not even know are missing from games. And in tend and befriend, she also saw a way to build a better games culture – and maybe a better space for political resistance. “A woman I very much respect told me that you can’t change the world, but you can make your little corner of it better,” she said. “Care is not weak, or simple, or cute, and it doesn’t belong only in simple or cute games. Caring for your chosen loved ones and the formation of new alliances are sophisticated actions, and can be acts of warfare.”

It’s true that games cannot convert the wicked by themselves. They aren’t some hyper-potent mind-changing MacGuffin which can be wrested by Indiana Jones from Richard Spencer. But if they are not sledgehammers, they can still be tools. From the different methods outlined at GDC – and I think these speakers were in concert, not competition – emerge a number of possibilities for how they can be bent towards liberation.

That may mean making games which allow players to explore the behavior of complex systems, whether didactically or open-endedly, as McDevitt suggests. It may mean designers thinking more carefully about the social implications of what the market already incentivizes them to design, and how their ideas are picked up and used in the world outside, as Jayanth advocates. And it probably also means thinking about games culture in itself as one of Code’s “little corner[s] of the world” – a space where connections can be made, spirits enlarged, and resistance organized – or making games which create that space for players, helping them to form communities and bonds which will be crucial to the fight ahead. That in turn could involve making games which materially facilitate protest, or forming  temporary utopias like Lost Levels or Richard Lemarchand’s guided, consensual walks through San Francisco – though if so, they will also need to be formed outside the context of a paid gaming conference with ticket prices of up to $2,400 in the one of the world’s most expensive cities.

I suspect all of the above will be necessary. But whatever the answer is, it will be a lot harder, take a lot longer, and be a lot more nebulous in its effects than imprisoning Donald Trump in a video arcade. Though that might also be worthwhile for separate reasons if the locks are sufficiently strong.