The McDonalds sim and September 12: what does it mean for a videogame to be political?

Some games try to be explicitly political, while others tap into contemporary moral debates. But how much of a moral message can pixels carry?

You have one week to earn $1,000. But today, you can’t work out where to get a street vending permit, the superstore has closed, the buses have stopped for the night and you can’t afford a taxi. You get home at 3am and tomorrow you’re so exhausted that you get nothing done. You have made a net loss of two days and $25; you panic, quit, and restart the game.

This is Cart Life, a "retail simulator for Windows" which depicts the struggle of ordinary people to make ends meet. It’s just been nominated for this year’s IGF awards and is among a lively pack of titles making political statements in a way only videogames can: not only with words or pictures, but with actions. But what does it mean for a videogame to be political? And what are the pitfalls?

A screenshot from "Cart Life".

The concept of political games had its first big break in the noughties with "newsgames" like September 12. Released in 2003, six months after the invasion of Iraq, it has you fire missiles into crowds full of "terrorists" and "civilians". Every time a civilian is killed, mourners flock to the corpse, then transform into terrorists; you end up with a devastated wasteland swarming with masked gunmen. In 2006, art-game provocateurs Molleindustria released an unauthorized McDonald’s Videogame, and the same year saw Darfur is Dying adopt stealth game conventions to make the player feel powerless in the face of armed militia.

What links these games to Cart Life – and distances them from only nominally political fare like the McCain campaign’s 2008 arcade knock-off Pork Invaders – is that politics arise from the rules of the game itself. “This is a simple model you can use to explore some aspects of the war on terror,” says September 12’s intro screen, and "model" is the key word. By modelling choice and consequences, games can make claims about real-world systems.

Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA and don of games academia, calls these kinds of claims “procedural rhetoric”, a term coined in his 2007 book Persuasive Games. These days he pokes fun at his 2008 prediction that every presidential candidate would soon have their own PS3 game, but that doesn’t mean the political game is dead. “If we’re talking about official political purposes, it has essentially dwindled for nothing,” he says. “For political commentary, it has developed into games like Cart Life, Unmanned, or Sweatshop. It’s deepened considerably, and also expanded in style.”

One example is last year’s Lim, a game about the tension of trying to meet society’s expectations. The player is a square whose colour keeps changing, among other squares whose colour is set; they’ll fly at you violently if you don’t fit in. By holding the space bar, you can shift to match their colour, but the longer you do so, the tougher it gets to play. The screen closes claustrophobically in; the speakers crackle. There’s no death, but the game’s developer, Merritt Kopas, says many people find the noise and violence of impact so unsettling they have to stop playing.

A screenshot from "Lim".

“What I was looking to do was create a game that got at all the unspectacular, everyday kinds of violence that don’t generally get explored in the medium,” explains Kopas, a trans woman who makes games and teaches sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. “I wanted to make something about navigating categories and the fear and uncertainty that comes with that: walking into a space and wondering how people are going to see you and what the consequences of that are going to be.”

Lim is one of a growing number of indie games which play with life outside the gender binary, the most prominent of which has been Anna Anthropy’s dazzling, technicolour Dys4ia (Kopas, who has used the game as a classroom teaching aid, is chuffed by the comparison). “Games have this unique capability to explore real-world systems,” Kopas tells me. “The key here is to build a simulation that puts the player in a difficult or unfair situation, or that demonstrates the constraints violence places on our choices.”

That might be an apt description of Cart Life, too, but its maker, Richard Hofmeier, is wary of calling it "political". He’s in New York to a panel discussion on "Games as Commentary" with Bogost and Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini. “It sure was, at first,” he says, “but my feelings changed about two months into developing it. The depressing, bitching, tormented first half makes those kinds of declarations, but you can actually do well in Cart Life, which comes as a surprise to some players. I wanted to confess that too.”

He rejects the label of a “poverty simulator”; instead, he says, it’s “a dismissal of games and a loving portrait of the people in small, western towns.” Sure enough, while Cart Life isn’t soft on the problems of the very poor, it’s as interested in the beauty in struggle and the bravery of survival as it is in the unfairness of the system. Some of the game comes from personal experience – desperate, broke years trying to make rent in three cities – and some from speaking to street vendors, who opened up to him so players could understand their lives. “I don’t want to depress people,” he says. “I want to enter the province of depression and poke around.”

One developer who wishes his work wasn’t taken so politically is Jason Rohrer. His new game, The Castle Doctrine, is an online home invasion simulator inspired by his own fears about protecting his family, out in March. But an unguarded interview with British gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun has plunged Rohrer into the debate that’s swirling around gun control and self-defence. “Probably not since Columbine has it been brought to such attention,” says Rohrer, an advocate of gun rights. “Now it seems like I’m making a political statement, but it’s more coming from my personal experience of living in a place where I didn’t feel safe for the first time. If someone is coming into my house, and I’m in danger, what do I believe? What do I do when I hear the glass break?”

The problem is that The Castle Doctrine also simulates a wider system outside the home, and it’s a weird one. In short, everyone is robbing each other: to get money to defend yourself, you have to rob others, while others are robbing you. You even have a family, who will try to escape with some of your loot if your home is attacked; others can kill them to loot them or simply let them go, and you can do the same to them. If anything it reads like a satire of the US gun rights maxim that “an armed society is a polite society”. It’s a dystopia, a Hobbesian nightmare.

Rohrer says that wasn’t what he intended. “It really is a game about being a victim, but in order to make that happen I had to populate that world. It’s just a side-effect of making this really elegant system which churns away like a machine, forces this situation to happen, and forces you to deal with what you would do.” Cart Life has been called an ‘empathy generator’; if so, The Castle Doctrine is a terror machine, which needs traditional balancing to keep the robberies coming and the players coming back.

But how do you stop people reading messages into the unintended consequences of a system? Even September 12 unwittingly implies that the best way to deal with the war on terror might simply be to kill the mourners before they can turn into terrorists (in fact, the USA now routinely practices "double tap" drone strikes which target first responders). Such glitches, says Bogost, are “very common”, and he should know: he runs his own development company and a newsgames research group at Georgia Tech. “The McDonald’s game is a good example. It’s very anti-corporation, but a lot of students play it and say, ‘wow, I really empathise with the CEOs of multinational companies now – they have such hard jobs!’”

Sometimes the accidents are spookily accurate. When Bogost made an election game for Howard Dean’s ill-fated nomination attempt in 2004, it had the same failure as the campaign itself: nobody felt they knew what they were campaigning for. Kopas readily admits that Lim, her second game, is full of bugs, one of which allows the violent squares to push the player right out of the level and trap them "outside" the world. But she points out: “People took that outcome and wove it into their experience of the game. It’s actually possible to still finish the game even if you’re knocked outside of the world...which some people saw as a tragic conclusion.”

Maybe that’s inevitable: experienced players find ways to break even the most expensively-produced of games. “I think that systems have a tendency to get away from us,” says Kopas. “We intend to portray or produce one thing, but the systems we’re creating seem to resist or reshape our intents.” Even Rohrer, with years of programming experience (this game is his seventeenth), has to take responsibility when things go wrong. “As a designer, I’m trying to build the tightest system that I can build. I don’t want there to be those system leaks which allow bizarre readings, and involve the procedural rhetoric effectively falling off the rails and going who knows where.”

The converse is that even games which aren’t trying to be political actually might be. A crime shooter called Call of Juarez: The Cartel raised controversy in 2011 by awarding an achievement for killing a large number of people – but only on the level where all the enemies are black, in effect rewarding their deaths more than others. Indeed, Kopas claims the idea for Lim actually came from the eminently mainstream Prototype. There, the protagonist is infected with a superpowered alien parasite, and must, as she puts it, “pass as human or be penalized by military pursuit.”

The short answer? According to Bogost, “the work really does contain those politics, whether or not they were intended. In some ways, the unexpected stuff shows us things that were there all the time that we didn’t realize. These things are in the text, so to speak, so subject to interpretation.”

Developers are in increasingly in control of that, and the future for political commentary in games looks bright. Kopas’ dream is to start a workshop for local youth that helps them make games to model the oppressive systems they face. “Games can be used for a wide variety of purposes beyond ‘fun’,” she says, “and the tools exist to make them.” If politicians don’t want any part of that, it might be for the best.

A screen shot from "September 12".
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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times