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".
MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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