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".
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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