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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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain