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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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

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