Subaltern Games
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Can games with a “message” teach us something? And can they still be fun?

Games teach us to overcome challenges. This part of the experience is hugely fertile ground to state a political case or challenge a prevailing school of thought

While most videogame developers will claim to eschew politics in their games, hoping to avoid the controversy and antagonism that follows, some game designers use their work as a means to promote a particular political message. One recent example of a developer tackling a prickly issue via a game is Subaltern Games, who have made No Pineapple Left Behind, a school management simulator and satire of the US education system created by an ex-teacher. But a can a game built around an overt political message still be fun?

The idea of No Pineapple Left Behind is uncomplicated. It presents you with a series of tasks and sandbox modes based around a loose simulation of managing schools. In doing so it tries to demonstrate that the arbitrary numbers game that drives US education policy since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act puts the priority on test scores rather than the wellbeing of students. That's where the pineapple comes in: when a student has been sufficiently broken down into an obedient high-grade earning machine, they turn into a pineapple.

Students in the game have a statistic called humanity, and while they have a good amount of this they act a bit like children. Get rid of their humanity and they turn into pineapples, who eschew the concerns of childhood in order to get grades and make your school money. Ideally, according to the game's format, you want a school full of pineapples rather than children, which is not the most subtle message – but given this game is from the country where Donald Trump is running for president, the developers probably have their reading on subtlety in political discourse calibrated correctly. 

As an attempt to satirise the American education system this works reasonably well, although I cannot help but feel that the game loses something by directing players into the ruthless practices required to win the game right from the start, rather than having you gravitate towards them as you attempt to master it.

Games can be a very good way to highlight the shortcomings of number-based systems of success, even if this is not always intentional. For example many games, typically online multiplayer ones, involve a lot of busywork or repetition, commonly referred to as grinding. Whenever there is a game that involves this sort of grind, there will be people who quickly find the most efficient way to manipulate the systems for the optimal reward in the shortest time, usually irrespective of what is considered "successful play" by the rules or within the spirit of the game. If you’ve ever spent any time with online games you’ll be familiar with how flawed these arbitrary systems for gauging success are and how readily they are exploited. The mindset of playing a game easily lends itself to corrupting a system to streamline getting rewards.

As such, No Pineapple Left Behind doesn’t quite hit home. By being a simulation of manipulating the education system, rather than a simulation of an education system that you ultimately have to manipulate to succeed, it serves more as a statement of its intended message than a demonstration of it. This almost defeats the purpose of teaching a message through games: what could be a subversive look at how arbitrarily vital systems like education are managed (which eventually implicates the player themselves in this decision) instead becomes a polemic.

Other satirical games have done a better job with their subjects. Big Pharma, for example, is a game about running a pharmaceutical company. You invent cures for diseases but you also have to turn a profit and so you find yourself having to exploit your customers (ie sick/dying people) in order to keep sales and margins healthy. It doesn’t overstate the cynicism of its premise; it lays out its rules and systems and lets the player realise for themselves that if they want to get ahead they have to make moral compromises. This is quite a subversive take both on how business simulations normally work and on the perceptions of how business is supposed to function. The message works because it lies beneath the surface of the game, embedded in its systems.

A political message doesn’t necessarily have to harm a game, even if it is very overtly delivered. Defcon: Everybody Dies is a well-designed strategy game wrapped in a clear argument against nuclear weapons. The game involves controlling a nation or group of nations in a nuclear war in which you have command of missiles, anti-missile systems, navies, submarines and bombers. Ultimate victory is gained by breaching your opponent’s anti-missile defences and hitting their population centres with nuclear warheads. The game has a sterile, serene presentation style which offers no judgement either way as you kill millions or as your own cities are annihilated. By the end of the game, having traded atomic body blows with your rivals, the one who has killed the most enemy citizens while losing the fewest of their own is judged the winner. Again, there is no judgement made. The player looks at the millions of casualties and draw their own conclusion.

There is almost always an educational element to games. While playing a new game, we learn how to overcome different challenges within it. This part of the experience is hugely fertile ground for a game to state a political case or challenge a prevailing school of thought. However to do this well the game needs to embed its argument into the systems of the game rather than having them spelled out in big letters on the surface of everything.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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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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