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4 March 2016updated 05 Oct 2023 8:26am

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

By Phil Hartup

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.

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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.

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