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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Unmasked: the subtle bitchiness of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 500-page memoir

To my horror, I found myself smirking in amusement or “Mmm!”-ing in agreement on damn near every page.

Poring over pictures of Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been a pet perve of mine, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the fevered manner in which I pawed through this tome on its arrival, desperate to find some photographical representation of him – the more the better. But it was dismay rather than lust that drove my actions; weighing in at a whopping 500 pages, the book is the size of the Bible. So imagine my astonishment on reading the prologue to discover that this is by no means the end of it – this volume of memoirs ends on the opening night of The Phantom of the Opera. Never have the phrases “merciful release” and “fear of the future” come together in one instant.

The size apart, I’ll admit I started this book with beef against ALW; I love musicals, but only those big overblown beauties which came from Broadway via Hollywood in the middle decades of the 20th century. When a musical gets out its library steps, it loses its soul; when it dresses people up as cats, it becomes musical theatre. And from there it’s a short step, spiritually, to doilies and antimacassars, because while musicals high-kick, musical theatre sticks out its pinky.

But before I had finished the first page, I was already warming to his bright and breezy, slightly spivvy writing style, which contrasted pleasingly with both the size of the book and my preconceptions about him: “Quite how I have managed to be so verbose about the most boring person I have ever written about eludes me.” Imagine my amazement when the pre-teen Lloyd Webber becomes spellbound by those very musicals that I declared the antithesis of his work: South Pacific, Carousel, West Side Story. I ploughed on, hoping that this was a momentary accord, but to my horror I found myself smirking in amusement or “Mmm!”-ing in agreement on damn near every page.

ALW came from an enviably colourful family: a grandmother who was the founder of the somewhat niche Christian Communist Party; a great-aunt who was a member of the Bloomsbury Set and ran a transport cafe; an ancestor who wrote “Casabianca” (“The boy stood on the burning deck…”); a working-class father who won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and had such a fear of authority that after accidentally calling the fire brigade he hid in a cupboard; a mother who became variously obsessed with a Gibraltan tenor, a vicious monkey named Mimi and a boy genius who she insisted on bringing into the household and glorifying to the distress of her husband; and, most of all, his adored Auntie Vi. The latter was, apparently, the author of the first-ever gay cookbook, one chapter of which – titled “Coq & Game Meat” – was headlined “Too Many Cocks Spoil the Breath”.

Then into this glorious Cold Comfort Farm-like ménage, Tim Rice turns up with his shockingly poor lyrics – “And when Joseph tried it on/He knew his sheepskin days were gone/His astounding clothing took the biscuit/Quite the smoothest person in the district” – and we’re back with a whimper in the horrendous middlebrow hinterland of musical theatre. Happily, the introduction of Rice brings out Lloyd Webber’s subtly bitchy side, which has so far lain dormant. “Like so many of Tim’s songs, it told a pessimistic story,” he remarks of an early lyric. Later he can barely conceal his glee when Rice becomes understandably cross because Melvyn Bragg gets a screenplay credit for the film of Jesus Christ Superstar due to the insertion of the words “Cool it, man.” Their song “Christmas Dream” gets limited American radio play due to Rice’s couplet, “Watch me now, here I go/All I need’s a little snow.” Indeed, the reprinting of Rice’s lyrics throughout the book could be seen less as a tribute to a long-time collaborator than as the ultimate clever throwing of shade, achieved solely by turning the other party’s conceit on themselves.

You can’t spend five decades in show business without seeing the seedy side of people, thankfully, and the drop-dead walk-ons are a highlight of our hero’s sashay through the bazaars of Thespus. Impresario Robert Stigwood “was holding court as if the fabric of Manhattan society would rend asunder without him”; the singer Dana Gillespie “was rumoured to have organized a cock measuring contest in her dressing room. I didn’t enter… bad form to enter a contest you know you’re going to win”; Prince Edward was “stage-struck and hadn’t a clue what to do about it”; a good divorce lawyer “should be firm but sympathetic. Mine turned out to be a right pig”.

He writes without special pleading or shame about his adultery; “Whatever else money can’t buy, it can buy you freedom and with freedom comes the chance to play.” His account of his meeting with Sarah Brightman – both of them married to other people and already putting it about elsewhere when they first connect – is pleasing in its simplicity and lack of bogus romanticism: “I was in love and I proposed to Sarah – well, in truth it wasn’t so much a proposal as a ‘we’re in love, we’re both married, what the fuck do we do about it?’’’

It does – of course, at 500 pages – go on a bit. He trowels on the heterosexuality to an extent he probably wouldn’t had he not chosen the theatre as a profession – and perhaps because he looked so much like gay-bait when young – to the extent that ALW even comes across as a dirty old man when writing of himself as a 21-year-old, with a fair bit of drooling over “schoolgirls”. It’s hard to warm to anyone who buys their first flat on the back of a trust fund from “Granny”. And his obsession with big houses, which he portrays as a fascination with architecture, seemed to my cynical eye to have more to do with simply wanting to own a succession of ever bigger houses.

But the image of the lonely little boy creating a toy theatre based on the London Palladium becoming the man who wakes up every morning marvelling that he owns the actual London Palladium is the stuff of beautiful theatre – far more magical than anything he has actually staged. I found myself pleasantly surprised by this book, but having said that, I’ll be swerving the next one. Life’s too short to take a liking to people whose work you loathe, let alone to do it over the course of a three-volume memoir. 

Unmasked: a Memoir
Andrew Lloyd Webber
HarperCollins, 517pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game