This is a transcript of a workshop I conducted together with Liam Burke at the Allied Media Conference in June 2013. The workshop is meant to be a very basic introduction to system thinking via games targeted toward grassroots activists. It uses a simple fishery simulation available here as example.
The unimaginatively called “Fishing game” was designed for the 2013 Allied Media Conference. It’s meant to be played, discussed and modded in a interactive workshop context. The companion presentation can be found here.
In order to play the game you need:
.Exactly 4 players
.About 30 money bits – decorative marbles will work
.About 30 fish bits – Swedish fish candies work perfectly
.The printable materials below:
Fishing Game materials to be printed on 4 Letter sized card stock sheets (black and white).
Next week I’ll be in Detroit at the Allied Media Conference. The conference track “Imagining Better Futures Through Play” looks dense and exciting, with a strong focus around DIY gamemaking and inclusivity.
Here are some session highlights, the full schedule is here here.
Animation in Art & Digital Storytelling
SATURDAY – JUNE 22, 9:00am – 10:30am
The tools to create games and stories on the computer are more accessible than ever before, but this technological method of creative expression can seem challenging. This workshop aims to demystify a powerful element of digital storytelling: Animation. Through simple, effective examples using inexpensive, easy-to-use software, participants will learn a technical skill that they can use in their own projects and even teach to others. By lowering the barriers of entry to digital storytelling, we will begin to see more thematic, cultural and aesthetic diversity in games, media and audiences.
Sagan Yee – Dames Making Games
Effective Games for Outreach & Education
SATURDAY – JUNE 22, 9:00am – 10:30am
We will explore ways play and games can be a tool to change a group’s basic understanding of a topic. We will give a brief overview of effective and not-so-effective techniques to create your own group games, and emphasize making simple, physical games to use for outreach and or education. A brief discussion will empower participants with the basic skills needed to start making their own games, followed by a fun session of game playing. Participants walk away with game creation guidelines applicable in their own communities.
Ben Norskov, Ida Bennedetto, Mohini Dutta – Antidote Games
Video Games & Cartoons With Scratch!
SATURDAY – JUNE 22, 2013: 2:00pm – 3:30pm
We’ll use Scratch, the drag-and-drop programming environment developed by MIT for kids. We’ll show you how to get started making your own games and animated cartoons. As kids we don’t have to be just consumers: we can be creators, too!
Lisa Williams – Data for Radicals
Making Games for Social Change
SATURDAY – JUNE 22, 2013 4:00pm – 5:30pm
This session will be a quick and dirty game design intensive. Participants will be broken into small teams organized around social issues and target audiences they care about. They will be taken through a four-part co-design process, which will result in a game concept and paper prototype. The four-part process will entail the following steps: 1) getting at core values, 2) cracking the “culture code,” 3) unearthing systems thinking, and 4) designing a board game. Participants will pitch their final concepts Pecha Kutcha-style, and vote on the best game.
Heidi Boisvert – futurePerfect lab
The Beautiful Game: SJ Soccer
SATURDAY – JUNE 22, 2013. 4:00pm – 5:30pm
In today’s world, where sports are often hyper-aggressive and stress winning at all costs, is it possible to honor cooperation and inclusivity over competition and elitism? Is it possible to inject principles of social justice into “the beautiful game”? We will examine alternative models for healthier, more inclusive, socially just sports through a soccer framework. Participants will walk away with a framework for implementing community-based social justice sports programs and tactics for engaging youth in conscious sports. Workshop will be followed by a game reflective of the values discussed
Dania Cabello – Left Wing FC, Guerilla Educator
Antonio Crisostomo-Romo – L.A. Futbolistas, California State University Long Beach
Emmanuel Ortiz – Left Wing TC
Martin Macias Jr. – Chicago Fair Trade, University of Illinois at Chicago
Making Your Game for Free or Less
SUNDAY – JUNE 23, 2013: SUN 3:00PM – 4:30pm
It’s one thing to design a game that challenges and reshapes narratives, but it’s another task to actually make that game available to people. In this session, we’ll discuss techniques for producing a game on a shoestring budget, including crowdsourcing funds and doing your own publishing and distribution. Participants will come away with the knowledge necessary to become their own publishers and take their games from concept to production.
Liam Burke – Liwanag Press
Greg Austic – Austic Labs
Make Your First Videogame!
FRIDAY – JUNE 21, 2013: FRI 9:00am – 10:30am
Have you ever wanted to make a video game but didn’t know where to start or how to code? This hands-on workshop is dedicated to giving you an introduction to the world of game making. We’ll be using Stencyl – an easy-to-learn, free, drag & drop software – to literally snap the blocks of your first game together! Programming skills or previous games experience are not required for this workshop.
Rebecca Cohen Palacios – Pixelles
Making Personal Videogames With Twine
FRIDAY – JUNE 21, 2013: FRI 2:00pm – 3:30pm
Digital games have a unique capacity for telling personal stories and challenging systems of oppression. But the skills to make videogames are notoriously gatekept. In this workshop, we’ll explain how to use a software called Twine. Twine is a free program for making branching hypertext stories, sort of like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of the nineties. By the end of the workshop, everyone will have made a videogame from their personal experience.
Designing Games to Understand Complexity
FRIDAY – JUNE 21, 2013: 4:00pm – 5:30pm
How can we tell the story of a dysfunctional food system? How can we understand the roots of a rich-getting-richer class dynamic? How can we grasp the nuances and the shared responsibilities of an energy crisis? Some issues seem to have way too many “moving parts” to be reduced to personal stories or linear cause-and-effect relationships. That’s where games and simulations can help! By playing and making games we can take a step out of the social systems we inhabit, conceptualize them as a whole, identify the conflicting forces in play, and envision better systems.
Paolo Pedercini – Molleindustria
Liam Burke – Liwanag Press
*Top image stolen from Dames Making Games.
I’ve been asked to design and develop a small game for a Space Invaders-themed campaign against corporate tax evasion. The result is Tax Evaders, an iteration of the original arcade classic with excellent Amiga-era pixel art by James Biddulph and sound design by Ashton Morris.
The week before Tax Day (April 15) the game has been projected guerrilla-style against corporate offices and banks in various cities around the States, together with other light interventions by groups in the post-Occupy Wall Street galaxy.
The campaign, coordinated with a Twitter bombing against the main evaders’ accounts, was quite successful. I’d love to see more games (digital or not) in public spaces as enablers of playful protest.
However, the game itself leaves a lot to be desired.
Changing the narrative surface of classic arcade games has been the default strategy for “games with an agenda” since they existed. Take a well known gameplay and simply replace text and graphic elements to reference some “real world” relationships.
In fact Tax Evaders could be seen as the latest example of a tax-themed Space Invaders genre:
John Kerry: Tax invaders an official game by the GOP from 2004.
The complementary John McCain Pork invaders from 2008.
This is a straightforward gameplay-as-metaphor approach I always cautioned against, not only because it’s unlikely to produce a compelling game (the game will probably be as interesting as the original, only 20 or 30 years later) but also because it doesn’t take into account that the meaning of a game emerges from the complex, often ambiguous, interplay between the narrative/visual “surface” and the underlying game mechanics.
Rule systems are meaningful or have, at least, certain biases. There are aspects of the Space Invaders’ gameplay that can’t be changed by simply replacing sprites: the conflict is a Manichean good vs evil one, the enemy is foreign, and the only way to confront the invasion is by using military force. In his book Persuasive Games Ian Bogost notes how these specific characteristics are consistent with the conservative ideological frame (taxation as theft, government as external entity…), but they can hardly support a progressive, non militaristic, non reductionist argument. Different ideas require different forms.
Tax Evaders has a few twists: corporations move upwards from the city, metaphorically avoiding their responsibilities toward society; buildings representing social services are not destroyed by direct attacks like the green shields in the original game and are instead restored by tax revenues, and so on.
But the military metaphor is still there and it’s a lousy representation of collective action.
Moreover, the game does something I always tried to avoid in molleindustria games, which is proposing a fantasy of power for disempowered subjects.
Images of struggle have always been a part of the iconography of social movements: they can be galvanizing and they can support the idea that it’s ok to see certain people and organizations as opponents with interests that are incompatible with yours.
But I fear that playing a virtual revolution may have a cathartic, soothing effect. Especially in a moment in which the issue of economic inequality has been raised, the problems have been identified by a large part of the population and the frustration from not being able to translate this sentiment into political change is widespread.
This is my second post on Empyre, a longstanding discussion list for artists, programmers, and curators of new media art. The theme of the month is “Videogames and Art: Incite/Insight”. You can check the March archive here.
Here I talk about Molleindustria in relation to the context in which it started (almost 10 years ago) and the current trend of gamification. This is meant to be a conversation starter, not an essay.
Molleindustria is a project about games and ideology, it’s a bit of art, media activism, research, and agitp[r]op.
The idea is to apply the culture jamming/tactical media (remember tactical media?) treatment to videogames: speading radical memes and, in the process, challenging the language of power, the infrastructures, the modes, genres and tropes of the dominant discourse which was omnipresent in videogame culture.
The half joke is that I came up with Molleindustria because I failed at starting my own television. In the early zerozero – mid Berlusconian age – we had pirate TV stations popping up in all the major Italian cities in what came to be known as the Telestreet movement. It wasn’t just television with radical content, but a radically different way of making television.
There was a nice medium-is-the-message / form-follows-content thing going on, resonating with software, net.art and hacker culture as well.
There was this idea that the political sphere was boundless: something we do, and we are subject to, every day and every moment. The half-naked show girls on prime time television, the charming millionaires of the soap opera Dallas, the software, the protocols, the fantasies coming from the booming-and-busting Silicon Valley were no less political than the occasional vote or the sanctioned spaces for political debate.
And, of course, the demonstrations in the streets, the boycotts, the occupations, the strikes…
I am very familiar with Gonzalo Frasca’s work which was previously mentioned on this list and from which I borrow the title of this post. I launched the project in 2003, the same year September 12th came out and he started to write about videogames with an agenda with Ian Bogost.
One thing I share with both of them is the idea that videogames are representational media. They are always about things. There is, of course, a gradient of abstraction in that a game like SimCity is unquestionably about cities (or gardening) while a game like Tetris is about more general themes such as order vs disorder, control & optimization, or the tragicomical limits of human cognition.
The less abstract are the games, the more they tend to be problematic and fall under scrutiny. There is a lot of literature discussing the urbanist ideas advanced by SimCity or the portrayal of contemporary and historical conflicts in first person shooters or strategy games.
To interpret a game and to make games that mean something, people use a variety of approaches.
Some aspects can be tackled with traditional storytelling and narratology. For example, later this week, pop-feminist Anita Sarkeesian will launch the first installment of “Tropes vs women in games”, an online video series dissecting the representation of women in videogames (edit: now released).
However, there are aspects of games that can’t be fully understood by simply breaking down characters and plots. Games, simulations and interactive media are systems of rules, and these rules produce meaning as well: they define the relationships between the purely representational bits (images, sounds, text…) and the agency of the players within the system.
To be honest, we are still trying to figure out how this procedural rhetoric actually works and how people interpret these “texts” with so many moving parts. But that’s the fascinating part.
I’m interested in promoting this kind of procedural literacy through my games. I believe games can get people used to “think in systems” and that a holistic, ecological, non-reductionist way of thinking is desperately needed in our [cliche' alert] increasingly interconnected world ravaged by global crisis.
Part of this literacy consists in understanding that digital and non digital models are informed by ideologies and systems of values (when it comes to scientific simulations the story is a bit more complicated). They are artful depictions of reality, and as such, we should describe them not in terms of how “realistic” they are, but in terms of the arguments they deploy and the narratives they support within the larger context. This is, by the way, the reason I often use satire, cartoonish styles, and a rather overt authorial “presence”: to defuse the temptation of interpreting these games as objective.
I feel like I have to mention the issue of representation because there is another trend, another way to conceive and use games that has more to do with behavioral change. The marketing power fantasy referred as “gamification” is part of this trend, but also slightly more legitimized endeavors like the many exercise games pretending to fight obesity.
This approach is less concerned about the semiotics and the aesthetics of games, and more focused on games as systems of incentives to produce actual, quantifiable change in the way players behave outside of the game (if there is an outside). If you are not familiar with gamification and the like, imagine attributing arbitrary points and rewards to certain behaviors, pushing people to voluntary monitor these behaviors, and then creating the conditions for competition/self-evaluation based on the score system.
Commentators like Ian Bogost have called bullshit on gamification and I largely agree. But having worked in marketing in the past, I’m quite familiar with the structural hype cycles of the field. You have people overselling techniques meant to oversell services and products. Everybody is lying to everybody else on multiple levels, intra- and extra-corporate. But as a whole the advertising system works because it succeeds at pervading every corner of the mindscape with the discourse of consumption.
To me it is not too crucial to find out whether or not you can control people through game-like systems. What’s more important is that this fantasy is out there, strong and loud. Governments and corporations are investing lots of money in this idea.
Feasible or not, this is the object of desire of contemporary capitalism and as such it’s worth investigating.
Is the fantasy of gamification a testament to the decline of money as the general, all-encompassing incentive to regulate human relations?
Could it be a premonition of the next power paradigm? We went from a disciplinary society (the stick) to a society of control (mass surveillance). Is the society of the incentive (the customized carrot) next?
Is gamification a tension toward the measurement of the unmeasurable (lifestyle, affects, activism, reputation, self esteem…), being measurement the precondition of commodification?
For the first week of March I’ve been invited to be a guest of Empyre, a longstanding mailing list for artists, programmers, and curators of new media art. The theme of the month is “Videogames and Art: Incite/Insight”. I’m re-posting some of my discussion starters here, for the rest of the world. You can read the whole March archive here
If your filter bubbles include gaming circles you have witnessed the many collective cheers, hoots, and metaphorical stadium waves raising upon every glorious step of the videogame medium toward high-culture acceptance.
The repeated “video games can never be art” claims made by Roger Ebert from 2005 onward forced a multitude of North American game developers, critics and players to confront the mysterious Art Thing, possibly for the first time in their lives. Their honor, their reputation and, most importantly, their favorite pastime was being attacked by a prominent tastemaker.
In the following years, a fierce movement of DIY art criticism emerged within the game industry. Programmers started to google terms like “aesthetics”; game journalists filled their indignant counter-articles with pictures of Duchamp’s Fountain. Every strange, intimate, weird looking game was measured for its potential to defuse Ebert’s argument.
Even hardcore gamers started to cry while playing (and wrote extensively about it) demonstrating they also had feelings. Those little sprites and polygons really mattered to them.
As the narrative goes, from that cycle of shame and pride emerged a new sensibility. While the gaming community matured and developed higher cultural ambitions, the blinded masses of non-gamers and the mainstream press became more and more sympathetic to the popular form.
The recent move by the NEA to include games as possible recipients for grants has been interpreted as a federal seal of approval (although, in the past, the agency funded videogame projects through individual artist grants). The exhibition “The Art of Videogames” at the Smithsonian, shortly followed by the acquisition of 14 game titles by the MoMA, has been saluted as the ultimate institutional validation of the “games are art” truism.
In the midst of the celebrations it wasn’t appropriate to wonder whether or not the Smithsonian show was a populist publicity stunt “generously” supported by Entertainment Software Association. The curatorial process involved an online poll asking netizens to vote for their favorite games – it didn’t make a big difference since only 5 among the 80 chosen titles were actually playable.
And I haven’t heard many commentators reflecting on the fact that the aforementioned MoMA acquisitions were part of the Architecture and Design collection. What does it mean to put Pac-Man right next to swanky furniture? Is the hip and yuppie field of interaction design imperialistically claiming videogames? Are games furniture? Can architecture make you cry (like videogames, of course)?
For those who don’t hang out in certain niche art circles, it doesn’t really matter that artists have been appropriating, hacking, and creating videogames (and videogame culture) for about 20 years now. It doesn’t matter that a myriad of game-themed art exhibitions swept across the digital art world, arguably becoming its most popular sub-genre.
Last night Stephen Colbert cracked a joke about the exotic idea of arcades at the MoMA but we rarely see games presented in relation with computational, interactive, combinatory and digital art, or even with relational aesthetics or performance. All these forms are way more related to games than the kind of art that collects dust inside museums.
These issues did not matter because that exciting, pedantic, fractal, never-ending dispute we call “art” was never the point of this debate. The point was to “elevate” the cultural status of videogames as a whole: as a medium and as an industry.
For gamers it was a retroactive validation of the countless hours they spent moving pixels and polygons around: “We knew we weren’t wasting out time!”
For the industry was a way to snort some of that magic art dust without accepting the responsibilities that come along with a privileged space for cultural experimentation: “We don’t want just weird artsy games in galleries and museums. We want Pac-Man!”
The game industry and the culture surrounding it can be best understood as a traumatized child or an abused pet. Throughout the years videogames have been repeatedly treated as cultural punching bags and convenient scapegoats. The folks personally involved in this field reacted to the long stigmatization by developing a certain brand of groupthink, a perennial persecution complex, and a compulsion to stick together no matter what.
In the past I’ve been accused of damaging the reputation of the industry by making games about controversial issues. Works defying players’ expectations or rejecting clearly defined goals were dismissed as “not games”.
Now games for social change are often mentioned as symptoms of the “maturation” of the form via New Age gurus like Jane McGonigal. Independent/artsy titles are presented next to idiotic shooters to support the launch of the new PlayStation. Imagine the toilet industry using Duchamp to achieve cultural validation (and possibly get art grants and tax breaks in the process).
What did not change between now and then is the tendency to conceptualize the gaming field as an homogeneous space devoid of conflict.
I would love to see a conversation *not* informed by the catch-all attitude of the “Videogames and Art” blah blah of these recent years. If we are talking about games we must learn to qualify the objects in question. Because there are major differences between a commercial product like Pac-Man and a personal and profound game like Cart Life. The lack of critical discourse within the game industry should not influence the way we treat games outside of it.
And while we push arcade cabinets in and out of museums we could also try to complicate the terms of the debate.
Instead of asking ourselves if and how games can be art, maybe we can start to think how art can be more like games: popular, participatory, accessible and yet complex; able to engage people deeply and for more than a fleeting moment; capable of providing richer experiences the more you get intimate with them.
The Allied Media Conference is a yearly gathering of independent and activist media makers from all over North America. We gather in Detroit to share strategies on how to create sustainable social change through media.
This year’s conference is June 20-23 and I’m honored to be one of the coordinators of the game-oriented track along with a team of awesome people: Liam Burke, Una Lee, Adam Liszkiewicz and Cayden Mak.
Last year I wrote about the AMC and the workshop I conducted with Una, the experience was so positive that I asked to be more involved this year.
The name of the track is Imagining Better Futures Through Play and will consist in a series of hands-on workshops and the Playpen, a more informal space to show, play, playtest and discuss all sorts of socially engaged games.
Everyone is encouraged to submit a session proposal though the AMC website: the deadline is March 8.
You can contact any of the coordinators for assistance with the proposal. We can help you craft a kickass proposal that will knock the socks off my co-coordinators and the AMC organizers.
Note: this is not an academic nor a game developers’ conference. Most of the participants won’t have a strong gaming background: this would be a rare opportunity for game makers who give a damn about the world outside geekland to work with real, and really passionate people.
Call for Participation
Everyone plays games, but why are so many of the most popular games about violence, inequality, and imperialism, and why do they misrepresent our communities for commercial gain? Can’t they reflect the world we want to live in instead? Imagining Better Futures through Play at the Allied Media Conference is about promoting games and creative play as media for telling our own stories, for envisioning systemic change, and for building movements.
But what does it take to make a game? You don’t need hundreds of people and thousands of dollars. We want to bring together anyone who has a love for games and a desire to build a more just and creative world to share ideas and skills. We’re looking for workshops that help game designers, both novice and experienced, who are involved in social movements develop conceptual and technical skills so they can create fun, powerful, world-changing games.
We are seeking sessions that do one or more of these things:
- Share technical skills related to game creation
- Demonstrate how issues and movements can be explored and expressed through games
- Challenge assumptions about what games are and what they can do
- Actively include and represent people who are normally marginalized by mainstream games and gaming
- Empower participants to begin or continue working on a prototype
Workshops from Past AMCs
- Go Fish: Roleplaying Food Justice
- Making Revolutionary Video Games with Verbs
- Open Source Virtual Worlds
- Classic Board Games for Creative Action
- Science of the Oppressed as Artivism
Imagining Better Futures through Play intends to discuss all types of games, whether they’re tabletop, electronic, movement-based, role-playing, etc. Session proposals are due March 8, 2013 on AMPtalk (http://talk.alliedmedia.org/). Game on!
In no particular order.
There have been a few overtly autobiographical games in recent years (Jason Roher’s Gravitation and Papo and Yo come to my mind) but nothing has been as direct and vivid as Dys4ia.
Anna Anthropy’s playable diary revolves around her experience with hormone replacement therapy. Every chapter is a minimal game that cleverly employs low-level systems of interactions (controls, collisions, movements in space, micro-challenges and so on) to express a range of visceral states like frustration, stress, humiliation or relief.
Beside being a powerful piece in itself, Dys4ia is also a perfect proof of concept for Anna’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters a passionate call to embrace game-making as mean of empowerment and self-expression. And we are not talking about the narcissistic kind of self-expression, or the bourgeoisie idea of investigating the “human condition” through the Author’s personal journey. Anna’s experience is still quite uncommon, not often told, and hotly contested. The idea of a multitude of DIY game makers performing their identity through games, connecting with their communities with games, speaking in games, is the ultimate challenge against a games industry that is still unacceptably white, male and privileged.
The personal is always political, but in some cases more than others.
The commercial success of Dear Esther this year proved the mainsteam palatability of not-games, a loose category of game-like works not centered around rigid goals. In most not-games the lack of gameplay has to be balanced with a high quality storytelling, a powerful soundtrack and a visually stunning environment to make the exploration intrinsically rewarding.
Like Dear Esther, Proteus is a first-person exploration game set on an island, but that’s where the similarity ends: you won’t find an elaborate spatial narration, ultimately linear like a Disneyland ride; you won’t traverse a beautiful photorealistic landscape, ultimately dead like a Hollywood set.
Ed Key and David Kanaga’s creation is a colorful, highly stylized synesthetic universe to explore freely in time and space. Walking into a spring shower will add a layer to the droney soundscape, approaching the shore will awake pixelated crabs producing generative percussion… For the task-anxious gamer, there’s not much to do, beside discovering the rich ecosystems of sounds and witnessing some time-warping magical events.
For everybody else, this is a new way to experience an immersive virtual environment.
Dog Eat Dog
I instinctively kickstarted this game earlier this year and quickly forgot about it until I met the designer Liam Liwanag Burke at the Allied Media Conference. After a couple of intense sessions I completely changed my opinion on role-playing games.
Dog Eat Dog is a story-game, a kind of short-form RPG that doesn’t require continuous dice rolling, tedious character creation, tacky miniatures, rummaging through manuals and enduring campaigns. It doesn’t even need a devoted dungeon masters or pre-game preparation since the setting is defined collaboratively.
Dog eat dog provides a simple system to enact a colonization scenario, with one player assuming the role of the “colonizers” (as a whole) and all the others playing as “natives” (each one playing one character). The features of both cultures are negotiated at the beginning and further developed during the game. Although the author designed the game as a way to reflect about his Pacific Island heritage, there’s no built-in historical constraint to the setting: we’ve played sci-fi stories reminiscent of Avatar as well as anthropologically-correct fantasy scenarios.
The colonizer tends to take the initiative describing the first contact and forcing the natives to react. Conflicts are resolved by consensus of, more rarely, by dice rolling. After each narrative arc the actions of each players are evaluated according to a developing set of “rules” typically representing the colonizers’ worldview. The first rule is always “The Natives are inferior to the Colonizers” and new ones are added to the list on the basis of the events happened on each scene. For example a new rule may state that “trees are unlimited resources” after the colonizers clear-cut an entire forest and dismissed the concerns of the villagers.
A simple economy of tokens makes sure that the conflict is always tense without encouraging excess on each part (you can read a more detailed explanation here). In fact the most interesting stories are the ones in which colonizers are not looking for direct confrontation and the natives are tempted to assimilate. The ambiguous and fluid gameplay also ensures that no player approaches the game with the competitive gamist mindset. After all, the goal of the game is to develop a meaningful, tragic, compelling story together.
Diamond Trust of London
Jason Rohrer’s long-awaited Nintendo DS game has been penalized by many factors: a long and difficult approval process, an end-of-the-cycle hardware, the unusual 2-player local setup, the grave-sounding theme, and -possibly- the author’s reticence to create his own little hype-machine and compete in the increasingly crowded, over-kickstarted, white-noisy indie scene.
It’s a shame because Diamond Trust of London is Jason’s most elegantly designed game to date. It plays like a euro-style boardgame: few explicit rules (that you have to know before you start), short game sessions, and a deep mathematical core made more digestible by a recognizable theme.
Instead of the idyllic merchant society of Settlers of Catan or the edulcorated colonialism era of Puerto Rico, Diamond Trust is set in a very precise historical moment: Angola in the year 2000, specifically in the last months before the Kimberley Process establishes stricter regulations for diamond trade in Africa.
However, you won’t be lectured about the ugliness of blood diamonds and on the nefarious European influence on the continent. Diamond Trust delivers the “message” exclusively through a gameplay of deception and bribery. Diamonds simply appear on the market, money and gems pass from a pocket to another quietly… don’t ask any questions.
It’s a very tight psychological game that presents the world from the cynical, detached perspective of the Homo Economicus. The harsh reality left out of the simulation is what really matters, but it’s also what can’t be easily reduced into a formal system.
It’s hard to believe that three of the most talented and successful independent game developers put so much time and love into a game about watching things burn, collecting magical money, and then buying more things to burn. Yet, it makes kind of sense that Little Inferno itself is a finely crafted, sophisticated, and utterly pointless piece of technology to be consumed in few hours nihilistic play.
It’s a sign of maturity when a cultural form starts to interrogate itself. Little Inferno is not a game “about games” in a self-celebratory kind of way, it doesn’t drop nostalgic references nor manipulates familiar gaming conventions. Instead, it forces players to look beyond its fatuous gameplay, beyond the virtual fireplaces. It point inwards, into the dark heart of 21st century gaming, embodying the compulsive drive to monetization and the behaviorist science of rewards perfected by online gambling corporations like Zynga. It points outwards, at the larger schemes of planned obsolescence that drive – and are driven by – the games industry; it points at the social context of games: the fireplace, ancestral center of sociality, which has been replaced by radio, then by television, then by game consoles in an increasingly solitary, mediated and commercialized experience.
In the open-minded, novelty-starved, highly-interconnected indie community, innovative titles rarely go unnoticed. Yet, this seems the case of Starseed Pilgrim, a dizzyingly clever “abstract gardening” game lost in an ocean of unremarkable puzzle platformers.
The core gameplay consists in growing convoluted structures in order to reach remote keys while escaping a dark matter devouring the level block by block. The task involves a lot of planning, seed saving, and quick decision making. Explaining all the rules and the properties of the seeds would spoil the joy of discovery; after playing for hours I’m still finding new mechanics and strategies. Deceptively minimalist and finely sonified, Starseed Pilgrim is everything I want to see from a puzzle game: emergent gameplay, dazzling depth, playful exploration, and no pre-designed solutions.
Although technically published in 2011, Richard Hofmeier’s magnum opus only started to get noticed this year, after numerous personal endorsements and in-depth analysis.
In essence, Cart Life is a “working poor” life simulation that puts you in the shoes of a single mom or a migrant man trying to make a living as a street vendor while dealing with your troubled personal life.
Cart Life is not an easy game: hard to learn, impossible to master, open and sprawling like no other indie game, frustrating and gloomy. And yet, it somehow manages to surprise and reward the committed player with fleeting moments of sheer beauty.
The brilliance of Cart Life is in the way it puts storytelling and exploration in direct competition with the brutal resource management gameplay. There is an economy of material necessity made of debt, logistics, paper napkins inventory, swift espresso-making gestures and a completely separated “human economy” (in David Graeber’s terms) of relationship, reputation, love and care. The numeric, formalized, computational core of the game on one side, and the loose, narrative, player-driven component on the other. It’s a great use of the so-called ludo-narrative dissonance for an expressive purpose.
It’s hard to convince you that Cart Life is worth your time because the feeling of wasting your time is a crucial part of the experience.
Wondering if Cart Life is worth playing is a bit like wondering if certain lives right below the poverty line are worth living.
Yes, they are.
Don’t expect a political punchline: there’s none.
Arcade Bike Polo was created for Fuck This Jam, a friendly game making competition organized by Vlambeer‘s Rami Ismail & Panoramical creator Fernando Ramallo. Gameplay and graphics were completed by the end of the week-long jam but I decided to take some extra time to add sound, menus and other non-core features.
Fuck This Jam challenged creators around the world to make a new game in a genre they hated. From the call:
Through utter ignorance for conventions and hate for the established rules of a genre, beautiful things will happen.
Although beauty has never been and will never be a priority a for Molleindustria, parodying/subverting the most obnoxious game genres (management sims, fighting games…) has been a recurring strategy since the inception of the project.
This time around I wanted to try a more direct approach and make a straightforward sport game. Not a stylized, natively digital multiplayer game like the Sportsfriends ones (that’s definitely not a genre I hate) but instead a digital translation of an existing sport.
The main inspiration for Arcade Bike Polo is Sensible Soccer, a frantic, streamlined and rather hardcore Amiga title from 1992. Sensible Soccer was a product of that awkward period of gaming history suspended between the symbolic/iconic age (i.e. pong) and the forced march toward photo-realism starting from the mid-nineties.
The choice of Hardcourt Bike Polo was obvious since it’s pretty much the only sport I’ve ever liked (full disclosure: I’m a terrible player). Moreover, Bike Polo is still not contaminated by rampant commercialization, exploited by cool hunting marketers, nor dominated by jock culture. On the opposite, it’s strongly connected with bicycle advocates, it’s decentralized and permeated by a DIY/punk(ish) attitude.
The beauty of Bike Polo is in being both elegant and messy at the same time. At first it may appear as a dangerous, clanging wreck of wheels and ski poles, but then comes the realization that hitting a small ball with a section of ABS pipe while riding a bike is not any more absurd than running around bouncing a basketball: it’s just a series of artificial constraints from which patterns, tactics and strategies emerge.
I wanted to create a videogame that, without any pretense of simulation and “realism”, captured some of the core dynamics of the sports. Namely: the fluidity of action resulting from the lack of fixed roles and from the bikes’ affordances (you can’t instantly stop and change direction), and the asymmetry created by players with one strong side (the one with the mallet).
Some crucial aspects like collisions, wrecks, and “dabs” are intentionally downplayed or removed to produce a more fluid gameplay. A real-life polo game tends to have a hobbling kind of flow, with frequent pauses charged with tension, and sudden breakaways; mallet-to-mallet contact (sword fight) is common and frenzied; players get constantly cornered to the side of the court. These are characteristics you won’t find in the game.
Those familiar with bike polo will notice some other artistic licenses: the court is over-sized, there’s no distinction between “hit” and “shuffle”, it’s possible to ride through the goal backward and then score, and so on… each of them would require a justification I’d rather spare you.
I hope this silly videogame will introduce Bike Polo to a few uninitiated.
If you are one of them, trust me: the real deal is much more fun.
Chances are there is already a bike polo club in your own town!
Arse Elekronika (not to be confused with the similarly sounding, slightly more established new media art festival in Linz) is the most important conference investigating the intersection of sex and technology. The past six editions revolved around themes like porn as innovation driver, sexuality in science fiction or body enhancements. This year the emphasis was on games and the three day festival included performances, workshops, and an eclectic mix of lectures: from the challenges of simulating sexual intercourse in Nordic LARPs to the dating strategies among volunteers in disaster zones, from the physics of vibrators and sex machines to the auto-ethnography of masturbation…
My talk simply dealt with the procedural representation of sex in videogames. I publish the presentation here, along with most of the images and videos I screened. The text is a transcript quickly adjusted to the written form so forgive me for the colloquial style, the repetitions and the wonky grammar.
What is the role of sex in the functionalist worlds of videogames? How come that modeling intercourses through cybernetic systems seems only to produce hilarious, problematic and delightfully reductionist outcomes?
In this gonzo survey of playable coitus, I descend from the prudish polish of AAA games to the subappreciated subterranean genre of interactive pornography (so you don’t have to) and then re-emerge to envision alternative design approaches for healthy, sex-positive, post-pornographic, radical games.
Like in all good conferences, at Indiecade most of the fun happens outside and around the programmed events. The lectures, the exhibitions, and the goofy award ceremonies are only frames for a multitude of fluid interactions around dinner tables, in the waiting lines for beer, during improvised logistical negotiations, after tense game sessions.
That’s the stuff you won’t get from the video recordings and from this very biased and incomplete report.
Soon people will stop referring to Fantastic Arcade as “The best indie gaming event you’ve never heard of”. Integral part of Fantastic Fest (Über-hip arthouse sci-fi and horror film festival), happening in sunny Austin TX just a couple of weeks before Indiecade, the 3-years-old, 4-day-long festival, seems destined to become a fixture in the calendar of indie game people of all kinds.
Aside of the diverse selection of games, the informal talks, the relaxed and alcohol-fueled atmosphere, the great movies, and the great people that were part of the package, I’ve seen a couple of remarkable things I wasn’t quite expecting to see.
Pioneering art/games collective Kokoromi presented the Dancingularity party, possibly the first experiment in dance floor gamification. Party-goers occupy a 3×3 matrix of Dance Dance Revolution pads producing a kind of heat map on a corresponding grid projected on big screen. The visuals are further processed in real time by a “Dance Master” who can trigger events and switch stages in relation to the music or the crowd.
Good music kept the party going, but dancers tended to stay confined in their own cells while lurkers like me speculated in the dark about the relation between video and input. I wonder if a more meaningful interaction and a slightly more complex set of rules could have produced some fluidity, emergent behaviors (in a self-aware game-of-life dancing cells kind of way), or a new type of bodily negotiations on the dance floor.
I’m looking forward to see further developments of this format.
Super Hexagon as spectator e-sport
Terry’s minimalist avoidance game is receiving universal acclaim and becoming an instant iPhone/iPad classic. As it turns out, it can mesmerize spectators as well. There is something profoundly alien (or maybe profoundly human) in a crowded room gasping and cheering at one pulsating shape on the screen. What makes such a simple and brutal game an enjoyable spectacle? Is it the hypnotic visuals coupled with music? The absolute clarity of presentation? The sense of being constantly on the edge of failure?
Part of the Sony-sponsored section of the exhibition, this little punk game may simply be the only thing that justifies a monstrosity called Playstation Vita. Frobisher Says is a collection of absurdist WarioWare-like minigames where the main task is to quickly figure out what to do, rather than mastering certain mechanics. I assume it was conceived to demonstrate all the technical features of the PS Vita, but in my eyes it felt like a clever prank ridiculing its own platform. The protagonist, an annoying British brat, assigns you a series of nonsensical tasks that involve operating on one of the maaany available inputs: buttons and directional pads, analog stick, multi-touch screen, front camera, back camera, dorsal buttons, tilt sensors, microphone, and the baffling secondary touch screen on the back of the device. The player ends up juggling and groping the baroque gizmo, frantically looking for the appropriate sensor. So insane. So meta.
Oddly, one of the best works I’ve seen in Austin wasn’t part of the festival but was demoed informally during a party. Panoramical is a collaboration between Argentinian (although Mexico-based) developer Fernando Ramallo and Proteus composer David Kanaga. The software toy uses an 8 channel mixer as input device: every analog slider and knob controls an element of a generative virtual landscape and a track of a multilayered ambient soundtrack. The result is a beautiful, rich, synesthetic experience and/or a promising tool for real-time audio-visual performance.
And yes an “arcade” cabinet of Unmanned was there as well.
Somewhere in UK, a dialog box pops up on the screen of a Mac computer.
The user contacts me asking for an explanation I can’t quite provide. The same file (a downloadable version of Phone Story) works perfectly on my machine, also a Mac. It turns out the “file damaged” message is produced by Gatekeeper, an anti-malware feature of the new OSX Mountain Lion, which I haven’t bothered to install yet. Gatekeeper, by default, blocks every application that is not coming from the official Mac App store or from certified Apple developers.
I read a few articles about Gatekeeper, all of which are praising Apple for this long-sighted move to prevent the malware epidemic that plagues Windows users. More informal reactions from independent developers are along these lines:
“Yeah, it happened to me too. It’s a stupid message”
“No big deal, just go to the preferences panel and change the security settings”
“I agree with the goals of Gatekeeper, but that dialog box feels wrong. It’s very un-Apple-like.”
I certainly don’t expect the tech press to say anything against Apple, but I’m surprised by the lack of debate (outrage?) within Mac users and developers.
I’d like to make the case that this kind of trick is indeed very Apple-like, and that Gatekeeper is a reason for concern.
The Total Apple Consumer
It’s not too hard to understand why Apple’s innovations and branding strategy conquered millions of users in the last decade. But in order to turn groundbreaking products such as the iPod or the iPhone into monopolistic leverages, Apple had to go beyond mere product design and marketing to devise a smooth, seamless user experience among its platforms and devices. To become a vertically-integrated computing company and control hardware, software, content (iTunes / App Store), and personal data (iCloud) at the same time, Apple had to create a new kind of user, an ideal user which I’ll simply call: Total Apple Consumer.
The Total Apple Consumer is awesomely rewarded for its loyalty, while the impure one is punished. Using an iPod or an iPhone without adopting iTunes as mp3 player for your computer is a major annoyance. To be precise, it’s a carefully designed annoyance. Transferring files to an external device via USB doesn’t technically require a cumbersome online shopping application like iTunes. It’s the digital equivalent of those airport terminals that force you to walk though a labyrinth of duty-free shops in order to reach your flight.
Of course, things are way more functional and easy to manage when there are no junctions and no conflicts. It’s getting increasingly more appealing to adopt Apple’s monoculture, leaving behind an ecosystem of manufacturers, developers and services – often in competition between each other – like a PC+Windows set up. The risks of relying on one all-encompassing system (such as having your account hijacked) are negligible in comparison to a perfectly efficient, streamlined digital life.
A newspeak for the post-PC era
In the process of reshaping our relation with computing machines, Apple also had to exert control on computing language. For example: the concept of “synching devices” replaced the more intuitive and technically precise expression “copying files”. This brilliant semiotic move inscribes the notion of artificial scarcity into our daily interactions.
Synching obscures the very fact that you are copying files around. The idea that digital information can be freely duplicated and shared is dangerous – a gateway to piracy. What you are supposed to think instead, is that you acquired the right to consume a song, a video, or a piece of software, via a certain number of sanctioned devices and/or for a certain amount of time. And you shouldn’t really bother about how this affects your file system. In fact, your file system may not even exists.
Like the newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984, Applespeak is subtle and gradual.
Referring to applications as “apps” is not just a branding technique but a necessary linguistic reduction to conceptualize a lesser type of application. A little piece of software that sits in its little sandbox and doesn’t try to compete with the overarching platform.
For decades, digital artists and videogame developers have fought to elevate the status of software to that of any other cultural artifact. Apple overtly reject this idea.
The second paragraph of the guidelines for app developers reads:
We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app.
An app is primarily a commodity and a functional tool. After all, freedom of speech doesn’t apply to screwdrivers or compasses.
Still, they’re not excluding the possibility of some kind of meaning emerging from an app, they just reserve the right to censor what doesn’t comply with their inscrutable moral standards:
We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.
The term “gatekeeper” in Information Technology is generally used as a negative term to refer to entities in a position of control over crucial services. In Applespeak, Gatekeeper becomes the friendly bouncer that knows when somebody “crosses the line”.
Designating all the applications that are not Apple-approved as “damaged files” to be trashed is an even bolder linguistic intervention. Users who want to decide what software runs on their machines have to change the default setting and go through another intimidating message.
Beware: the Internet outside Apple’s digital stores is a scary, scary place…
Boiling the frog
In terms of security, Gatekeeper is a remarkably lazy approach. Instead of making a “black list” of bad software like anti-virus programs generally do, Gatekeeper starts from a presumption of guilt and performs a “white list” check. If you sell through the Mac App store, paying a yearly fee and 30% of the revenues for this privilege, you are on the list. Unless, of course, your products violate their arbitrary guidelines.
You’d have to be the most clueless Apple believer to buy into this narrative. If developers’ certification was really the key to security, a third-party validation by companies in the business of detecting malware would be more appropriate.
A complementary approach could involve educating users to recognize suspicious files – which unfortunately it’s at odds with Apple’s tendency to strategically obfuscate the internal structure of their systems.
As depressing as it can be, it’s more logical to think of Gatekeeper as a step toward the exclusive control of content in that shiny post-PC era envisioned by Steve Jobs. The monopolistic App Store for iPhone and iPad turned out to be so profitable, it would be foolish for them to not extend the system beyond mobile devices.
Needless to say, Apple already has the capacity to block all non-approved software running on “their” machines.
Some Total Apple Consumers may welcome this as a another time-saving, stress-reducing service, but such a swift, uncompromising move is likely to cause an insurrection among power-users and software developers. That’s why they can only attempt a gradual shift. For now it’s just a security setting you can change but who knows what will happen with the next update. The message to developers is clear: if you make software for Mac you’d better look into this whole Mac Store thing, or you may suddenly be cut off.
Personal Computer = Personal Liberation
Techy people may find these remarks obvious. Apple’s 360º expansion strategy is rather transparent if you bother to observe it in perspective. But many computer users can’t even tell the difference between a browser and a search engine. They certainly aren’t going to mess with their System Preferences to make their computers “less safe”.
Why should we care about them? Shouldn’t we welcome more constrained systems for those who are so dumb as to not recognize malware and online scams? Isn’t the iPad the most appropriate device for the 21st century couch potatoes who only need to check their email, watch some cat videos, and post pictures on Facebook?
If we care about being surrounded by active, informed and empowered citizens, we should be concerned about Apple’s post-PC vision, and fight for the right to control the software that runs on our devices. Apple is on the front line of what writer and commentator Cory Doctorow calls The Coming War on General-Purpose Computing.
This isn’t an entirely new struggle. The first book about personal computers was written by Ted Nelson in 1974. Its title was Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a fist on the cover, with the emphatic call: “You can and must understand computers NOW”.
For pioneers like Nelson, the creative and political potential of computing machines and informational networks was immediately evident. The challenge was to make these machines available to everybody and promote a new kind of literacy.
The tyrants to overthrow were the centralized systems, namely: television and mainframe computers. It’s worth remembering that before PCs, people worked with “terminals” which functioned as input/output devices for central entities called mainframes. Systems administrators defined the policies and controlled the software.
These radical ideas of computing freedom were so influential that they became selling points for the emerging IT sector. The famous TV ad launching the first Macintosh computer in 1984 dramatized this antagonism, referencing Orwell’s dystopia:
Obviously, disruptive companies can’t stay disruptive forever. Investors demand increasing returns and impose an endless march of expansion and consolidation. Ultimately, every IT corporation strives to become Big Brother.
The Total Apple Consumers (which, again, are the ideal consumers that Apple tries to create) are the subjects of a mainframe model applied to the consumer-side. They store all their personal data in remote iClouds; purchase music, eBooks and newspapers from iTunes; find directions, stores and local services though Apple Maps; they dabble with apps made by Apple’s indentured developers; when tired of tapping and swiping touchscreens, they can enjoy a moment of relaxation, watching TV and movies through Apple TV.
Their post-PC devices could perhaps help them figure out what TV shows they should watch and which ones they should “move to the trash”; which websites are trustworthy and which ones are “damaged” and so on…
Once you control all points of entry to the digital realm, the possibilities are endless.
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
- Benjamin Franklin
Here is a recipe for a rrradical game design & literacy workshop I had the chance to organize together with Una Lee, Toronto-based activist, designer and all-around awesome person. It was presented at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit in June 2012 but you can try it at home, with your own class, club, organization or anywhere, really.
In short, it involved remixing gameplays and cardboard sprites from classic arcade games in response to a pressing social issue or a real world scenario.
Every year, hundreds of media producers, hackers and geeks working in LGBTQ, social and environmental justice movements converge to Detroit to share stories and skills, to create meaningful connections and have a lot fun. As the organizers put it:
At the Allied Media Conference, media creation is not only about personal expression, but about transformation – of ourselves and the structures of power around us. We create media that exposes, investigates, resists, heals, builds confidence and radical hope, incites dialogue and debate. We demystify technology, not only learning how to use it, but how to take it apart, fix it and build our own.
Starting from this year the AMC included a section about games called “Imagining better futures through play” coordinated by Una and Cayden Mak, brilliant SUNY-Buffalo game scholar. Our workshop, awkwardly titled “Designing revolutionary games with verbs” was part of it.
The big challenge was to propose an exercise that could be executed in an hour and a half, by any number of people, of all ages, of any level of game and computer literacy, assuming no equipment at all.
The main inspirations for the workshop were Grow-A-Game, a card deck by Tiltfactor and the research Videogames of the Oppressed projects by Gonzalo Frasca. We basically adapted these projects for a more socially-conscious and (potentially) less game-literate crowd.
We opted for a quick paper prototyping activity, to take the technological aspects out of the equation and to provide a fun, physical tool to brainstorm in small groups.
Modifying (or modding) pre-existing games prevented participants from spending too much time thinking about the “kind” of game they deemed more appropriate. It also pushed them to deconstruct the rhetoric and the ideological biases that inform commercial games. Before the modding phase we asked them to break down the game mechanics into “verbs” and think about the implicit or explicit “messages” that these formal systems may entail. We selected a handful of games to analyze and remix:
Super Mario Bros.
Needless to say, the choice was not motivated by 8-bit nostalgia. Classic arcade games in this context have several advantages:
- They are way more simple, with few elements and transparent mechanics. Many people are familiar with them or they can easily figure out the gameplay by watching a video playthrough.
- They help to conceptualize games as something more general and diverse than the contemporary dominant genre: a 3D space to be explored by an avatar, peppered by fragments of a story, puzzles and enemies.
- They are 2D, and that helps a lot when you are working on paper.
- They are, into some extent, game archetypes. They introduced some of the most basic elements that are still present in contemporary videogames (shooting and avoiding in Space invaders, Maze exploration in PacMan etc…).
The second creative constraint was a randomly assigned “problem” card that represented an abstract social issue and a more concrete scenario.
Discrimination / Tolerance,
Racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying…
The mainstream media is portraying a minority group as a social disease
We thought it was important to describe issues as tensions and not only as negative or positive values to stimulate a variety of approach. Games can represent a problem, envision a solution, embody an interpersonal dynamic that resonates with the scenario and so on.
The scenario is meant to be an example. Participants were able to choose to approach the problem in an abstract way (e.g. Economic Inequality) or in more geographically or historically specific way (e.g. the Downsizing of Detroit along class and racial lines) or anything in between.
We provided each group with a collection of sprites ripped from the randomly assigned game, printed on cardstock, and pre-cut. The sprites represented the main movable visual modules; for levels and backgrounds we recommended to use markers on big cardboard sheets.
We found that the physical paper pieces compelled participants to reason in visual and spatial terms and, at the same time, allowed a more democratic process since all members of the group (3-4 people) were able to rearrange elements as if they were working on a jigsaw puzzle.
Providing visual elements to start from also discouraged the simple re-skinning approach, namely: changing stories and characters while keeping the mechanics intact.
We didn’t have the time to test it but it may be fun to allow groups to trade elements and incorporate sprites from different games in the same design.
- A basic introductory powerpoint about games and ideology (6MB)
- Cheat sheets with the games’ descriptions and some starting points for analysis and modding
- Problem cards
- Sprite sheets
Unfortunately we were too busy to properly document the prototypes but Una did a write-up of a dry-run of the workshop in Toronto. Read it here.
Last summer I was invited to participate to the Gwangju Design Biennale in Korea. Apparently it’s a big deal for designers down there, with over 5,000 daily visitors from all over the world. The art/design section was co-curated by Chinese bad-ass artist Ai Wei Wei, who didn’t actually have the chance to curate that much since he was arrested that year.
Anyway, the sponsors were mostly hi-tech and phone companies so I thought it was the perfect event for the unveiling of Phone Story.
The problem was that I had to fill quite a lot of space with a tiny mobile game so I asked them to build a sort of fake Apple Store, with minimal design and blinding lights. It turned out pretty well.
Note: the first version of Phone Story featured Steve Jobs’ disembodied head talking (in Korean) over an hypnotic spiral. Then, as you may have heard, the real Jobs died and I decided to use a more generic narrator (representing the phone itself) making the whole thing less Apple-centric.
A couple of months ago, Stephen Totilo from Kotaku read some angry tweets of mine regarding the teaser campaign for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Stephen asked me if I was interested in expanding my 140 character long rants into a 400-600 hundred word article. I gave him 1600 words. I republish the entire article here:
The future is black, announces the trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
The next iteration of the popular first person shooter hardly needs any marketing campaign: immediately after the official announcement, the gaming press diligently started to operate as an extension of Activision’s PR department. Small and big media scrambled to produce the most comprehensive list of features, talking polygons and frame rates, revealing plot fragments, speculating on new gameplay additions that may or may not rejuvenate the trite shooting genre.
Given the predicable hype, it is surprising to see among the promotional material a serious, high production value “documentary” about 21st century warfare, touching upon cyberterrorism, robotics and counter-insurgency.
The 6-part video – available here in “interactive” form or here in sequential form – prominently features military commentator P.W. Singer and Oliver North, the key figure of the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly brought down the Reagan administration in the mid 80s.
Allow me a digression. The Iran-Contra affair is one of those rare cases in Cold War history where it’s absolutely clear who the bad guys are. Oliver North, at the time working for the National Security Council, was involved in the clandestine sale of weapons to Iran (a rather common practice during the Cold War’s proxy conflicts). The proceeds from the sales were then illegally diverted to finance the Contras, a network of CIA-trained guerrilla groups, who opposed the democratically elected government of Nicaragua. Contras were notorious for their human right abuses such as murder, torture, rape and executions of civilians. They also funded themselves through drug trafficking and it’s been alleged that the CIA was supporting, or at least, tolerating these activities. These last allegations were disproved after an investigation led by, well… the CIA.
The story of how Oliver North went from being a convicted felon for these activities, to Republican candidate for the Senate, best selling author, news commentator for Fox News and eventually testimonial/media-stuntman for Activision, is a kind of twisted version of the American Dream that I’m not going to tell.
Back to the trailer: it’s quite unusual to see a major game developer contextualizing a title in relation to current, hotly debated issues; that is, avoiding the notorious “it’s just a game” stance and acknowledging that military-themed games are part of a larger discourse around war. It’s also somewhat gutsy to take a clear political position by hiring a figure like North. I personally would love to see more game companies taking their roles as cultural producers this seriously.
As it turns out, it’s hard to sell a shooter about black operations without glorifying the real black operations. The “documentary” feels like a polished piece of propaganda that may have come straight out of the Department of Defense.
I’m talking about a rather new kind of propaganda here. The post-9/11 triumphalist rhetoric of America’s Army, Kuma War or Full Spectrum Warrior (just to mention other games set in contemporary or near-future scenarios) can only sound awkward after the epic failures of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hence, the militaristic fable has to assume a different tone – in this case, a dark, apocalyptic – and envision scenarios of unconceivable horror to strike an audience desensitized by a decade of continuous war. As Oliver North puts it in the trailer: “I don’t think the average American grasps how violent war is about to become”.
The bulk of the narrative is provided by P.W. Singer, a prominent military expert and fortunate choice for this type of contextualization. His book Wired for War is an outstanding account of robotic warfare (and, by the way, the main source and inspiration for my latest game Unmanned). The treatise describes the state of the art of unmanned systems and examines the political, ethical and legal issues emerging from this ongoing technological revolution. It inevitably raises difficult questions: How our perception of the frontline changes when we can remotely control a UAV from home? How important is the risk of losing human lives when waging a war? Will robots make us more inclined to use violence in resolution of conflicts? Who is responsible when an autonomous machine kills a human? The personnel who deployed it? The commander of the operation? The engineer? The programmer who made the software?
Of course, all these questions are not even hinted at in the Black Ops 2 “documentary”. Singer is simply used to tell us that “the future is here” and that robots may have dangerous bugs, while North spins his Fox News-style terror scenario.
Oliver North’s nightmare seems to coincide with the premise of the game: in a imminent future, a supervillain (possibly affiliated with Anonymous) is able to hijack an army of unmanned war machines and attack Los Angeles.
In the game, or in North’s vision (at this point it’s hard to tell) the future of warfare is with black ops. Clandestine Special Forces can be deployed anywhere, in no time, with the most sophisticated weaponry to confront a diffused, unfathomable enemy.
Don’t understand the connection between cyberterrorism and covert operations? Don’t worry, that’s nothing but a non sequitur that serves the purpose of introducing the main themes of Black Ops 2. Nevertheless, this kind of nonsense, especially if repeated ad nauseam in news media and pop culture, contributes to the way we think about conflicts and future threats.
I believe there is a twofold process transforming the way we perceive war. On one hand we have a normalization of images of war: in media, in electronic entertainment, even in viral videos showing robotic Big Dogs or other DARPA-funded marvels. On the other hand, we have a massive deployment of “strategies of separation” such as unmanned aerial vehicles or undercover operations that work together to make the material reality of war as distant as possible from our daily lives.
Black Ops 2 will probably end up contributing to both sides of this equation by trivializing war and celebrating the culture of secrecy at the same time.
You may ask: what’s wrong with celebrating black operations anyway?
In the Ramboesque universe of Call of Duty, black ops are presented as an elite force type of operations, carried out in secrecy by modern ninjas. But in reality, what makes certain operations “black” is not that they go undetected by enemy forces – after all, most of military engagements are meant to surprise or deceive the opponent. The peculiarity of black operations is of being untraceable and deniable by the very institutions which finance and conduct them. This secrecy is desirable whenever the operations, if done overtly, would cause popular uproar, diplomatic crisis or legal troubles. It allows the perpetrators to bypass public scrutiny, democratic oversight and the Laws of War, a complex system of liability under which the “proper” military must operate.
Real-world black operations are often indistinguishable from terrorism. The 1985 Beirut car bombing, in which American and British intelligences failed in their attempt to assassinate an Islamic cleric, resulted in the deaths of about 60 civilians, including children leaving school. Take note Activision and Treyarch: it sounds like a fun mission.
Examples of contemporary black operations include the murder of several Iranian nuclear scientists, the virus Stuxnet, the undeclared drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and the Extraordinary Rendition Program that involves the kidnapping of suspected terrorists and their illegal detention and torture in a network of secret prisons operated by the CIA.
The most paradoxical aspect of black operations is that they are mostly invisible to the public opinion here in the West, but not in the countries where these operations take place. Venezuelan people know and remember vividly that the 2002 coup against their democratically elected government was funded by Washington. For the families and friends of the thousands of victims of drone strikes in Pakistan, those operations are not that secret anymore. The news that U.S. drones are deliberately targeting rescuers and funerals may be of secondary importance here, but abroad, it fuels an ever growing anti-Western sentiment.
In the West, we live with constant cognitive dissonance because these practices clearly conflict with our supposed moral high ground and the official mission of “exporting democracy”. We deal with it by quickly forgetting troubling events, by buying into sanitized stories such as the ones presented by videogames, or by crafting elaborate echo chambers where the only news stories we are exposed to are ones that relate with our hobbies and interests.
It’s entirely possible that Black Ops 2 may end up telling a fascinating story, the story of a country that achieved such a complete military supremacy that the only thing it fears is its own arsenal. It could also attempt new forms of gameplay to describe the complexities of asymmetrical warfare and the vaporous world of cyberterrorism, but I suspect we’ll end up with a refinement of the same shooter, this time with robotic enemies as targets.
This coming November, you may be one of the millions who will purchase Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Before you start fantasizing about a Los Angeles under drone attack and the undercover soldiers who will save us all, you may want to think about the horrifying history of undercover operations and the actuality of drone wars today.
The future may indeed be black, but the present isn’t bright either.
P.S. If you want to see a real documentary about the robotics revolution in warfare I recommend Remote Control War produced by the CBC.
There are many good films about United States’ foreign policy in Latin America. A recent one is John Pilger’s The War on Democracy, available on Netflix. This topic is also central to the seminal educational/strategy game Hidden Agenda by Jim Gasperini.
I had to ditch the old baroque, over-themed and essentially un-updatable Drupal-based content management system for a leaner solution based on WordPress. The Italian section (hundreds of nodes), the game pages, and some old content will continue to exist as static HTML – which has the great advantage of not vomiting errors after every major update like PHP does.
I may blog around for a while until I get tired of this new toy. Then I’ll apologize for not posting, as documented by this poignant artwork by Cory Arcangel, and you, random visitor, will think I’m dead or something.