The role of play


Videogames with a political message are being used to win hearts and minds. Jim McClellan meets the creators and asks: do they work?

The bleeping sound tells you you're about to play a variation on one of the classics - Space Invaders. But when the graphics appear, it isn't green aliens advancing at you, but white blocks with dollar signs on them. And you shoot at them with... well, the disembodied head of a smiling George W. Bush. Pump enough bullets out of W's cranium and you clear the screen to leave the message: "You've saved the country from John Kerry's tax plans."

John Kerry: Tax Invaders isn't the only anti-Kerry videogame you will find on, the web presence of the Republican National Committee (RNC). There's also Kerry vs Kerry, a boxing game with commentary from Don King. It shows the Democrat challenger fighting himself, to illustrate the way he has contradicted himself on various issues.

These games aren't much fun to play, even if you are a Bush supporter. Nevertheless, it's significant that a major political party now sees games as a useful campaigning tool. Presumably, the RNC thinks Tax Invaders will get Bush's economic policy across to "the kids". But it's hard to say for certain because, so far, the RNC has not talked about the games to the press and they didn't respond to a request for an interview.

However, others are talking about this new campaign strategy - in particular, Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca, two game designers/ researchers who contribute to Water Cooler Games, a blog set up in October to track the development of "video games with an agenda". "I believe in this medium as a more efficient means of communicating social and political messages," says Bogost. "So I'm encouraged when anybody tries it, whatever their political persuasion."

Unfortunately, the games aren't that good, says Frasca. "They look like they were programmed by Bush himself." In particular, Tax Invaders, with its South Park image of bullets flying out of George Bush's head, seems ill conceived. "Knowing his trigger-happy approach to international politics," says Frasca, "this is something that may well backfire."

Last year, Gonzalo and Frasca created a web-based game for Howard Dean's nomination campaign. Players were cast as Dean campaigners, trying to get the vote out in Iowa, the first big primary. The idea was to communicate a conceptual idea about growing a grassroots movement from the bottom up, says Bogost. In the end, 100,000 people played. Feedback was good. "People said they understood the idea more and that they were motivated to participate."

Bogost has a background in advertising and interactive media. Frasca ran his own games studio and has researched the idea that games could help people think about the everyday politics of their lives. His essay on the subject, Videogames of the Oppressed, is included in First Person, a new anthology of theoretical writing about games just published by MIT Press.

Bogost argues in favour of games that deliver specific political commentary. "When you're playing a game, you are the actor," says Bogost. "Reading an editorial about why it's not a good idea to send missiles into Iraq as a solution for terrorism will be more difficult to get into rhetorically, than giving you the missile and saying, you fire it."

That's exactly what September 12th does. A controversial "news game" created by Frasca and a team of Uruguayan programmers, it shows a crowded town, where Arab terrorists mingle with ordinary people. Your job is to get terrorists without killing civilians. But no matter how carefully you aim, you end up with some collateral damage. When that happens, lots more terrorists appear. Think of it as SimChomsky.

Frasca says the idea was to play around with gaming conventions. The sniper rifle is meant to suggest the idea of a surgical strike, but when you fire, in Frasca's words "you create a big mess". And, in contrast to most games, you can't shoot constantly - you are forced to wait and see the results of each missile fired. So players are denied their thumb candy and forced to think instead.

Critics complain that the game simplifies a complex situation, that it is no fun to play and not really a computer game at all, more a kind of interactive political cartoon. "With news gaming," says Frasca, "we are trying to explore a genre somewhere between the game and the political cartoon. These games make a point rather than entertain. If the game is too good, the message might become invisible."

There are hundreds of web-based games inspired by 9/11 and the war on terror. Many are simple Flash-based affairs and can be found on New Grounds. "For political video games, September 11 was the trigger," says Frasca. "If it had happened in the sixties, people would have grabbed their guitar and written a song about it. Now they're making games."

Technology writer Clive Thompson has argued that simple Flash games are like online graffiti, quick and dirty personal messages delivered in the language of the web. Certainly, most of the 9/11 games on New Grounds feel like so much adolescent scrawl - crude revenge fantasies centring on beating up Osama bin Laden.

That said, some seem to share some of the aims of September 12th, such as New York Defender, created by French outfit Uzinagaz and played by more than 1.5m people since October 2001. The game shows the Twin Towers intact. Planes approach them and you have to shoot them down before impact. Easy at first - but so many planes come, you can't get them all, so you always lose.

Uzinagaz's Jonathan Pitcher says they didn't set out to make a political point. "We only meant to fight our feeling of impotence. We reacted to September 11 like kindergarten children, by drawing planes crashing into buildings. It's just some kind of release. But looking back, we find there is a political statement to it. Since there is no way to win this game, you could say that violence cannot stop violence. Or that you cannot win against terror by using force." That said, Pitcher does not buy the news game idea. "Books, not games, are a good way to deliver a political message."

Molleindustria, a team of Italian "cognitive workers" takes the opposite view. Its site features games such as TuboFlex, which is about surviving in the dynamic labour market (more fun than it sounds) and Orgasm Simulator, in which you play a woman trying to keep her boyfriend happy by faking an orgasm.

Like Frasca, the team suggests that playing with expectations makes gamers think. "In the real world, there's no opportunity for flexible workers to move up the job ladder. In TuboFlex, we show this by creating a frustratingly random level structure, in which there is no progression." Though you can't win, Molleindustria's games are fun because of the amusing graphics. Humour balances the limited gameplay in political games, suggests a spokesperson. "But we do believe it's time to get rid of the obligatory connection between videogames and fun - what we call 'dictatorship of entertainment'."

Molleindustria says that activist games first appeared as alternative media flourished online after the anti-corporate protests in Seattle in 1999. For some time, campaigning groups have used Flash movies to spread their ideas virally online. Moving into games was the next logical step. Hence sites such as Global Arcade, which uses variations on classic games such as Pong to satirise globalisation. Similarly, the long-running British site Urban 75 features anti-corporate cover versions of old gaming classics. As Urban 75's Mike Slocombe says, his Brick a Brand is basically a variation on Breakout. After indicating their "brick-throwing ability" - student, protester or anarchist players get to bounce bricks at familiar-looking brand logos.

The natural home here for political gaming (the site hosts the satirical beat-'em-up, Downing Street Fighter), Urban75 could perhaps lay claim to have pioneered the genre of interactive political cartoons, with its Punch/Slap games. Online since 1996, these simple Java animations let players virtually punch politicians and celebs by clicking on their faces. A click comically distorts the (over) familiar face.

"They're horrendously simple but phenomenally popular," says Slocombe, who sees the games on his site as a bit of cheeky irreverence. The hope is that they might draw people into the Urban 75 community where they could find out more about the issues.

In contrast, Frasca and Bogost think political games might be a way for games in general to develop into more complex expressive forms. Two days after the Madrid bombs, Frasca created Madrid, a game where you try to help candles - held by crowds commemorating the dead - burn a little brighter by clicking on them. "At first, people were critical about the idea of making a game about this, but then they realised the game was about solidarity and hope. I got many emails from people saying it was the first time they were moved by a game," says Frasca.