The playful approach to political debate


In his Tate Britain lecture, Armando Iannucci argued that comedy shows such as Have I Got News For You and The Thick Of It provide the only real forum for political analysis. It's an interesting standpoint - but if he were to head over to sites like or the, he'd find a thriving new arena.

The videogame is a surprising but growing medium for political comment. Whether developed by small professional studios and made available through mainstream download sites, or by amateur coders and distributed virally, games with a sociopolitical agenda are on the increase.

This year has seen several high-profile releases. The McDonald's Game by Italian studio Molleindustria puts you in control of a fast-food chain, clearing rainforests and pumping cattle full of additives. Darfur is Dying, created by Susana Ruiz, is a simple online game designed to increase awareness of the crisis there.

The latest is Persuasive Games' Oil God, a strategy sim where the player, acting as an unscrupulous oil provider, must double prices within five years by any means necessary. Like most political games, Oil God is deeply satirical, allowing you to start wars, engineer natural disasters and even call in an extraterrestrial attack to stick it to the consumer.

In an essentially playful medium, satire makes sense. Gonzalo Frasca, ex-CNN journalist and co-founder of, says: "Games are based on simulation and simulation is, by definition, a simplification of a complex system. Satire and caricature are also simplifications, so it's a match made in heaven."

The use of games to impart serious messages isn't solely the preserve of activist coders, though. Increasingly, charities are using videogames to explain and publicise their causes, a trend characterised by the United Nations' game, FoodForce, based around the distribution of aid to hunger hotspots. Governments and their agencies are also keen on any avenues that let them talk to a young audience. Most notoriously, the US has the shoot-'em-up America's Army, essentially an interactive recruitment advert for military service.

In the videogame space, the playing field is level; governments, terror cells, charities and lone programmers with axes to grind all communicate in the same language - that of compelling interactive experiences - and use the same distribution channels.

"Videogames are the new graffiti," concludes Frasca. "If we were in the 60s, they would be making protest songs. Now they're making games."