Gaming the System


Published: September 3, 2006

Persuasive Games, based in Atlanta, is one of many companies that create online games. Sometimes it does this for name-brand clients, including Cold Stone Creamery and Chrysler. Earlier this year, however, Persuasive Games released a game about the copy-shop chain Kinko’s that was rather different. For starters, Kinko’s is not a client. And the game, called Disaffected!, is not a typical example of an “advergame.” In fact, it’s billed as an anti-advergame. As the company explains: “Disaffected! puts the player in the role of employees forced to service customers under the particular incompetences common to a Kinko’s store.” Since January, the game has been downloaded more than 150,000 times from Persuasive Games’ Web site, one of several places it can be obtained for free.

Ian Bogost, a founder of Persuasive Games, acknowledges that Disaffected! was partly inspired by one too many annoying experiences at a Kinko’s, but his goals are a little more complicated than a simple consumer vendetta. Consider the way his company’s site promotes the game experience: “Feel the indifference of these purple-shirted malcontents first-hand and consider the possible reasons behind their malaise — is it mere incompetence? Managerial affliction? Unseen but serious labor issues?” (A Kinko’s spokeswoman says the company has no opinion about the game, but “takes exception” to any potentially “hurtful” characterization of its employees.)

Skepticism about, and mockery of, the claims of commercial persuasion has a long history. And “Disaffected!” shows how the sophistication, goals and tactics of both admakers and anti-admakers have escalated in tandem. It can also be seen as an example of what Sonia Katyal, a Fordham University law professor, calls “semiotic disobedience” in an article to be published this fall in the Washington University Law Review.

As a term and a concept, semiotic disobedience is a riff on two earlier ideas. One, of course, is civil disobedience. The other is “semiotic democracy,” a coinage of John Fiske, a media scholar whose 1987 book “Television Culture” described the ways in which audiences create their own interpretations of mass entertainment. Katyal’s combination, then, refers to the reinvention or subversion of logos and other symbols of commercial persuasion as part of a battle to redefine their meaning in ways that are frankly oppositional. Her research, she told me, evolved out of her interest in the way certain artists alter billboards with antibrand or anticapitalist messages. While this practice (variously referred to as brandalism, subvertising, culture jamming, adbusting, etc.) has gone on for years, it’s often dismissed as a nuisance, agitprop or, of course, a crime.

Katyal’s paper makes clear that she is not calling for, say, the legalization of billboard alteration. Instead, she offers a different intellectual framework for thinking about such acts. Her point is to consider whether some antibrander tactics are not simply vandalism or trademark infringements but rather acts that break laws partly to question the assumption behind the laws themselves. “Acts of semiotic disobedience,” as she puts it, “actually try to disobey the meaning of the sign itself” and to redefine that meaning in the process.

Her paper does not address Disaffected! or other online versions of anti-advergaming (including one simply called McDonald’s Videogame, which lets players decide how much rain forest to clear in order to raise more cattle for slaughter). And Ian Bogost says that he believes Disaffected! is a legally protected parody. Along with being a founder of Persuasive Games, Bogost happens to be an assistant professor of media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, with a particular interest in how games can facilitate cultural dialogues. In the case of Disaffected!, he’s most pleased when he sees it referred to in online discussions of Kinko’s — and he loved it when somebody (not he or anyone at Persuasive Games, he says) added a link to the game from the Kinko’s entry in Wikipedia, the user-edited encyclopedia. Although Bogost makes advergames, he is ambivalent about the way marketing has colonized computer and video games. Disaffected!, he says, sends a message: “We’re sick of seeing this colonization happen, and we want something out there that makes the advertisers realize that games can bite back.”