Alternate Realities, Simulated Risks: Games, Politics, Action

Below is an essay I wrote for an exhibition at the 2008 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, Ithaca College. I curated a collection of nonfiction video games and am giving a couple of talks on the topic (April 2 @ 4PM and April 6 at 1PM, in case you are interested). For a list of the games and more information on FLEFF, click here.


Shoot Mexicans trying to cross the border, or guide Mexicans across the border. For every political stance, a video game. Are we what we play? If video games excite us cognitively and affectively, why not put that stimulus to use in the service of a cause—preferably a worthy one? Save the environment. Learn how to overthrow a government peacefully. Manage a disaster relief operation. Have fun while doing it.

Are video games effective tools for promoting social change? Can a good deed in virtuality make a difference in actuality? If so, how do we promote video games for social change, given that in reality the market for Halo eclipses the market for PeaceMaker? Do we need, as David Rejeski suggests, a Corporation for Public Gaming (similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) to promote educational and socially conscious games?

This year, FLEFF has again assembled a sample of “serious” games, video games that attempt to promote social change through education, critique, or simulation. The work ranges from simple maze games such as Homeless: It’s No Game, to more sophisticated strategy games such as Karma Tycoon, to a full-fledged simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to an alternate reality game (ARG) called World without Oil.

After playing these games, you will probably also find much to praise. That’s the easy part. Our hope is that FLEFF can not only feature these important works but also serve as a platform to advance the necessary and urgent critical inquiry that can help us to comprehend video games and their social roles in a more profound way. That’s the challenge.

Public discourse about games in recent years has successfully rehabilitated them from time wasters and violence inducers to (in the right cases) educational tools that provide a more rigorous cognitive workout than any other media experience. We are informed that playing video games is good for our hearts and minds. And if they probe topics such as world hunger (Food Force), the politics of nutrition (Fatworld), or the unsustainability of the fast-food industry (McDonald’s Video Game), they are assumed to be good for the world and politics at large.

This is the point at which critical inquiry must begin. Jesper Juul argues that to play a video game is to interact with real rules in an unreal (fictional) world. But if serious games focus on the real world—not an imagined one—what exactly are their rules simulating, if not the ways in which the real world works?

Congruent with all other forms of media, video games are machines of subjectification. They shape our identities by providing us with a framework for making sense of the world. Video games—serious or not so serious—are particularly effective machines of subjectification because they completely occupy our brains with a framework constituted by rules: rules to win the game. Video and computer games are indeed a cognitive workout, leaving little brainpower available for thinking outside these rules.

What makes serious games particularly interesting? Instead of disguising their epistemological framework behind an imagined world, they explicitly suggest that the logic we apply during play is the same logic we should mobilize for promoting social change.

In a game like the UN’s Stop Disasters, the solution to saving third world people involves the application of techniques such as needs assessment, risk management, resource allocation, and the maximizing of efficiency. The first-person shooter gives way to the first-person do-gooder, armed with weapons of mass management.

But where is the opportunity before, during, or after the game to critique the ideology behind the techniques applied to solve the puzzle of global misery? Or to be conscious of one’s own privileged position as a player and the accompanying compulsion to do good?

Alternate reality games (ARG) offer much more open frameworks. ARGs are games with different logical orders of rules. They differ significantly from traditional games. For example, chess has a delimited game space, pieces, and rules. But in contrast, ARGs operate with a more porous game space of collective make-believe, often marshalling a powerful social experience instead of pieces and rules.

World without Oil involved no game developers or software engineers programming the game rules. All that was required to launch the game was a problem in an alternate reality (in this case, a virtual oil crisis) to be presented to a network of players. The players then responded with their own blog posts, e-mails, videos, etc., creating a “what if” social space. World without Oil, then, was entirely a discursive, transmediated experience, as open as human expression itself. The goal, according to Sebastian Mary, was to facilitate “collaborative problem-solving to escape the boundaries of gaming and become a real-world way for distributed groups of people to address a problem they cannot fix by themselves.” By the standards of the people involved in the game, World without Oil was a success.

But we must now return to where we began. Can video games be used to advance a social cause? As you enter into the games in this exhibition, perhaps consider the following fields of inquiry as you play. If simulations capture everything but the risk, what lessons are we learning by experimenting with social change in the risk-free environments of serious games and alternate realities? Isn’t the ability to experience the consequences of our actions a fundamental part of an authentic learning experience? At a time when individualized consumerism sublimates the thrill of collectivity in virtually every interface, media form, and interaction, do serious games (often played in isolation, even if it is a networked isolation) further dilute our capacity for collective action in the world? Do serious games merely offer a new form of disenfranchisement from real political engagement? Or are serious games a serious step towards reframing collective action as attractive—and meaningful?

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