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Originally published on PBS's MediaShift Idea Lab on July 27, 2011.

Sweatshop is a new browser game, developed by Littleloud for Channel 4 Education, in which players fill the role of a factory floor manager in a developing nation. Taking design cues from the tower defense genre, the game tasks you with placing skilled workers and child laborers along a conveyor belt. It's also one of the most compelling and effective political games I've seen in recent years. 

Orders for different kinds of garments -- including hats, shirts, bags and shoes -- come down the line, and laborers assemble these products at varying speeds according to their specialty (or lack thereof, in the case of the children). For each completed garment, the player receives a small amount of cash that is then reinvested into hiring more workers or purchasing support items such as water coolers, fans and portable toilets. Some support items increase the speed or profitability of workers within their zone of effect, while others are required to prevent their inevitable exhaustion and (later in the game) bodily harm. 

Over the course of 30 stages, players are scored on the efficiency and, ultimately, character of their management decisions. This is reinforced by a trophy system, a karma meter, and a version of the classic shoulder angel/devil duo: a pitiable Child working in the factory and the comically inhumane Boss. 

The Child, who is always placed on the line for free at the beginning of each stage, explains how new support items can be used to help keep workers safe. In between stages, the Child presents brief factoids on sweatshop labor around the world. The Boss harangues players at the beginning and end of each work day, only taking a break from shouting and spewing his bad-taste humor to take phone calls from the pompous fashion industry moguls who send in orders.
In February, Urban Ministries of Durham (a faith-based, non-proselytizing aid organization) and McKinney (an ad agency reportedly working pro bono) launched a webgame called Spent about the hardships of poverty and unemployment. It puts players in the shoes of a single parent who has recently been put out of a job, has lost one's house to debts, and has only $1000 left in savings. The goal of the game is to make it through a month without going completely bankrupt. In many ways this game is similar to Positech's Kudos series, which tasks a player-character in his or her late teens to build a career and a social life without succumbing to bankruptcy, illness, or depression. Both games stack the odds of success heavily against their players in order to prove a point, yet neither is completely unfair, random, or reliant on the rhetoric of failure. While Kudos strives for a more complete simulation of the daily struggle to survive, Spent is more about providing a light, casually playable experience driven by current research on the costs of living. 

Spent is a game about short-term personal finance, or the daily need to pinch pennies just to keep food on the table and provide a small levee against emergencies. Although the game's loose causal chain between decision and consequence (coupled with the emphasis on text-based delivery of information) provides a less pure procedural rhetorical model of poverty, it is nevertheless effective given an assumed target audience of middle-class teenagers and young adults. For many this game will merely serve as an exercise in sensitivity to the plights of the less fortunate (a balm to relieve conservative semantic engineering), perhaps inspiring a small donation at the end of the game. Instead of seeing Spent as a "call to action," it might be okay to settle for the more feasible--yet no less daunting or important--goal of educating young adults who are about to make decisions about whether to take out loans to go to college, keep an unwanted pregnancy, drop out of high school, or enter the job market.
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You Shall Know The Truth is a timed hidden object game developed by Jonas Kyratzes for the Wikileaks Stories project. You play a spy sent by the U.S. intelligence community to retrieve leaked documents and biometric data on an unnamed Wikileaks employee from his or her apartment. It's a difficult game, not in that it's particularly trying to find all of the mission-targeted data before the timer runs out but because it adds a dark, humorous edge to a genre of casual games that traditionally has no ideological bent. It is also contradictory and perhaps difficult to take seriously at times, but, taken as a whole, it's a complex work with a novel take on the intersection between politics and play. Check it out before reading on, because there are spoilers ahead.
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We've been somewhat remiss in our coverage of the Wikileaks Stories series of games here on this blog. One reason is that the project has been somewhat well-covered elsewhere, and we try to focus on games that aren't being looked at by other sources. Another reason is that sometimes we've got to ruminate on how newsgames work and what they mean before we're ready to explain how they fit into the work we do. And, to be honest, we still probably don't entirely understand what the project represents, how it's different from newsgames projects we've seen in the past, or what it will mean for the future. 

Obviously it's wonderful to see indie developers who haven't engaged with the genre in the past sticking their toes in the water (or their necks on the block), but it's impossible to ignore that the most timely and nuanced entry in the series thus far has come from Paolo Pedercini, a grizzled veteran. That boy has had to roll his eyes through enough of my insufferable critiques in the past, so we'll only be looking at the latter two this week and next. If you're unfamiliar with the project, Joel Goodwin's blog Electron Dance is a great place to start for links to all the games, brief analysis and comparison, and a lengthy interview with Jonas Kyratzes (one of the two Wikileaks Stories project coordinators).

Damian Connolly's Wikileakers is the most recent of the three currently-extant Wikileaks Stories games. It's clearly the most accessible, and it has, perhaps, been written off as overly simplistic. And we can see why: it's more cartoonish than the previous Wikileaks Stories games, it uses Internet slang ("pron"), marijuana jokes, and cheap one-offs at the President, and it hinges on a somewhat conservative score-chasing goal structure. There's no gray area here: Assange is our hero (as pointed out by Goodwin, it's the only game that features him as the player character), and the "propaganda model" media is trying to keep him down.

Players control a pixellated Assange as he runs back and forth in what appears to be an FBI lobby, dodging lasers and bombs. The former represent corrupt media sources, while the bombs drop from a crane ominously labeled "PR" (the bombs themselves alternately accusing the man of being a terrorist and sexual deviant). Lasers constantly track Assange, stopping briefly to intermittently fire. Players can mouse-click to place single a block labelled "free press" that will obstruct exactly one laser shot before disappearing. While the first two media lasers bear American flags, Swedish and Australian media sources are added as the player's score increases.

An Introduction to Micro-Rhetorics via Minecraft


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As a part of our work on a newsgame authoring tool, the newsgames team has been working on ways to dissect and analyze the raw components of classic videogames. One term we've used to describe the fundamental dynamics of game-player interaction is the "micro-rhetoric," which can be described as a discrete impression created by the smallest possible aspect of a mechanic or object parameter. For example, enemies moving according to a slow and predictable displacement rule will result in pattern-driven play, producing a micro-rhetoric of "routine," whereas enemies with quick and unpredictable movements will require twitchiness from players and create an impression of danger.

Even the simplest video games have the potential for numerous micro-rhetorics depending on factors such as movement speed, firing patterns, numbers of lives, and scoring variations. The classic Atari title Kaboom, which has served as a Rosetta Stone for our ludic deconstructions, contains at least 16 micro-rhetorics. 

One thing that we quickly learned during our deconstructions is that individual micro-rhetorics are rarely unique. Variations on enemy health, movement, and attack speeds result in different shades of aggression and evasion while different scoring and reward structures reinforce or discourage certain patterns of play. It is the various combinations of these existing micro-rhetorics that produce unique procedural arguments. There are rarer mechanics that are particularly expressive, however. The neutral zone in Yar's Revenge has a number of rhetorical applications. It can be a shelter, or a place to hide. Retreating to it can be considered an act of cowardice or an intelligent tactical move.

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