Video games on the topic to date have underscored this: the most popular game, Wikileaks: The Game, simply depicts Julian Assange stealing documents from President Obama, without any apparent interest what those documents contain. It's a tabloid game, focused entirely on the colorful personalities involved (in this case, a shadowy Assange and a Barack Obama literally sleeping on the job).
Wikileaks Stories, a new initiative from the gaming blog Gnome's Lair and indie designer Jonas Kyratzes, proposes to change this. The main site touts itself as a place "where independent game designers use their artform in the service of freedom and democracy, transforming the information revealed by Wikileaks into computer games." It's a powerful idea, and one that could potentially demonstrate some of the unique capabilities of newsgames.
Unfortunately, video games take a long time to make, so we're unlikely to see much quality content before several months (editor's note: excepting Leaky World). Luckily, Wikileaks seems poised to remain relevant in the news for some time, not least because only a small fraction of its roughly 250,000 diplomatic cables have been released. At least a handful of games for the initiative appear to be under development, at least one of which will be interactive fiction, but we'll have to wait to see the full extent of Wikileaks Stories.
In the meantime, I'd like to propose a couple of ideas for future games based on Wikileaks' revelations. These ideas range in genre and scope, but they're all primarily designed to get players thinking about the actual facts that Wikileaks has uncovered, and not simply the controversy that surrounds the organization. Given a little imagination, virtually any one of the leaks can be turned into a meaningful newsgame, and with any luck we'll be seeing more indie developers working with the Wikileaks Stories initiative in months to come.
The Leak: the President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, claimed responsibility for the military actions against Al Qaeda forces that were actually carried out by the United States. While Saleh has claimed bombings as his own and taken advantage of U.S. military intelligence, he has refused to allow U.S. ground forces into his country. At least one of the bombings killed a large number of innocent women and children along with Al Qaeda fighters, and the media had suspected that the United States was involved.
Half tactics, half real-time strategy. Reminiscent of a cross between Gonzalo Frasca's September 12th and the old Syndicate games.
You see a top-down view of a city, not dissimilar to September 12th. However, the game world is much larger, extending far beyond the boundaries of the screen (you scroll across the world with a mini-map and scrolling screen edges). A large number of people are milling around -- some unknown percentage of whom are terrorists. The terrorists are not visibly distinct in any way. If left to their own devices, they will eventually begin launching attacks -- both against the United States and the government of Yemen.
You play as President Saleh, the Yemeni leader. You are managing two variables: money and credibility. You must run counter-terrorirst operations against Al Qaeda before they can carry out destructive attacks. Specifically, you must carry out intelligence operations to identify the terrorists (making them visibly distinct on your map for a certain period of time), and attack operations to destroy them. However, your own capabilities are limited, and you lack the resources to carry out many operations alone. Hence, there are two types of operations you can execute: those of the Yemeni military, and those of the U.S. military. Each type of operation has a range of options, from a single cruise missile to a full infantry assault. Selecting a military operation causes the mouse cursor to become a targeting reticule. Click an area of the map to launch the operation, either killing anyone in the way (an attack) or revealing the terrorists in the area (intelligence).
Using the United States military to attack Al Qaeda doesn't cost you any money, but it can cost you credibility if civilians are killed in the operation. Using your own military is expensive and less effective (due to the lower-tech equipment), but comes at no cost to your credibility. Your credibility and money will both recharge slowly over time, although any successful attacks carried out by Al Qaeda can severely damage either.
You must eradicate all of the Al Qaeda terrorists. If your credibility is low, there is a chance that the full story will leak out at any time, cementing your reputation as an American puppet and dooming your chances of re-election.
Shell's Grip on the Nigerian Government
The Leak: Oil giant Shell, in its maneuvers to sweeten Nigeria's then-upcoming Petroleum Industry Bill, offhandedly mentions to the U.S. Ambassador that it has inserted staff into all the main ministries of the Nigerian government. Shell also trades intelligence with the U.S. government on the activity of Nigerian militants, who have engaged in damaging sabotage operations and kidnapping.
The Game: A turn-based strategy game, with heavy influence from the Grow series.
You see a cross-section of the Nigerian government, with each ministry and legislative chamber arranged in a hierarchy. The Petroleum Industry Bill is slowly working its way through the government, one ministry or chamber per turn. The petroleum bill contains some aspects that are positive (for you, at least), and some that aren't. The positive and negative elements of the bill are represented by red and green halves of the bill: the thicker the green part, the more positive the bill is for you.
You play as Shell, trying to make the Petroleum Industry Bill as positive for you as possible. Luckily, you have a contact at almost every level of the Nigerian government, as well as the U.S. embassy. Each turn, you choose which of your contacts to call on. Your contact does something to help you, but the effects of this help are often unpredictable. As in the Grow games, the effects vary depending on your timing and the actions you've taken thus far. For example, when you call the U.S. Ambassador, he will contact the Nigerian President, who will in turn pressure the Nigerian Speaker of the House -- a potentially powerful move, provided that the House hasn't already passed the bill. A good move can drop negative aspects of the bill and add positive ones, while a bad move can have the opposite effect. You have eight turns, and you are scored on your level of success in the end.
An unpredictable factor in the game is the outside presence of militants, who can launch attacks and reduce your score drastically unless they are pacified early in the game (you need to have called the U.S. embassy and the Nigerian Defense Ministry, a powerful combination). Other contacts you can call on include the House, the Senate, the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, and the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Company.
The game is only slightly less trial-and-error than the Grow games, as you can see which chamber/ministry is currently considering the Petroleum Industry Bill and act accordingly. For example, it wouldn't make much sense to influence a legislative chamber that's already passed the bill -- unless you know that it can have effects elsewhere.
Spying on the UN
The Leak: This was one of the better-reported leaks in the diplomatic cables. Under Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and now Hillary Clinton, the State Department has been asking diplomats to collect information on UN personnel -- everything from contact information to email passwords, credit card numbers, and frequent flyer numbers.
The Game: An educational ARG (alternate reality game) that will involve real-world research, sending emails, and "hacking" into email accounts.
You're a young diplomat with a shaky grasp of world history. You receive an assignment from Hillary Clinton, asking you to gather sensitive information on a (fictitious) United Nations representative from a (real) country. You're given several contacts, reachable by email, who can help you find the information you need. One contact is a computer hacker, another is a gossip-monger, another is an expert on local history, etc.
In reality, of course, sending an email to one of these "contacts" simply sends it to a keyword-search program, which replies with pre-written responses to your input. It also happens that the UN representative you're researching has a long, complex career that is intimately bound with the recent political history of his/her country.
To walk through a short example:
The investigation can go on like this, with any number of other possibilities. The trick is that "spying" on somebody requires a fairly deep understanding of his or her life and history. Combine this with the illicit thrill of snooping on real email accounts and sending real emails to unknown, possibly unfriendly contacts, and you have a strong basis for an educational game. Additionally, the fact that playing the game feels so unethical will underscore the seriousness of what our diplomats are really doing (though in a less dramatic fashion).