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.
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.
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.
While the game falls well within long-established tropes of tabloid games, it also features a written press release that explains the game's purpose. The press release states that the game was made specifically to fight political apathy in the UK, and "... is completely unbiased as the three main characters are balanced in terms of their abilities so you simply have to choose the one you want to win. It is therefore only a political tool as far as its use to promote the election is concerned rather than favouring any particular party." The press release goes on to assert that the game is especially targeted at youth who remember Street Fighter, the classic video game series. These are ideals that attempt to present Downing Street Fighter as more than a simple tabloid game.
Special thanks to Ramiro Corbetta of Powerhead Games for helping us translate the Portuguese text in this game.
On Sunday October 31st, Dilma Rousseff defeated Jose Serra in a second round of balloting to become Brazil's first female president. Earlier that month, Rousseff became the first Brazilian presidential candidate to have her own videogame when Give Me Five Entertainment Group released Dilma Adventure on October 19th.
In this Flash game, players guide Dilma through a level of stony platforms and perilous drops populated by shuffling zombified versions of Jose Serra, while scoring as many votes as possible by collecting ballot boxes. Dilma can also pick up red stars scattered throughout the level, which are the symbol of the Brazilian Workers Party. As long as Dilma has stars, she can survive contact with enemies (a rule from the Sonic series), and she can use them as projectiles against the Serra zombies.
The game's cleverest mechanic is Dilma's special attack; the ability to call in outgoing president Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva to run across the screen, defeating all the enemies in his path. Silva chose Rousseff as his favored successor to the presidency and has supported her throughout the election. Furthermore, players gain the ability to summon "Lula" by collecting gold stars marked with a "13," Rousseff's number on the ballot. But the game doesn't try to assign every element of play a political mapping: projectile-dropping toucans randomly assault Dilma throughout the level, emphasizing the whimsical nature of the game.
Upon starting a new game, a series of newspaper headlines establish that the player is the new premier of Israel, freshly instated after the assassination of the previous premier. The date of January 1997 is shown, projecting 7 years after the game's release. The player is tasked with managing relations with 7 other nations: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria. Representing Israel, the player may interact with other nations in a number of ways, ranging from peaceful diplomatic gestures to nuclear war. The game is turn-based, and on each turn the player chooses how to interact with each nation. Other concerns include dealing with the "Palestinian problem" within Israel, managing Israel's development of a nuclear arsenal, and purchasing arms from a list of suppliers including the United States. Once a player makes all the decisions desired, the turn is ended, a month passes, and a new series of newspapers are displayed reporting the events that the last turn has caused.
"Mansion Impossible is a web-based videogame about real-estate investment... Houses pop out of the empty ground to go on the market, and disappear back into the ground when they sell. The price is inscribed on the house, and each house experiences a single gain-loss cycle before stabilizing. The player starts out with $100K, and the goal of the game is to build enough capital to buy the $10 million mansion on the edge of the screen. The player clicks on houses to buy or sell, taking care to time a sale for maximum profit. The town is divided into lower- and higher-cost housing areas, with the top right near the mansion offering the most exclusive and most expensive digs... A great amount of detail is abstracted from Mansion Impossible."
- The goal is the same. The player spends 14-25+ years of in-game time buying houses while their prices rise, then selling those houses as soon as their price begin to drop, culminating with the purchase of a $10 million mansion.
- The same information is depicted. The interface shows the amount of time taken, the amount of cash currently available for investment, and houses laid out graphically in a gradient from cheapest (farthest from the mansion) to most expensive (closest to the mansion).
- Gameplay tuning is similar. Informally playing each makes readily apparent the commonality in how long houses stay on screen, how quickly progress is made, and what strategies are optimal.
- Real-Estate is presented as a coherent, winnable system. Real-world loss risks such as natural disaster, economic collapse, and shifts in criminal/regulatory patterns are non-existent within these games, trimming the activity of real-estate investment down to a bare, easily understood, idealized form.
Only two days left until November 4.
For months and months now, it's felt like the election has been on absolutely everybody's mind. With the stakes seemingly higher than ever, all sorts of people are coming out of the woodwork to support their candidate.
If we look to traditional media, we find scores of artists using their chosen craft to engage the election. To use a few Obama-centric examples: we've heard the Black Eyed Peas (and a gaggle of famous pop musicians) singing "Yes We Can"; we've seen Sarah Silverman use her in-your-face TV comedy to get out the Democratic vote in Florida; Ron Howard went as far as to resurrect The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days for his own pro-Obama short; hell, even the Budweiser "Wassup" guys spoofed their commercial to urge people to vote for change. Hollywood too is cashing in on election fever: witness Oliver Stone's W or Kevin Costner's Swing Vote.
As a games researcher and designer, I can only ask: why are there so few - if any - compelling political games or newsgames about this election cycle?
The question, which plagues the so-called Serious Games movement more generally, is far too contentious to be answered in one blog post. Ian himself tackled the question just two days ago, drawing a distinction between politics and politicking. But in focusing on the various affordances of games, Ian only orbits around what I personally see as the heart of the issue.
For my purposes, I'd like to reflect on one particular example that, in my mind, symbolizes the failure of the game designer community to capitalize on this historic election. In doing so, I want to suggest that the "problem" - if we should even view the dearth of worthwhile election games as problematic - has just as much to do with the culture around game design. We need to address the mindset under which these kinds of games are designed.