Playing Political Games

In a large theater at the 2010 Game Developers Conference, ten thousand game makers gathered for the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Choice awards ceremonies, where the best indie and mainstream games of the year are celebrated by and for their creators. In between the two, an unusual video was shown. Aneesh Chopra, the United States's first Chief Technology Officer, made an unusual address to the game development community.

He announced that he had met with a group of game developers in Washington several weeks prior. He offered hope for the promise of games' civic role in the future. He reiterated the administration's support for videogames as a part of its strategy for improving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. And he announced a new contest, dubbed Apps for Healthy Kids, which would award cash and prizes for "software tools and games that encourage children to make more nutritious food choices and be more physically active."

Any of these would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Just yesterday, it seems, Joseph Lieberman and present Obama cabinet member Hillary Clinton were decrying games as prurient and dangerous.

From the perspective of an outsider, I ought to be thrilled to hear Chopra's announcement. After all, I've been banging the drum for political games for years now.

I wrote a book, Persuasive Games, about how games persuade, which I had the good fortune to promote on the Colbert Report.

At my studio, also called Persuasive Games, I co-created the first official videogame for a US Presidential Candidate. There, we also made public policy games commissioned by both major political parties.

I've critiqued US airport security policy in games in not one but three different games.

The New York Times has published my editorial games about FDA inspectors and the ill-fated McCain-Kennedy Immigration Reform Bill.

My games have addressed food safety and agribusiness, consumerism, personal debt, the global petroleum market, pandemic flu, wind energy, and even the politics of nutrition, the very subject of CTO Chopra's announcement.

Yet, I am not thrilled. I am not encouraged. I am distressed and I am embarrassed.

My eyebrow started to raise when the White House announced Obama's Educate to Innovate campaign, a part of which encourages children to build levels in Little Big Planet. LBP is a clever and creative game, and players have done incredible things with its creation tools. It's true, LBP has physics, and physics is relevant to science and engineering. Half-Life 2 also has physics, as it happens.

But I'm not sure the government ought to endorse Sony in general, or one game in particular, as an unusually promising entry point into science. As a part of the deal, Sony gets to put 1,000 PS3s into libraries and community organizations. Don't blink, the US government just endorsed a videogame platform.

But it's the Apps for Healthy Kids contest that really loosens the bile from my liver.

You see, I was in that meeting that Chopra mentioned in his recorded comments before the Game Developers Choice Awards, along with twenty-some other participants from "the games industry." I put the term in scare quotes because only a fraction of us had actually shipped games, and perhaps a handful of those had previously made games dealing with social and political issues.

Like many of my kindred, I raised red flags. Games are hard to make. Good games are complex. The real promise of games as educational and political tools is in their ability to demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of issues. Games, like all media, can't ever really change behavior; a game about nutrition won't magically turn a player healthy, just as a game about criminality won't magically turn a player delinquent.

Instead, games can help us shape and explore our values. And today, our values better damned well be complex. They ought to be well informed and nuanced. They ought not to be black and white. They ought not to be bite-sized. They ought to take many factors into account.

This in mind, I offered to share the lessons, good and ill, that we learned from making Fatworld, a game funded by the Independent Television Service about the politics of nutrition. Fatworld has issues, but to my knowledge it is the best example of a game that really tries to deal with the issues the First Lady's health campaign promises to tackle.

Playing Political Games

Here's an excerpt from the game's description that will show you what I mean:

Fatworld explores the relationships between obesity, nutrition, and socioeconomics in the contemporary US. The game's goal is not to tell people what to eat or how to exercise, but to demonstrate the complex, interwoven relationships between nutrition and factors like budgets, the physical world, subsidies, and regulations.

Existing approaches to nutrition advocacy fail to communicate the aggregate effect of everyday health practices. It's one thing to explain that daily exercise and nutrition are important, but people young and old have a very hard time wrapping their heads around outcomes 5, 10, 50 years away. In Fatworld, you create a world, design a character, and live out an accelerated life in that world. Time in Fatworld will run continuously, whether you play or not.

You can choose starting weights and health conditions, including predispositions towards ailments like diabetes, heart disease, or food allergies. You'll have to construct menus and recipes, decide what to eat and what to avoid, exercise (or not).

You can experiment with the constraints of nutrition and economics as they affect your character's general health. Will it be wheatgrass and soy? Or fried chicken at every meal?

Disease and death will eventually ravage players with poor health, while those with good health will live to a ripe age.

Interested in politics? You can influence public policy by visiting the Govern-O-Mat, or try to get a glimpse into your own character's health-if you can afford it-at the Health-O-Mat. Players can alter guidelines on merchandising for Fatworld, changing market dynamics to encourage certain products and discourage others. For example, the player could ban partially hydrogenated oils in Fatworld, effectively removing them from the store shelves. Or they could ban meat, or fruit for that matter.

Fatworld comes with numerous foods, recipes, and meal plans, or players can create their own from the contents of foods in their pantry or their imaginations. Then you can export the recipes and meals you create and share them online, or download new creations other players have made.

I'll be the first to admit that aspects of Fatworld's implementation are deeply flawed. We spent a year on it, and we ran out of money. That's not an excuse, it's a statement of fact. Like I said, making games is hard. All the more reason to wonder why the few months and few thousand dollars of Apps for Healthy Kids will move the needle on the scale, as it were.

No matter, those lessons will not be learned and applied to health. Nor will the lessons learned on thousands of commercial games made and marketed on consoles and PCs. Why? Because the contest has chosen to swap expertise for publicity. After the meeting, Chopra's staff was eager, but not to follow up with those in the room; rather, they were eager to go blog about it. Go forth, users, and generate content! One percent of it will probably not suck!

But more importantly, it's my opinion that the White House does not really care if such games get made or not. You see, the kind of game rhetoric I've previously written about and practiced builds arguments into the games themselves: for example, nutrition is a complex function of politics and economics; pandemic flus affect a smaller global population than the media frenzy would have you believe; perfect storms of simultaneous unrest and natural disaster drive oil prices to the highest levels. In each case, the argument is in the model.

But there's another sort of digital rhetoric, one you can read about in Liz Losh's book Virtualpolitik: just the very act of endorsing or making a game has its own political outcome.

By championing the potential existence of games, the force of the games' political or social action becomes irrelevant. The political aspects of the game are not in their speech, but in their existence. Look, the government makes games now! That's a political win no matter how good or bad the games (or "apps," whatever that means might be. As I said recently in GamePro, this contest reads as PR more than politics. Look we're hip! We <3 Apps! Contests R kewl!

These days, when you tune in to the radio or turn on television or load up the web, you'll often hear Obama disparage "politics as usual." You'll hear him call for courage and action. You'll hear him sound brave and determined. Then you'll look at the happy green broccoli on AppsForHealthyKids.com and think, wow, maybe the government is really trying this time. Maybe they mean it in earnest. Maybe they'll use our media to do governance, rather than just as objects to be governed.

But make no mistake, initiatives like Apps for Healthy Kids are absolutely politics as usual. Sure, they're online. Sure, they have large font sizes and rounded corners. Sure, they make the White House younger and more modern. But they do exist not to change the world in which you live. Real change would involve, say, overturning the massive and intricate farm subsidies that have made corn sweetener a part of nearly everything we eat, particularly the cheap, nutrient-poor packaged foods available in lower-income communities. Instead, these contest and initiatives exist to replace the very need for political change with the performance of apparent effort.

They are anything but courageous. They do not take advantage of the unique power and potential of videogames to complexify rather than simplify the world. They promise a magic dreamworld in which cute carrots somehow eradicate a century of politics and economics through the sheer sexiness of a shiny device.

You'd demand more of Valve or EA Sports or Blizzard, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you cry out with vulgarities, unhinged, if this were a commercial rather than a governmental promise? Will you really settle for this as "good enough" or "an important first step?"

It is not enough for the White House to pat this medium on the head, nor for us to accept such affection like so many dogs left out in the cold for the night. Videogames can do more. We should demand more of them. We should demand more of those who would put them in use.

Dr. Ian Bogost is a videogame designer, critic, and researcher. He is Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC. His research and writing considers videogames as an expressive medium, and his creative practice focuses on political games and artgames. Bogost is author ofUnit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, co-author of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, and co-author of the forthcoming Newsgames: Journalism at Play. Bogost's videogames cover topics as varied as airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands, and tort reform. His games have been played by millions of people and exhibited internationally.

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Ian Bogost.