Nick Marroni wants to expose corruption, one video game at a time.
That makes Nick Marroni a dissident, a rebel, and, well, a very odd game designer.
He's 28. He lives with his folks in Detroit. He once sold lawn care and was good at it, though he regrets the chemicals that work foisted on his consumers.
He volunteered for libertarian Congressman Ron Paul, made a satirical Pac-Man style of video game called iBailout that the Tea Party could love — "You're munching dollars and that represents the wealth of America" — and gives the impression that his next game will be less fun than his first.
"iBailout is supposed to be an entertaining game," he told Kotaku during a phone interview last week. "For the next one I'm not really focused on making something entertaining, but something engaging."
We've got a designer who isn't putting fun first (second, probably). He wants his games to change the world or at least wake parts of it up.
Marroni is the child of Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan. He grew up on an Atari and dreamed, as kids do, of getting a job in the gaming industry. Along the way he started caring about the news, restlessly. "I just generally want to know what's going on so I make a point to do my best to make myself aware," he said.
He was restless in college. He dropped out. He says he was lazy. His friend Aaron Biggs, a promoter of political hip-hop in Detroit, describes that as a "low point." At work , he got accused by his boss of not caring. He meshed less than well with authority.
Gradually, his political passions built. In 2000 he had driven two hours to vote for Al Gore and begrudgingly voted for John Kerry in 2008. In '04 he volunteered for progressive Congressman Dennis Kucinich. In 2008 Marroni volunteered for Ron Paul, attracted to the Congressman's case against the U.S. wars abroad and against the U.S. Federal Reserve.
"He was refreshing," Marroni said of Paul. "The main thing I'm just looking for politically is actual honesty, not a teleprompter feeling of it like Obama or Bush. They both give off the feeling of honesty but it's not real and their actions prove that. I don't really care Left or Right. I'm just looking for what the right thing to do. Sometimes that is the Right side of things. Sometime it is the Left side."
Marroni made it back to college and graduated with a degree in political science. A couple of years ago he decided to start a video game company, Marroni Electronic Entertainment. He'd raise money. He'd make unusual video games. He'd hire people through Craigslist and have a virtual office maintained by talking to his few employees through Skype. He'd tell people what was wrong with America.
"He's the kind of guy who gets upset when he hears something in the news," digital artist Peter White said in a phone interview. White has done the art for Marroni's games. "We have our team meetings in Skype and probably every few hours he puts links in Skype of things of a political nature… It's almost like having NPR as your boss."
This video game company has an activist at its helm.
Marroni's first game was iBailout, a late $2 2009 Pac-Man riff for the iPhone that replaced Pac-Man with a devouring Federal Reserve Bank, the dots with Americans' money and the ghosts with angry citizens. Failure in the game would not result in game over. No, losing your lives would lead you to being bailed out so you could keep playing. That bailout was a defiance of the standard Game Over penalty. It was a critique of the U.S. government's practice during the current recession of given to reckless rich people millions and billions of dollars to keep their companies from failing.
Digital artist Peter White took a gig for Marroni's company a couple of years ago after losing a job at the collapsing Circuit City retail chain. The ad didn't say what the game that would be iBailout was going to be about. Soon he discovered he was signing up to make a game that attacked the Federal Reserve. "The whole thing about being outraged about the Fed made some sense to me because I was unemployed and these guys were getting golden parachutes."
The guys getting the golden parachutes during the recession were bankers, Wall Street executives, car company bosses, insurance sellers and mortgage lenders, so many of them bailed out by the U.S. Congress and the independent governmental organization now under Ben Bernanke, the Fed. iBailout was a poke at all of them.
Marroni's anti-Fed game was supposed to be a hit. Marroni wanted it on the top of the iTunes rankings. The game got covered on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal. It tapped into public anger about the bailouts.
"My goal with iBailout was to make something that would hit the charts," Marroni said. "Obviously it would make money too, which I also want to do. But if you have a game on the top five or 10 paid apps on the iPhone, it's inevitable that people are going to stop and say what's going on? What does this mean? A portion of those people will look into that a little deeper and that's my goal pretty much."
But, Marroni said, the game has only sold a couple hundred copies. Marroni couldn't get the game to catch on with activists. He couldn't even get Ron Paul's office to get back to him about the game.
Wasn't this game primed for a big response? "That's what I would have thought," he said.
Maybe the world doesn't want Nick Marroni's brand of video games. Maybe it doesn't want politics in its Pac-Man riffs. Marroni rejects that, but he knows the momentum he's up against.
"Most game developers run away from any serious subjects in their games," he said, "And there are obviously very vocal online gamers who say, ‘I don't want to talk about this in my game, I am just trying to have fun. I don't buy that.'"
He is sure more serious-minded games can work. Marroni sees the success of PlayStation 3 drama game Heavy Rain as proof that gamers at least want something more substantial and less frivolous. Heavy Rain, though, isn't politics. Heavy Rain isn't a game about something Nick Marroni thinks is wrong with the world or America. His next game, like Heavy Rain is about a true crime from the 70s. It is, Marroni said, another effort, via video games, to expose corruption.
Marroni tells the story — possibly a parable, he allows — of a family friend who drove past a neighbor whose house was on fire. The family friend, he said, told the man the house was on fire. The man didn't believe him. That family friend could have just passed the house and said nothing. They could have given up when the man didn't, for some reason, want to hear about it. Actually, no, Marroni said. Those are not options.
"I absolutely feel compelled to share the information I have because if I don't I'm not doing my duty," he said. "If I'm driving by the house I feel I have a responsibility to let the person know the trouble they're in."
Marroni's games are supposed to tell us that our house is ablaze. To use a different metaphor from Marroni's friend Aaron Biggs, his games are "a non-lethal weapon against the forces that be."
White said that Marroni's own small development team has, at times, suggested that the politics get dialed back. "A lot of times we were telling him tone down this or that thing is too politically in your face and might turn people off," White said. "He would say, ‘That's an interesting idea, but this is what I want to do.' He was very unwavering about the political things being the first and foremost aspect of the game."
Marroni sums up his attitude and distances himself from what he knows is the common objective to make pop entertainment: "I guess I just don't like living in a culture focused on meaninglessness." Things can be weighty, he says. Look at the Hurt Locker.
The next Nick Marroni game is still mostly in shadows. The project is a secret. It may not be a rollicking fun time, but it will be engaging, Marroni hopes. It will matter, because this is the kind of thing a guy like him has to do:
"I definitely wouldn't be able to go ahead and work on Killzone 2 or something like that," Marroni says referring to the PlayStation 3 futuristic first-person shooter. "It wouldn't be that interesting for me to do. I'm not against a game like that, but it's not something I would enjoy."