Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Video games as propaganda

LAST week, in an effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, I withdrew settlements in the Gaza Strip. But then a suicide bomber struck in Jerusalem, the P.L.O. leader called my actions “condescending,” and the Knesset demanded a stern response. Desperate to retain control, I launched a missile strike against Hamas militants.

I was playing Peacemaker, a video game in which players assume the role of either the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president. Will you pull down the containment wall? Will you beg the United States to pressure your enemy? You make the calls and live with the results the computer generates. Just as in real life, actions that please one side tend to anger the other, making a resolution fiendishly tricky. You can play it over again and again until you get it right, or until the entire region explodes in violence.

“When they hear about Peacemaker, people sometimes go, ‘What? A computer game about the Middle East?’ ” admits Asi Burak, the Israeli-born graduate student who developed it with a team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “But people get very engaged. They really try very hard to get a solution. Even after one hour or two hours, they’d come to me and say, you know, I know more about the conflict than when I’ve read newspapers for 10 years.”

Video games have long entertained users by immersing them in fantasy worlds full of dragons or spaceships. But Peacemaker is part of a new generation: games that immerse people in the real world, full of real-time political crises. And the games’ designers aren’t just selling a voyeuristic thrill. Games, they argue, can be more than just mindless fun, they can be a medium for change.

Undoubtedly, the idea that video game can be a medium for change has limits. I certainly hope the players can see behind the fun and recognize the agenda. For instance:

In 2003 the Howard Dean campaign hired his company, Persuasive Games, to make a game that showed volunteers how the Iowa primary work was organized . Then the Illinois Republicans paid him to devise four games illustrating their major election planks. In one, you have to ferry sick patients through city streets to hospitals until you discover that the hospitals have become overcrowded. The only way to free more money and space is, hilariously, to enact anti-malpractice-suit legislation. In essence the game takes a cherished bit of Republican ideology and renders it into gameplay.

Douglas Thomas, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communications, is developing a redistricting game in which players try to gerrymander different states. “The election system is rigged to keep incumbents in, but nobody understands it,” he said. His game is intended “to show them how easy it is to game the system. You’ll be able to give it to a first-grade class and let them fix Texas. Then you can say, hey, a 6-year-old can do a more fair job.”

Modern video games are certainly good at exemplifying the complexity of a system, and the delicate interplay between competing forces. But the political indoctrination beneath the fun angers me. This subtle social commentary happens in films, too. The premise behind "The Incredibles" is that lawyers are such a pernicious force that, through litigation, they have rendered superheroes useless and impotent. I hope that modern audiences can see through and possibly question the underlying assumptions about the world modern media makes.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Gonzalo Frasca, a game designer and professor at the University of Copenhagen, felt it was an awful mission that would further destabilize the Middle East. But instead of writing a furious blog entry about it, he banded together with like-minded designers to create September 12, which presents the argument in a game.

September 12 is played in a single, simple screen. You load it up in your browser and see a gang of terrorists wandering through a tightly packed Arab market, all drawn in a colorful cartoon style. You try to bomb them, but every explosion is so overpowered that it accidentally kills innocent bystanders. Relatives are driven by grief and anger to become terrorists themselves. The more you bomb, the more terrorists you create, until the screen is overrun with them. Thus the game presents its argument: Bombing is no way to win the war on terror.

“I don’t really agree with the game on a political level,” said Mr. Frasca, “but it was a way to get people to discuss it.”

September 12, however, does not behave like a regular video game. It does not try to grab you; it’s not even particularly enjoyable. It exists purely to intrigue you long enough so you poke around and figure out the underlying argument: an op-ed composed not of words but of action.

Read the entire story here.

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