Tuesday, August 11, 2009

TIE Fighter: A Post 9/11 Parable

The idea for this piece came after the backlash to Six Days in Fallujah. If you want a good grip on how a political game delivers a message, Simon Ferrari did a write-up on what he calls editorial games and the basic principles that Ian Bogost and Alexander Galloway started working on years earlier. You create a set of rules that depict the way something works. The player goes through these by experiencing the simulation and contrasts that with their own understanding of reality.

A great many of these are emergent gameplay structures since there really isn’t a narrative behind “High taxes inhibit city development”, which is one of the messages of Sim City. You don’t say it to the person, you let them encounter the rules and adjust their behavior to achieve victory conditions. How they feel about that behavior is up to them. Subsequent games dealing with history like Colonization or the Civilization series also fall into this ideal. Religion, in a Civ game, has certain effects on your culture’s development. The Tycoon series is depicting the way a business works and making a tangible argument about the best way to run that business because it creates a rule system where certain kinds of conduct make you lose. Give too many bonuses to your staff and you don’t have any money, so the game is saying excess giving is bad, that kind of thing.

Where this becomes tricky is when you want the game to focus on a specific political issue or topic. For starters, playing a game where you’re a sweat shop worker does not sound particularly fun to anyone. You might get five to ten minutes out of the player, but not nearly enough to hammer home a point. The second is the incessant complaining people still make anytime a video game wants to be something more than just “pwew pwew pwew”. I have no idea if Six Days in Fallujah was any good or respectful towards the battle, but refusing to publish the game because of public outcry hardly settles the matter. Games can and should engage with modern topics precisely because they are capable of delivering such powerful messages. To that end, I decided to pick a game that was a) very fun and b) made a political point about the Iraq war.

Although a few titles have taken place in Iraq-like settings, such as Call of Duty 4, they don’t really have much to say except “war sucks”. Yet finding a game that made a profound comment about America’s behavior after 9/11 was not really that difficult. More than any other artistic medium, a video game critic with a sharp eye can divorce the narrative and game design with neither losing their potency. Raph Koster makes this point literally in A Theory of Fun by explaining how you make Tetris be about the Holocaust. You just make the blocks be shaped like bodies going into an oven. The behavior that the game’s rules induce, efficiently organizing the blocks to maximize space and score points, suddenly becomes very disturbing with a simple graphic change.

So all you have to really do is find a game whose design induces the kind of behavior you’re seeing in the real world, then swap out the narratives. You can’t just replace it with anything, the reality and the narrative have to resemble one another. Think of it like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Arc with the bag of sand and the gold statue. You just swap them back and forth, making the argument that they are interchangeable, by showing how the behavior of the game design matches with the new narrative you’re imposing.

The fact that I can match a game's design & plot to a current event speaks volumes.


Simon said...

Well now I know at least one person will like my chapter on editorial games when it comes out. The Civ/Sim City difference is something I've been thinking a lot about, because in the Civ games they're transparent about the calculations the game is making when you take on any tech/cultural advancement. The complaint about Sim City was that it was a black box. So you can see how Civilization is a more properly "journalistic" simulation, because it exposes its bias. I'm not gonna give away other examples and conclusions I came to (tl;dr). Next time we hang out we should talk a lot about Six Days in Fallujah and its effects on the relationship between enthusiast gaming press and the idea of current-issues gaming in the mainstream.

Awesome TIE Fighter write-up. Now I need to add replaying that to my plans to play Red Faction: Guerrilla and think about playing the insurgent.

Simon said...

BTW, I'm also still trying to work in your defense of political re-skinning from awhile back into the chapter. Might have you as a counterpoint to Frasca, which is tough because he's so damn good.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Thanks man, it's still a blast to play. Hopefully they'll re-release it onto STEAM.

Bounce me a link or tell me the name of the book and I'll look it over. All arguments have flaws, just not ones that necessarily help a case.