Gaming History

The makers of Peacemaker have announced a new mini-game platform called “Play the News“.

At first glance it looks awfully familar: you’re cast as a decision maker, you have advisors, you make decisions. Fairly basic gameplay, and in fact it was done to good effect twenty years ago.

However, “Play the News” is actually more Facebook than Realpolitik – none of the decisions you make are evaluated, save a paragraph’s evaluation of the possible impactof your choice. Instead, you’re then asked to create a profile, where you can… gain levels in issues advocacy.

You can advocate what choice you think *should* be made on the games’ forums.

And this is sort of at the core of why I’m not really that happy with this, despite this supposedly being right up my newswonky alley. I think what bothers me the most about all this is that the game maker essentially has abdicated any responsibility for making a decision. Part of this is part of the rush towards embracing social networking: let’s let the Internet decide how issues will resolve communally, using clustered intelligence! It’s worked well so far, and I look forward to the debates between Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich later this year.

Except that the best “serious games” have always had designer advocacy. The best, Hidden Agenda referred to above, had a hidden agenda that would club you over the head: Nicaragua, er, Chimerica was under attack by right-wing dictators and American manipulation. Following the left wing path would result in the collapse of your economy, but also triumphantly bringing America up on charges for paying Contras to mine your harbors. Following the right wing path resulted in a dystopia of starving campesinos and laughing death squads. Then again, in 1988, that was the left’s view of Nicaragua. (Sadly, there is no event in Hidden Agenda for the leader of the NLP to be brought up on pedophilia charges.) And it made for a very challenging game: the tendency of the usual Western liberal to thread a middle way would result in a rapid education in the ineffectiveness of moderation between Scylla and Charibdis.

A more modern example would be “World Without Oil“.

Like “Play The News”, “World Without Oil” is less of a game (in fact, like other ‘alternate reality games‘, there’s no actual ‘game’ present at all), but unlike it, it was more of a participatory LARP. Participants were encouraged to “file reports” from how their community would handle a world where gas tanks slowly dried up; the game masters (alternate reality game veterans) then fed off those reports and built them into the next week’s updates. The advocacy here isn’t quite as hamfisted as in “Hidden Agenda” but still present – encouraging participants to see how our current world is built on a tenuous petroleum base.

If you’re going to make games about current issues – and you should, because game creation and game playing is a powerful form of communication, teaching, and advocacy – then, by God, go all the way. Don’t be afraid to press an agenda. Few will be offended to learn that you have one; having opinions on important issues is part of being an educated adult, after all. And the Internet is an open platform for everyone to argue that advocacy.

Where “Play The News” would have been a better title, I think, would have been to (a) actually have content creators postulate the impact of the solutions visitors choose, and most importantly, (b) throw open the content creation tools to everyone. If you really want to embrace “the social networking thing”, than you have to have the users bring the focus of the discussion, rather than being an essentially inactive audience. Then you don’t have to worry about the blowback from posting a game where, say, users who choose Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee have to watch him get trounced by John McCain. Instead, let the users themselves post their decision trees, and explain how they got there. That seems a lot more interesting to me than levelling up my skills in clicking on Flash menus.

Then again, I’m biased. Twenty five years ago, I kept myself busy throwing the Soviets out of Holland.

You’d think historical gaming would have improved since. At least GDW had rules that NATO wouldn’t use chemical weapons first, instead of throwing it open to a user poll.