…we can imagine ways to fix Monopoly – either rewarding players who are behind to keep them within a reasonable distance of the leaders, or making progress more difficult for rich players. Or course – this might impact the game’s ability to recreate the reality of monopoly practices – but reality isn’t always “fun”.
MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research
Hunicke, LeBlanc y Zubek, 2004
Game criticism always goes back to the question of what’s the purpose of games. The answer has to be complex because not every game has the same goal, and different players look for different things (sometimes in the same games).
For common sense, there is no complexity to it: the purpose of all games is to produce fun, and the player is always looking for new ways to escape from their mundane reality. Sooner or later one encounters different forms of this escapist idea as a justification for criticism being unnecessary, since criticism often explores the juncture where games and reality are more closely related. Criticism is then left in the awkward position of arguing that many games couldn’t care less if their players are having fun, which is true yet counterintuitive.
The MDA framework is a curious example of the search for a middle ground: the purpose of all games is fun, but fun in this framework is a much broader concept than what the word usually means. Thus, less exciting games can be narratively fun, or produce expressive fun, or whichever of the eight or more types of fun there might be. More curious still, this supposedly middle ground can’t stretch far enough to include such a traditional game as Monopoly (Parker Brothers, 1935).
Since its earliest version in The Landlord’s Game (Elizabeth Magie, 1903), whose original author took decades to be recognized for her work, the purpose of Monopoly is to represent the negative aspects of monopolistic practices, thanks to which people who amass wealth early on make progress impossible for anyone else. For some reason, the MDA framework does not propose the existence of a georgist fun, or fun derived from better comprehending the world through a ludic model. It simply states Monopoly is not fun, and even more, it isn’t fun because it imitates the reality it wants to recreate so well.
The truth is, for many games, fun is a secondary goal. Every time I have to illustrate this point my attention focuses on Paolo Pedercini’s work.
Newsgames and Procedural Rhetoric
In 2003, the Italian Paolo Pedercini started his project of anti-establishment games under the name of Molleindustria. His games featured traditional or else very simple mechanics and referenced political issues or recent news through their graphics and texts (placing himself in the quasi-genre of newsgames, even though Paolo avoids that term for reasons we’ll see later on):
- Tamatipico (2003) is a virtual pet for maximizing an exploited worker’s productivity while stopping him from going on strike;
- Tuboflex (2003) is a bunch of minigames about an exploited worker’s many occupations in a future where travel between workplaces has been reduced to seconds;
- Orgasm Simulator (2003) is a game about faking orgasms, and more generally about the control that society exercises over female sexuality;
- Queer Power (2004) uses fighting mechanics to represent a sexual encounter between two people with fluid sexualities;
- McDonald’s Videogame (2006) and Oiligarchy (2008) use business managing mechanics to represent several aspects of nefarious transnational business;
- Operation: Pedopriest (2007) is a game about protecting the Vatican’s image by covering up child abuse, and it caused the author some problems with the Italian Parliament;
- Faith Fighter (2008) uses fighting mechanics to make gods and prophets battle each other while, in the background, chaos consumes the nations that use them as an excuse to go to war, and it caused the author some smaller problems with the current Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which resulted in Faith Fighter 2 (2009).
In the world of videogames, most of this period was dominated by theories such as the MDA framework in the more intellectual circles, and by shallow escapist fantasies in the rest of the conversation. More strongly then than now, approaching (some) political issues was considered an acceptable yet marginal practice. Even today, the subject of a game and its relation with society are valued below their gameplay, design, and mechanics.
Even in the sphere of narrative games, emotional impact and character building are valued above ideological content. In this climate, the strongest value newsgames could ever have was their novelty. The thing about novelty is that after a while time goes by.
Alongside the last newsgames on the list, Paolo began developing political games of another kind, using the resource that would eventually define most of his work – procedural rhetoric.
Defined around those years by the academics Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca (who called it “simulation rhetoric”), procedural rhetoric is the use of a game’s rules to illustrate an argument about how the world works. A traditional newsgame represents only an agent’s superficial actions, while implementing procedural rhetoric would incorporate to its rules the motivations and consequences of these actions, and the dynamics between the player-controlled agent and the other main agents of the simulated system.
When releasing Tax Evaders (2013), which is much more recent yet more representative of this early stage, Paolo himself offered the following explanation in self-critical tone:
[Tax Evaders] doesn’t take into account that the meaning of a game emerges from the complex, often ambiguous, interplay between the narrative/visual “surface” and the underlying game mechanics.
Rule systems are meaningful or have, at least, certain biases. There are aspects of the Space Invaders’ gameplay that can’t be changed by simply replacing sprites: the conflict is a Manichean good vs evil one, the enemy is foreign, and the only way to confront the invasion is by using military force. In his book Persuasive Games Ian Bogost notes how these specific characteristics are consistent with the conservative ideological frame (taxation as theft, government as external entity…), but they can hardly support a progressive, non militaristic, non reductionist argument. Different ideas require different forms.
Months after releasing Faith Fighter, then, Molleindustria published The Free Culture Game (2008), subtitled “a playable theory”. The player’s mission is “to protect free knowledge and liberate all the consumers from the domain of the market”. Instead of taking traditional mechanics for protecting and liberating but replacing princesses, treasure chests and dragons for knowledge, consumers and markets, Paolo developed an interactive model for the commodification of knowledge.
The market copyrighting ideas and the player offering resistance in The Free Culture Game
The player controls a light blue cursor to push knowledge with (in the form of yellow light bulbs) and her goal is twofold: to help knowledge flow among the free people, and to block the market from copyrighting it and selling it for its passive consumption. We’re talking procedural rhetoric when the meaning of the game can be found in none of its rules in isolation, but in the dynamics that emerge from these rules interacting in real time.
One rule in The Free Culture Game, for example, is that the green people in the free zone produce a block of knowledge every once in a while, and another rule is that the market every once in a whille sucks knowledge for itself. Isolated, these rules are almost neutral. When they interact in the game, they represent a system where the market is a parasite that produces nothing and the totality of a society’s intellectual activity comes from the creative community.
In a traditional newsgame, the market would attack the people in the free zone and it would transform them into passive consumers. Here, instead, everything is more systematic: the market dries the free zone out of knowledge, making it harder for the player to distribute it, making it easier for the people in the free zone to get tired and move to the gray circle representing the market. The market still produces passive consumers, but it does so indirectly, and the player can see how this works in real time.
Of course it all depends on the framing. A more conservative developer could as easily have made a game where knowledge is produced by the market, or where the market produces wealth and the free people squanders it. Procedural rhetoric reveals now more than ever that games can be not just better or worse, they can also be more right or more wrong.
In August, Paolo Pedercini came to Buenos Aires to talk about his newsgames for a conference about journalism and technology, during which he repeatedly stated that what he does is not newsgames, and I had the occasion of telling him how fondly I remember the first time I played his next “playable theory”, Kosmosis (2009). The player controls a red dot picking up blue dots in order to attack green squares. The visual presentation evoques space war games, but the player’s attack is not something that shoots out of her avatar, but a crushing ball her avatar turns into by fusing with the collected blue dots.
The revolutionary vanguard accumulating forces, defeating two centers of power and then dispersing in Kosmosis
The intro texts are direct about how to interpret the narrative content: the red dot is the revolutionary vanguard, the blue dots are the proletariat, the green squares are capitalism, the attacks you make are strikes. As in The Free Culture Game, here too the different rules relate to each other causing statements on how social revolt works:
- strikes can fail on first impact,
- defeated capitalist entities turn out to be proletariat who can add their strength to the cause,
- even successful strikes end up dispersing,
- organizing them again takes time.
The dominant rhetorical turn in Kosmosis is the way the player increasingly loses control over their actions. The game’s site describes it in overly mechanical terms (“the agency of the player is reduced as game progresses”) and the game’s intro text does so in overly poetic terms (“don’t try to dominate the swarm, become the swarm”). It’s only by winning the game that we experience what it really means: the revolution ends up in the hands of the space proletariat and the actions of the vanguard, being successful, become irrelevant.
The biggest limitation in these first encounters between Molleindustria and procedural rhetoric is that they only describe victories of the oppressed. His initial newsgames showed agents that could win or lose, but the underlying systems remained unchanged. By representing whole systems, the victories in The Free Culture Game and Kosmosis are bound to represent revolutionary utopias. While the effect is much more optimistic, their positive outcomes are misleading because they show problems that have been solved, the kind that don’t really exist in the real world.
His next playable theory (though there were plenty games of other kinds in the middle) was Leaky World (2010), created in a few days following the first massive leaks from WikiLeaks. The game is built as an interactive representation of Julian Assange’s essay Conspiracy as Governance, whose full text accompanies the game (right after a preface by Paolo about the main flaws of the text and a reaffirmation of the text’s value in spite of them).
This time, the player controls the bad guy. A red line represents the secret connections between the political elites of the world, located at points over a world map. The goal of the game is establishing enough connections that the elites’ political agendas become common sense, but the most connected nodes become unstable and, if they aren’t cut from the rest of the net in time, they suffer information leaks (represented as pipe leakage, with links to real WikiLeaks related news stories that the player can click on and read).
The world’s elites containing an information leak in Uganda in Leaky World
There is a sort of utopia if the leaks go out of control and the elites are defeated, but the “correct” course of the game according to its mechanics ends in total control of the world. The lesson in The Free Culture Game and Kosmosis, in putting us in the role of an agent of change, is that the world can only get better through our deliberate action. The lesson in Leaky World is that the world can only be as fucked as it is through the deliberate action of the people in power. In Leaky World, the elites’ ideological hegemony is not the neutral “natural” state that a hero comes to correct, but something that can only be reached through a conspiratorial effort on the player’s part.
Now then, that fun is not the main goal of these games does not mean it is nowhere in the list of priorities. In spite of the shift in approach, these first three playable theories still follow many correct principles of game design and gameplay balance for producing enjoyable experiences.
The Free Culture Game has a simple economy of creation and consumption of knowledge, so much so that both agents could continue their struggle indefinitely. Kosmosis is programmed to adjust to the player’s skill, so it offers less of a challenge if she has any trouble with the controls. Leaky World makes us build a strategy for establishing more connections than the ones we cut, and it is balanced so finding that balance will take us enough time that we are entertained but not so much that we get frustrated.
Paolo ended up criticising this kind of neatness, since it fosters the fallacy that the systems represented are well balanced and tend to equilibrium in real life. In his writing, he favored rupture with supposedly correct design principles and suggested the creation of new principles:
A new game aesthetic has to be explored: one that revels in problem-making over problem-solving, that celebrates paradoxes and ruptures, that doesn’t eschew broken and dysfunctional systems because the broken and dysfunctional systems governing our lives need to be unpacked and not idealized.
Videogames and the Spirit of Capitalism (Paolo Pedercini, 2014)
Molleindustria’s most ostensibly broken game is TradeMarkVille (2014). Curiously enough, the subject of the game is a political dispute inside the videogames world.
In 2013, the developers of Candy Crush (King, 2012) were victim to multiple clones of their hit game, and they decided to fight them by copyrighting the word “candy”, bringing about this unsettling situation of a company owning a common noun and maybe legally attacking any person who might want to use it for naming their original work. King eventually abandoned these efforts, but not before the indie community reacted by organizing the Candy Jam, an event for creating games with the word “candy” in the title.
In reference mainly to this affair, TradeMarkVille set out to simulate a satirical scenario in which thousands of companies (players) fight over ownership of common nouns and basic concepts of language. The game consisted of a set of basic copyrighted nouns (apple, bird, edge, monopoly, queen) composed of their English name and a little picture. Like companies dodging legal issues, players would make up new names for them avoiding the copyrighted forms.
The game allowed players to both make up neologisms for the concepts, and try to guess the concept behind a neologism made up by someone else. For example, according to the record of last successful guesses in the game, a fox can be called a “slycatdog”, an octopus can be a “bigsquid” and death can be “suicideisaform”. Every time a person guessed the meaning behind a neologism, both her and the person who had submitted it earned a star, and the neologism became copyrighted and was banned from the game from that point on.
The meaning of the work was not revealed in a brief play session, instead, it took its time. Days or weeks after release, all obvious neologisms had become unusable, and the references now being used were increasingly obscure, till language broke completely.
TradeMarkVille had a second season in which I didn’t participate, with new concepts, but the result was similar. The moral is a warning that businesses control over language destroys its creative capacity. The game was designed to become unplayable with time.
An Original Language
However, Paolo’s article about an aesthetic “that celebrates paradoxes and ruptures” is less about TradeMarkVille than it is about his next playable theory, To Build a Better Mousetrap (2014), a game that seems to encapsulate all his previous work.
Like McDonald’s Videogame and Oiligarchy, To Build a Better Mousetrap is a proper business management game with a sinister twist, though retaining the traditional use of colorful palettes and cute characters. Like The Free Culture Game and Kosmosis, it exposes the elaborate interactions between the moving parts of a complex system in a succinct manner and through its dynamics by applying a procedural rhetoric. Like Leaky World, it puts us in the shoes of an exploitative entity so we don’t see it as a simple agent of suffering, but instead understand the ideological goals to accomplish for which exploitation must be used.
At that point in his career, Paolo seems so confident in his capacity to convey meaning that he avoids detailed explanations of the rules and what they represent, opting instead for a 10 second semi-tutorial and a system that explains itself in the very course of a playing session.
To Build a Better Mousetrap’s tutorial
The game recreates a fairly abstract contemporary capitalist entrepreneurship. The critique of a specific manifestation of the problem, so common in his earlier work, is replaced by the offering of a new way of seeing how the problem works.
A screen split in three is proves enough to represent intellectual work, manual labor, salary distribution, repression in the service of corporate interest, the reserve army of labor, strike, automatization of manual labor, internal sabotage, product optimization in response to shifting market demand, and even problems as new as automatization of intellectual work.
Workers getting their salary in To Build a Better Mousetrap
The contrast between the complexity of the dynamics and the near absence of explanatory texts is a bold gesture. Games without explanations tend to be simple, and when they’re not it’s because their mechanics are so conventional that targetted players are expected to already understand how they work.
Avoiding explanations in a complex game with original mechanics, then, suggests the beginning of a new tradition, of a language of videogames relatively free of current restrictions.
New Ideas, New Forms
The work of Molleindustria, both the games and the complementary writings, is admirable and leaves us with a few lessons.
The first one is that all mechanics convey meaning. After learning what happens to someone who’s suffered serious injury, we go back to a conventional fighting game and we wonder what does it mean that the match ends when someone is defeated and we don’t get to see what happens later. After finding a management game that shows the reserve army of labor, we go back to a restaurant sim and wonder what does it mean that the reserve army of labor is nowhere to be found. All games mean something, especially the ones pretending they don’t mean anything.
The second lesson is, games that decide to openly talk about politics are not a separate genre, but they cut across the whole medium. TradeMarkVille is played with patience, by clicking a button and reflecting on the meaning behind a concept, while Kosmosis has us travelling through space and charging against enemies. Any attempt to group them together the same way we group platformers is bound to fail. This means that not even the most experimental game nor the simplest fighting game are exempt from commenting on the reality around them.
The third one is that political commentary is a valid goal for a game, and that by playing with a game’s rules we can imagine different worlds or understand ours better. Remember the MDA framework’s point that Monopoly could be more fun if it obstructed progress for the richest player? One hundred years before that, Elizabeth Magie’s original design for The Landlord’s Game already contemplated an alternative set of rules, not necessarily for the game to be more fun but to prove that taxation could alleviate the burden of monopolistic practices.
However, the most important lesson in Paolo’s work is that games have a huge potential if we decide to follow this path of exploration. Reading Conspiracy as Governance is quite less attractive than playing Leaky World, and yet both experiences convey the same general concept. To Build a Better Mousetrap, for its interactivity and synthesis and design quality, speaks more clearly about the economic function of the prison system and the adaptation to market demands than any introductory text to Economic Analysis or restaurant management sim out there.
The point is not only that videogames can represent reality and abandon every once in a while the pretentions of an exclusively escapist art. The point is they are especially equipped for doing so, and if we fail to take advantage of the resources they provide us with for facing reality, we’re wasting tools that we are not going to find anywhere else.