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Gaming the system
The brave new world of the latest propaganda tool
Related Links 

Ian Bogost’s blog

Howard Dean for Iowa Game

Take Back Illinois game

Close Combat: First to Fight

The official game site.

Street Survivor

 The trailer.

Steer Madness

Award-winning and PETA-endorsed vegan game based on GTA.

Confronting teenage homelessness

You are a homeless girl living on the streets of Melbourne, Australia. You start the game next to a dumpster in an alley. The city looks as lonely as a nightmare: pedestrians tell you to piss off, the rain’s soaking your clothes, and the only person who offers any help is the drug dealer. If you don’t keep moving, the stepfather who drove you away will find you and drag you home. But if you persevere, you find help in the form of a food van — as well as real-world information aimed at the teens who will be playing the game.

"This girl has had to leave home because of domestic violence," Street Survivor creator Kirsty Baird explains, "so she goes into the city to look for her sister, who left home before her. And as soon as she hits the streets and gets into the city, she starts to have all sorts of other pressures placed on her."

An independent filmmaker who works in community cultural development in Melbourne, Baird based the game on a film that she made about teen homelessness. Her team received funding for the project from the Australian Film Commission and the City of Melbourne, totaling $50,000 (Australian) over the past two years, and she hopes to finish a demo this month. The target audience for the game will be homeless teens who could play the game at youth centers and other hangouts — but as an adult who’s never been on the streets, I found the rough demo that she sent me compelling, and extremely sad.

The first dilemma you face is drug addiction: taking pills gives you a boost of speed, which literally and metaphorically helps you escape your stepfather, but which also leads to a drug habit. If Baird gets funding to work on more levels, she’ll also make the player search for a free blanket, learn to use syringe dispensers, deal with the police, and possibly even resort to prostitution — although "that’s an extreme example of something that’s ethically difficult to deal with [in the game]."

As Baird explains, "[The objective] is not to say, ‘You’re bad for doing this, this is wrong,’ but to say, ‘This is a reality of your experience.’ ... It’s called ‘harm minimization’ basically. I’m going to show you in this game world that there’s ways of getting out of this situation, that there’s help that’s available to you in this scary, big nasty alienating city. If you’re persistent and you have some courage and guts and you keep exploring, you will find those solutions."


Forget cable news, the Drudge Report, or those MassPIRG kids who hover outside your T stop: some of the most powerful political messages can now be found in video games. From Israelis debating the Gaza Strip pullout in Wild West Bank to Americans running a political campaign or gunning down Osama bin Laden in a liquor store, the Web is filling up with virtual activities that push a variety of agendas. Even commercial games are playing politics: you don’t get any more mainstream than LucasArts, whose Mercenaries lets you fight a nuclear North Korea before the real-life six-nation talks have even fizzled.

Done right, video games have a competitive edge over older, more-familiar media when it comes to pushing a message. They can hold our attention for longer than any TV spot, blog post, or Daily Show bit, giving us more time to absorb information, test our beliefs, and empathize with a point of view. And in media, it seems, nothing is more addictive than video games.


After spending the dot-com ’90s at an advertising firm, developing "advergames" for clients like Lexus.com, Ian Bogost took his first crack at political gaming in late 2003, when he approached the famously Web-friendly Howard Dean campaign. They liked his ideas and settled on a premise that would reach out to potential campaign volunteers and show them how they could work for Dean. The Howard Dean for Iowa Game, which is still live at www.deanforamericagame.com, casts you as a volunteer in wintry Iowa leading up to the January caucus. You win by passing out leaflets, waving placards, and knocking on doors (if you can get past the wild dogs in the yard) — and in a clever example of viral marketing, you can score points in the game by passing along the real-life e-mail addresses of your friends.

Bogost recalls that around 100,000 people played Dean for Iowa before the Iowa caucus, but based on the feedback he received, the game — like the campaign itself — focused too much on the grassroots phenomena at the expense of Dean’s positions and policies.

"You could take Dean’s name off of it and put on any other candidate you choose — Kucinich, Bush, it doesn’t matter," says Bogost, an assistant professor of literature, communication, and culture at Georgia Institute of Technology. But, he says, thanks to that feedback, "I usually say that we had more insight into the problems of the campaign than [its managers] did, one or two months before they realized it."

That experience informed his next election-year game: Take Back Illinois (www.takebackillinois.game.com). Praised as "possibly one of the best political games I’ve ever seen" by politics, technology, and culture writer Clive Thompson, it was sponsored by Illinois House GOP leader Tom Cross and the Illinois House Republican Organization to support a slate of candidates for state legislature. (Yes, he switched sides: "it’s not really about the parties for me, it’s about what kind of a message are they trying to send out"). Take Back Illinois challenges you to make strategic decisions on policy, from medical-malpractice reform to economic development. It looks and plays like a stripped-down SimCity, with miniature people marked by happy and sad faces, a menu where you can adjust the budget, and a calendar that keeps on ticking. I haven’t come close to beating the game — I let public health slip below 20 percent, which probably means that everybody in the state caught bird flu — but if you’re a political junkie with a jones for malpractice reform, this is much more engaging than a bumper sticker.

"We were trying to ask, ‘what would it mean to represent public policy as a set of rules, rather than as a diatribe, or as a sound bite on a podium?’ " says Bogost, who says the game attracted 100,000 players. "The turn that we’ve taken since then is to try to get people not just to be brainwashed into a specific position on the issue, but rather to understand, ‘This is what I think about this issue.’ "

When not working for clients, Bogost, along with co-blogger Gonzalo Frasca, runs www.watercoolergames.org, an influential blog about "video games with an agenda." But he’s also developing a few projects of his own — like a mobile game that simulates the problems with airport security. "It’s a game about civil rights, and [about] some of the information that the government doesn’t want us to know, and has in fact classified, about just how poorly the [Transportation Security Administration] has been performing," says Bogost, who built it for mobile devices so that "you could play while you’re in line at airport security." He and his Georgia Tech colleague Michael Mateas — last seen in the Phoenix in a review of the interactive drama Façade, which he co-created (See "Gaming," Arts and Entertainment, July 2.) — are also working on artificial intelligence that can articulate different perspectives on the same issue. To keep it interesting, they want to start with abortion.


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Issue Date: September 23 - 29, 2005
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