Chungking Espresso

Molleindustria’s McDonald’s Game

Posted in Game Analysis, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on December 11, 2008

(upcoming post for http://jag.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/ – please email me if you want to link this, because I need to publish it on the JAG blog and redirect traffic to that site before you do so)

Sitting in McDonald’s on the morning following a night where I stayed up until 2:00am playing Molleindustria’s McDonald’s game instead of sleeping because I’d been too drunk and angry from a bad football game to sleep, I was more angry at McDonald’s for switching out their breakfast menu at 11:00 am­ than for corrupting my youth. Something that Molleindustria never mentions is the fact that all McDos have free wireless internet. This is perhaps not worth noting if you live in a concret­e jungle or have enough money to pay for internet service at Starbucks, but in smaller towns McDo and Dairy Queen are some of the only places people can go to get free web access. I’ll take one more cheap shot here before getting serious: every time I stay in Europe for an extended period of time, I end up eating at McDo at least once a day. Why? Because McDonald’s will give me a free soda and infinite refills if I buy a sandwich and fries. If I went anywhere else, I could be paying upwards of four Euros for each such cup of fizzy goodness. Also, this is what McDonald’s looks like in Europe:

1240783744_d39be5d923.jpgAs you will see below, I don’t think Molleindustria’s McDo game is a bad game by any stretch. It does what it sets out to do remarkably well, and I wouldn’t go into such depth to analyze a game if I didn’t love it on some level. What I want to show is how a journalist working under a discipline of verification (getting the facts right) would see this game. My goal is to use the following observations to help teach potential future newsgame developers how to carry a tradition of verification into their ludic work – if being taken seriously by news journalists is even important to them (which it might not be, for understandable reasons).

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The game starts out calmly: you have to buy up plots of land in South America in order to grow soy and raise cattle. This quickly infringes on a nearby city and the rainforest, and eventually the player must deforest and despoil in order to maintain a steady profit. At the time of the game’s release this was an actual practice of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Greenpeace and others raised so much fuss about it that in mid-2006 McDonalds agreed to cease Amazon deforestation for soy production. Off to a good start; we can see some change being enacted by the combined cultural influence efforts from Molleindustria and like-minded activist groups.

We can observe some mis-steps in the next section. Molleindustria here allows the player to manage a feed and slaughter factory for cows. The object is to grow the cows quickly and to incinerate them if they develop mad cow or become ill from poor feeding. Molleindustria ignores the fact that McDonald’s was one of the first large corporations to press for humane slaughter from their meat suppliers. Temple Grandin, an autistic savant working for McDonald’s whose passion was easing meat stock into the afterlife,

“designed this system herself. The cows walk into the plant single file, up a curved ramp–she says curves comfort cattle, it makes them think they’re going back home. Then, as they’re moseying along, the animals ease onto a conveyor (they don’t even seem to notice), a moving harness cradles their stomachs and ribs, and lifts them gently off the floor. Suddenly, a man presses a machine between the next cow’s eyes, there’s a pop, and a retractable bolt shoots into the steer’s brain; and the animal slumps, silently. Grandin says when she started these audits a few years ago; the workers who shoot the bolts were missing, a lot. In fact, federal inspectors cited this slaughterhouse for skinning animals that were still alive, although Excel executives disputed the charges. On this day, the slaughterhouse gets a perfect score.”

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Anyone who’s read a newspaper during a Mad Cow or Foot & Mouth Disease crisis knows that you kill an infected animal with a bolt gun and then quarantine the entire herd. McDonald’s has never been shown to have violated this procedure, so I don’t know why Molleindustria uses the charged “mad cow” to illustrate dealing with disease in a cattle factory. The problem with adding questionable materials to the animal feed is more complex, and it takes an understanding of meat trade between the EU and the US in the past six years to grasp completely (http://www.organicconsumers.org/Toxic/hormone_beef_europe.cfm).We can discount the “industrial waste” option as humor, I hope, because either it’s hyperbolic comic flair or a misinterpretation of the use of sewage sludge as “organic compost” on some American farms.

The criticism of rBGH use in this game is much more honest. This has been a contentious issue in American food production for awhile now, leading to the aforementioned ban on US beef in the EU. I have firsthand food retail experience on this matter, because only this year did Starbucks stop using milk tainted by rBGH. I had a male roommate who actually claimed that drinking too much milk as a child caused him to develop lactating breasts, but I suspect that his claim is half imagination and half XXY genetics. The problem here isn’t so much McDonald’s use of hormones in their cattle feed, but in the FDA’s staunch approval of its usage despite research done in the EU (remember that Molleindustria is an Italian company). I totally agree that this is adequate enough of a controversy to support its implementation in the game.

I think the McDonald’s store segment suffers simply from a lack of personal experience by the staff of Molleindustria in the workplace of fast food chains. This could even be another instance of the US/EU divide. Many states are “right to work” states. A retail manager can fire an employee for any reason (other than race, creed, etc). Because this has been passed in legislation, without being overturned at the national level, a worker’s rights organization has no recourse to protest this outside of lobbying government officials. For all the states that aren’t “right to work,” there’s the simple fact that if a manager sees an employee spitting in food (which is what they do in the McDo game) there’s no reason to fear rebuttal for firing said employee. The disgruntled employee is the one in trouble here, because he’ll probably never be able to get another corporate retail job (ie, the ones with health benefits for full-time employees) after being fired for food contamination. Also, the game mechanic of either chiding or rewarding an employee to make them more happy or productive, and only being able to do either of these actions once before firing an employee, doesn’t come anywhere close to constructing the actual practices used to influence workplace morale.

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The final segment is the most problematic for me, because doing my preliminary Internet research I couldn’t find a single substantiated claim that McDonald’s bribes health, environmental protection, or government officials. One McDonald’s executive did accept bribes from a Chinese cattle supplier in 2007, but this was a year after the game was made and isn’t what Molleindustria is talking about at all. The idea that bribing a health official would even make a dent in the already negative public opinion of McDo products is ludicrous. The same can be said for the effects of bribing a single government environmental protection enforcer (on the issue of deforestation, for instance). Unless one can verify that McDonald’s has bought the entire Environmental Protection Agency of this country or of a South American nation, then a journalistic game developer shouldn’t make game mechanics like this. The ad department that develops marketing strategies based on appealing to children or manipulating packaging to be reminiscent of the food pyramid are apt and effective by contrast. I think more emphasis should’ve been placed here than on the tenuous bribing scenario.

What’s the upshot of all this? Molleindustria’s work here is important, and its a brilliant model for pointed journalistic game criticism of particular companies in their manifold offenses. The problem is the uneven attention to verification and nuance in various game segments. I’m proposing a model based on Alberto Cairo’s abstraction practice in infovisualization work to deal with covering aspects of a game like the McDonald’s game when the verification work simply can’t be done. Let’s take a look at Ian Bogost’s Oil God game. Why can’t I criticize this game on the same grounds? Certainly one can’t verify that a deity is responsible for causing wars and disasters in oil-producing countries and their importers in order to drive up the price of a gallon of crude. But Bogost has abstracted where he can’t point fingers. Certainly this game plays off popular liberal opinion (and substantiated historical evidence) that the United States, through the CIA, has fomented civil war and supplied weapons to antagonistic nations in order to create opportunities for US companies to move into a disordered nation and grab up oil contracts. But Bogost doesn’t even go this far. He allows the player to explore the controversy without necessarily alienating staunch pro-American-business-and-government players.
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I think this is important when one desires to persuade a player than there might be a problem with the way, for instance, that the world economy works. The game allows for different levels of interpretive work in the player. Molleindustria’s McDonald’s game doesn’t, and it also stands on the questionable verification grounds that I mentioned throughout the article. So, by all means, form a game development company and do important work like Molleindustria at going after corrupt corporations. Or integrate a unit like this into your media holdings if you’re a news provider. But remember to keep the discipline of verification intact when you construct simulations like this game. And if you can’t verify something that you want to include in the game in order to deepen the controversy and visibility of the problem, practice a method of abstraction (as Bogost does) and allow interpretive depth to do the work for you.

In my post on choice in newsgames I note that I see Oiligarchy as a major step forward for Molleindustria, and I’m sure somebody will eventually write a proper analysis of that game on this blog.

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