Chungking Espresso

around the internet web 2

Posted in Gaming, Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on February 18, 2011

You know Tom Bissell? Perhaps you have read his book? Tom and I have a letter series up on Paste, moderated by Kirk Hamilton, on the subject of (what else?) writing about videogames.

 

Over at Brainy Gamer, Michael Abbott performed a short experiment to test our arguments from the opening chapter of Newsgames. Result? Success!

 

My first review for Kill Screen is going up soon; it’s about Solar Minotaur Rescue Frenzy. I play it a lot these days. There are also these two older columns that I never got around to linking:

1) why Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a better western game than Red Dead Redemption – “When a Bell Tolls”

2) why Call of Duty games need the infinite enemy spawn – “Popping Smoke”

 

Finally, I’ve been assigning and editing this semester’s posts for the Newsgames blog.

 

Enjoy,

xoxo

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Back to School

Posted in Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on August 30, 2010

September is here, so I’m back at school with plenty of exciting goings-on to share.

In mid-August I left my internship at area/code. The project I worked on most of the summer as a designer should be going into open beta soon, so I’ll post a link to it and share my postmortem when that happens. As it was a social game, I’ve spent most of my summer playing and thinking about social games. I attended the seminar at NYU where my academic mentor announced his critique of the form with Cow Clicker, and I listened to my game design mentor discuss his problems with and hopes for the genre on NPR. But I don’t know if I’m any closer to having a concrete opinion of them other than that I really don’t want to think about them anymore.

I now consider living and working in New York for a summer to be an absolute requirement for any aspiring game designer or academic. Frank Lantz and area/code act as a kind of magnet for game developers in the area. I spent most of my summer drinking, arguing, and playing Super Street Fighter IV with Mark Heggen and Kevin Cancienne of area/code, Charles Pratt, Rachel Morris, and Noah Sasso, C.J. Kershner of Kaos Studios, Ramiro Corbetta of Powerhead Games, and Andy Nealen of Hemisphere Games. New York is also filled with design teachers, like Eric Zimmerman and Colleen Macklin, who bring an unfettered exuberance to the study of games that you don’t see from many academics.

A few great folks left the city while I was there, but, according to Frank, “they’ll be back”: Mark Essen is building a game design program at UCLA, Scott Anderson moved to the Phoenix indie cluster to finish Shadow Physics, and Jesper Juul went back to Scandinavia to have a baby or something. The amount of learning and friendship I developed over this short period of time is unmatched by any other experience I’ve had since the beginning of my game studies.

With the impending confirmation of the NYU Game Center as a degree-granting body, and with the recent (totally deserved) attention lavished on the efforts of Babycastles to create a DIY arcade for the city, New York will likely be the Mecca for indie game development in the near future. I have mixed feelings about this, because I’m not entirely sure that I want the same LA/NY divide observed in the film industry to occur in the game industry. To that end, I’ll be writing a lot of nonsense this year about the need for Southern indie development along the Atlanta-Austin axis.

This semester I’m officially beginning as a digital media PhD student in the LCC department at Georgia Tech. I only have to take two classes, Media Theory and Culture & Cognition seminars, but I’ll be posting my writing assignments from those for anybody who’s interested. My personal research will likely revolve around the literacy, philosophy, and society of competitive gaming. To that end, I’ll be joining a competitive Halo Reach clan and hopefully attending e-sports tournaments (holler at me if you know anybody decent who’d like the idea of recruiting a soldier-ethnographer).

This semester also marks the beginning of a new phase of newsgames research. Ian Bogost’s studio here at Tech has partnered with the expressive intelligence studio at UC Santa Cruz (run by Michael Mateas of Façade fame) to work on an AI designed to convert local news stories into editorial games. We’ll be starting the News Games blog up again with the new crop of Master’s students here, focusing on our usual newsgame critique, deep readings of the graphical logics of arcade games, and local media issues. I’ll also be writing bi-monthly updates on the project at the PBS Idea Lab blog.

I haven’t scheduled all my conferences for the year, but at the moment I know of a few that I’ll be attending. At IndieCade I’ll be part of the artgames seminar along with Charles Pratt, Naomi Clark, and John Sharp. IndieCade also coincides with Brandon Boyer’s birthday, so you should probably be there. Ian, Bobby, and I will be at SEIGE, the Grace Hopper conference, and FutureMedia Fest to talk about our research and the Newsgames book (which releases in a month or so). I’m also planning on attending GDC for my first time this year, but I don’t yet know how I’m going to fund it.

I’ll be rebooting Rules of the Game in the coming weeks with less of an emphasis on reviews, and I’m going to try posting the notes I write while playing the games I play on this blog before developing them into full articles. When the Another Castle podcast comes back from its summer vacation, the first two interviews of the new season will be with me and Andy Nealen. I’ve also got a piece in the next issue of Kill Screen, my first attempt at pure games journalism. So much writing to do, and so much time do it: this is a nice place to be in. Thanks for reading!

Status Update

Posted in Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on May 10, 2010

Hey friends. Before you vomit: this isn’t one of those “sorry I’ve been away but I promise I’m back now and I’ll try really hard to write each week” things.

Haven’t written here in awhile, because I’ve been writing exclusively for Rules of the Game, editing all the work there, and sending out hundreds of emails to PR companies to get review copies for people. Eventually the writers there will be able to write more efficiently, and I’ll be able to let the other editors take over some of the heavy lifting, and I’ll be able to write here again. Currently I’m wrapping up the second part of my MUD memoir, an analysis of progression and weapon design in God of War III, and an analysis of the first week of a 12-player Neptune’s Pride session.

I’ve also been crunching on my research assistantship, which, this semester, mostly involved archiving all of our departmental thesis and dissertation bibliographies in Zotero, making a research blog for a partnership between the ACM and our department, and making a template for faculty blogs. I’ve become slightly better at PHP and a lot better at graphic design, though I doubt I’ll be using those skills in the near future.

This summer I’m doing two neat things: writing book chapters and working as a game design intern at Area/Code, the company founded by Frank Lantz. It’s in Chelsea (in Manhattan), and I’ll probably be living in Washington Heights near where my parents met in the late 70s. I’m excited to go up there, as I haven’t lived in New York since I was six. There are a lot of family members and childhood friends that I haven’t seen in a long while, and it will be good to reconnect with them and guilt them into buying me dinner. It will also be fun to finally test whether my Master’s education has taught me any skills necessary to actually design economically-viable games.

Frank doesn’t think simulations are arguments, or he doesn’t think games are simulations (I’m not sure which, maybe both), so it’ll be fun to split hairs with him and Charles all summer. I also want to get my initials on some of the arcade cabinets at NYU—mostly the ones that Jesper Juul and Frank have high scores on.

Toward the end of my stay, in August, it’s possible that I’ll be able to get copies of Newsgames to do a bit of an author lecture at a bookstore (my friend Ryan works at one somewhere in the city). The book chapters I’m working on are both for Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press, a kind of experiment in electronic peer review. One is an expansion of my article on Final Fantasy XIII (by the way, thank you again to everyone who’s been linking it around the web, and to those who’ve criticized it and helped make the next draft a lot tighter). The second is an article about Train, expanding my discussion of it toward the beginning of my thesis. It’s been a pleasure to email Brathwaite with questions and ideas for the piece.

I’m not bringing any of my game consoles up to New York, so I hope to finally catch up on every single indie game I downloaded on my Windows partition and never got around to playing.

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Newsgame, or Editorial Game?

Posted in Columns, Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on June 2, 2009

Continuing the thread on editorial games from my history, part one. Published simultaneously for Bogost’s News Games blog.

Author’s note: While I was finishing up this piece, Ian forwarded me an upcoming DiGRA paper by Michael Mateas and Mike Treanor of UC Santa Cruz on *roughly* the same subject (though they focus much more on further defining the shared qualities of both genres). It thus became difficult to round off the article without seeing almost every claim as an argument made against their position. I’m not going to reply directly to any of their assertions, nor am I going to include any further insights into the subject that I may have gleaned from reading their piece. When their paper is presented at DiGRA, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to contrast my definitional stance with theirs. We will be incorporating and replying to their article directly, and in long form, much later on down the road. Thanks for reading!

The line between “newsgame” and “editorial game” is fuzzy no matter how you slice it. Basically, our suggestion is that most games called “newsgames” don’t have the same intentions or goals as traditional reporting, or “the news,” but rather those of the op-ed piece: to persuade; therefore, we should label these digital opinion pieces as “editorial” rather than “news.” Most people are probably inclined to ignore the possible distinction, because there doesn’t seem to be enough proof that we need one in the first place (we can’t exactly place a finger on what a “properly journalistic” newsgame would look like, as Paolo Pedercini has pointed out to us before). By the end we will (hopefully) have a slightly better understanding of the relationship between editorial and newsmaking, as well as a firmer grasp on how procedural rhetoric is used in editorial games.

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Miguel Sicart provides a constraining set of attributes in our quest to find exact definitions for these terms. He claims that newsgames, like the news, should be “timely” and “ephemeral.” First we’ll address timeliness. Gonzalo Frasca was able to produce Madrid within 48 hours after the train bombings, and he made Kabul Kaboom within a few hours on an airplane trip. There’s also the example of Raid Gaza! that Ian recently wrote about, released only a few days after Israel’s most recent offensive. But in the same article, Ian shares his experience that it personally takes him at least two weeks to craft a quality newsgame, such as those he created for the Arcade Wire series. I’ve already hinted that I see the Arcade Wire games as more editorial than news (for obvious reasons, including the fact that they only sometime comment directly on a news event).

Perhaps one distinction between news and editorial game is that the latter isn’t bound by Sicart’s strict criterion of timeliness? Simplistic opinion pieces are easy to craft directly in the wake of a news event, but a more refined editorial stance requires time to develop and be iterated upon (much like a videogame). We could then see news and editorial games as developing along the rough timeline that Alberto Cairo provides for his infographics workflow: at first the important thing is to present all the facts to the reader (a newsgame proper), and over time more information is added and synthesized (the editorial game). In this light, we can see quickly-produced editorial games such as Hothead Zidane as strange, partially developed hybrids of the two genres: the game presents us with the basic fact of the headbutt and the red card (the news), as well as providing fleeting, unsubtle commentary on the shame that Zidane should be feeling for his actions (the editorial).

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Moving along, Frasca provides us with his own rough definition for the genre whose name he coined himself in a paper he presented to Vodafone. Frasca sees newsgames more as an extension of the editorial cartoon than the written op-ed; therefore, he cites the attractive and satirical flash games by Molleindustria as the pinnacle of the genre. Political cartoons hold a special place in Gonzalo’s heart, because the cartoons in French textbooks were the only thing that made secondary public school education tolerable for him. Just as public school takes itself “too seriously,” Frasca asserts that print journalism is too stolid for a new generation of readers—he posits this as one of the primary insights that led to the success of The Daily Show. This isn’t to say that the news isn’t serious business, but rather an indictment of a monolithic institution that has largely failed in adapting to contemporary trends in media distribution and tastes—largely because of what many perceive as its steadfast belief that what has worked in the past (or what has developed gravity through shared values over time) should continue to function unchanged into the future.

In Persuasive Games, Ian discusses the difference between “visual rhetoric” and “procedural rhetoric.” Procedural rhetoric is basically how a designer/programmer can use computational processes and tools to express an idea or persuade others. Comics are not procedural, so they fall wholly within the sphere of visual rhetoric – the study of how images persuade or express. Neither one of these rhetorics is inherently “stronger” than the other, but they do function differently enough for us to question the indiscriminate equation of political comics and newsgames. (Author’s note: This is exactly where the Mateas and Treanor piece shines most—it lays the groundwork for how we can break down editorial cartoons and adapt their thematic qualities and goals into procedural expression.) Right now we are reading a few books on the subject, which we will return to in the future once we understand thoroughly. For now, our biggest takeaway from Frasca’s excitement about the future of the genre (and the medium as a whole) is that procedural representation has the potential to speak directly to contemporary media consumers without taking itself too seriously—both newsgames and editorial games have the ability to tackle serious and disturbing issues playfully.

Returning to Sicart, I believe there’s reason to disagree with his criterion of ephemerality—the notion that a newsgame should be thrown away as easily as an article on the same subject. For instance, a newspaper story with the headline, “Tactical Missiles Strike Hospital”—essentially covering the same topic as September 12th—isn’t an artifact that one keeps around. September 12th, on the other hand, is a game that can be played time and again and used to reflect on future events. So before Raid Gaza! came out, I sat and watched the news of Israel’s latest offensive while playing September 12th. Something about putting the argument and the event into code has the chance to make it timeless. This appears to be another point at which we can distinguish editorial games and newsgames—perhaps a newsgame can be thrown out (or recycled, if we take one of Bartle’s suggestions to heart) with the paper, but an editorial bears numerous readings and reflections over time. In this way, we see that a good editorial game shares almost as much with documentary games such as JFK Reloaded as they do with quickly produced, ultra-shortform newsgames.

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Both Sicart and Frasca end up asserting that objectivity is not an explicit goal of what they call a newsgame (remember that, according to R+K, striving for objectivity is a fundamental tenant of journalism). For Frasca this seems to just be a working, practical method: newsgame creators care enough about on issue (read, they have a strong enough opinion about it) to spend their time working on these comparatively unprofitable ventures in order to both persuade/express and to develop the burgeoning genre. Sicart is considerably more specific in his explanation, and it stands to take a close look at his view of the “editorial line” in a game. For him, what the newsgame designer chooses to include and exclude determines the game’s editorial line. Bias is taken for granted in Frasca’s chosen model of the editorial cartoon, which never claims objectivity; however, in Sicart’s model—where the newsgame equates roughly to a news story—this privileging of bias conflates the functions of the “factual” news story and the op-ed, thus confusing possible distinctions between editorial games and newsgames.

What does it mean when Miguel Sicart says that “the editorial line” of a game is determined by what is included and excluded? It’s easy to state this, but somewhat harder to understand exactly how to design around the idea. Going back past Bogost’s explication of procedural rhetoric in Persuasive Games, we can look to what he writes in Unit Operations: simulation games are already about such a selection process of inclusion and exclusion.

When creating a simulation game, as opposed to an actual useable scientific model, one must understand that not every fact or possibility can be included when procedurally modeling a system or event. Instead of hard-coding each important aspect, the game programmer crafts algorithms that will, when generalized, create an impression of the system one hopes to represent. Specifics can be derived by tweaking the algorithms until the two systems match up even closer, but there will always be a “simulation gap” between the real system and the game system.

The goal of an editorial game creator would thus be to narrow the simulation gap as much as possible in order to convey their “line” on the issue, while a newsgame creator would strive to close the simulation gap in such a way that as little bias sneaks through as possible (for Sicart asserts that newsgames “do not persuade” or have “political interests”). For an example, let’s take a look at Frasca’s September 12th. The game generally works well as a political game, because it effectively delivers its argument against “tactical” bombing; however, as an editorial game one can see a gap in Frasca’s line. Essentially, one could read it as a call to military invasion—bombing creates more terrorists, and they’re not going away on their own, so a ground strike seems called-for. An admittedly unfair reductio ad absurdum such as this shows the difficulty in designing around the idea of exclusion and inclusion.

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Perhaps the key for an editorial game is to be as blatantly one-sided as possible? In the case of Raid Gaza!, almost everything is excluded: Palestinian terrorists’ reasons for shooting missiles at settlements and the motivations of rogue Israeli settlers—two of the many important problems ImpactGame’s Peacemaker attempts to explore—are not addressed at all. All that the player understands by the end of the experience is that Israel is using undue force and that the United States will seemingly never cease military and fiscal support for their efforts. The game carefully picks its fight and then plumbs the depths of possible, relevant consequences.

In either case, the “simulation fever” that Bogost warns us about in Unit Operations is just as likely to strike the players of newsgames and editorial games as it is the players of a work such as Sim City. For instance, the simulation gap between what I saw as actual McDonald’s business practices and the hilarious hyperbole of Molleindustria led to my somewhat negative reflections on playing the game. While it is by no means a goal to please everybody, another distinct line between newsgames and editorial games seems to be the level of inclusiveness sought (and earned) by the designer. News strives to present information as objectively as possible in order to reach the widest possible audience, while editorial refines its scope in order to persuade or inflame.

Thus, we’ve established three possible distinctions between newsgames and editorial games: limitations of timeliness, ephemerality, and the simulation gap (and the different ways to close it). I recognize that I’ve covered and justified these in unequal amounts, and I hope that if you have any detracting comments you’ll present them in a constructive manner so that we might move forward with more rigorous definitions in the future. Next time we’ll return to our history of the editorial game with an examination of the Arcade Wire series. Thanks for reading.

Readin’ the Paper for the Puzzlers

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on March 17, 2009

UPDATE: Now published here, with hyperlinks to all the sources!

Everybody knows now that eBay and Craigslist did a number on newspaper revenue. We’re told that newspaper producers were caught completely offguard by these online classifieds. One thing Ian wanted to know is: what would happen to the circulation of a newspaper if its game-playing constituency also migrated to the Internet?

This leads to a tacit first question: what number of newspaper-subscribers buy the paper just for the puzzles? There are some difficulties acquiring statistically significant numbers here. First, most newspapers don’t do regular surveys of their readers to actually find out why they’re buying the paper. Will Shortz at the New York Times shares an interesting figure – he does after all have a lot at stake here as the world’s current Dean of Crossword Puzzles. In a 2004 interview Shortz discussed a survey from earlier in the decade that found 27% of newspaper readers playing the crossword occasionally. That numbers isn’t particularly compelling for our purposes, but there is one other number dropped by Shortz that does carry some weight: 1%. That’s the percentage of Americans who named crossword-solving as “their favorite activity in the world.”

Another study by Richard Browne of The London Times estimated that ten percent of their readership did the crossword regularly. For their readership that comes out to 75,000 daily puzzle-solvers. Over 7,000 of those take part in crossword competitions. Browne conjectures that these percentages (10% and 1%) are approximately the same for every major paper. On the other hand, he cites British culture as uniquely interested in crossword puzzles: “many [British] people will take a paper for its crossword even it they don’t like that paper’s political stance.”

On top of these findings, there’s also reason to believe that many readers of more “serious” papers would be reluctant to admit that they buy them just for the puzzles. Internet anonymity helps: 54% of 3500 surveyed at About.com’s puzzle section buy a newspaper “all the time” just for the puzzles. Archimedes-Lab.org claims a much higher number because only 13 percent of their readers answered “never” to the question, “do you buy a newspaper just to do the puzzles?” People are also significantly more open when talking about their local papers.

In 2001, Kristin Tillotson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune cited an industry estimate that 25% of readers considered the crossword a part of their daily routine. This number didn’t surprise Tillotson, because of the violent reader reaction to the Star Tribune’s decision to syndicate the New York Times crossword instead of the LA Times. One comment stood out for me: “This puzzle makes me feel very, very stupid. I am not stupid. I am a physician. … You have ruined my morning. You have ruined my ritual.”

A 2004 article from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph confirms the importance of the puzzles for local paper subscribers, describing it as “a bedrock element.” These findings are both encouraging and frightening, because it shows that local newspapers – which are more vital to the life of “the average American” than national papers – stand more to lose if the population of puzzlers emigrates completely to the Internet. For more insights – to the Internet we go!

One blogger named Russell Beattie wrote a piece in 2003 that predicted crosswords as “the prototypical mobile killer app.” He makes some nice observations along the way. One of these is that “fresh, local, and topical content is key.” Even though every Barnes & Noble has an entire rack of puzzle books, this hasn’t posed a serious threat to newspapers. Why? Because people want today’s crossword, no matter the quality. It’s a shared human experience, part of the collective unconscious. Playing networked games over the Internet makes this shared experience explicit – but it also often robs it of its magic. The idea of tailoring daily mobile puzzle releases to localized audiences is daunting. Ian’s Jetset iPhone game localizes its content procedurally by identifying which airport that player is near – customizing the particular security standards that each different airport holds. Writing a series of processes to both generate a crossword and integrate terms or themes from local news seems to be a bit beyond the abilities of existing data-mining mobile games.

I’ve mostly addressed crosswords so far, and some of you might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the Sudoku craze. Now that we’re on the topic of possibly generating local crosswords by brute force processing, we might as well mention the fad-tastic number game. Wayne Gould, who popularized the 1980’s Japanese game in 2004, wrote a computer program to generate the puzzles. Part of Sudoku’s appeal is the opposite of the local, temporal qualities of the crossword: numerical in nature, they transcend language boundaries. So why did they only enjoy a brief flourish of popularity in papers before being quickly replaced by Internet versions and bookstore puzzle compendiums? One of the major reasons is the simplicity of programming a generator such as Gould’s, and the fact that Sudoku is public domain (legally, anybody could copy Gould). This led to a glut of the puzzle, a lack of uniqueness, and a passing importance in newspaper gaming.

What can we take away from all this? We have reason to believe that the people who buy newspapers just for the puzzles (especially the crossword) – whatever the percentage – are not going anywhere anytime soon. If it’s true that the local and topical qualities of crossword puzzles are their greatest strengths, then we have no reason to fear that the latest re-skinning of Grid Defender or Bejeweled will rob papers of their business. I believe that the throwaway comment I made about the collective unconscious is key here as well. There’s something magical about knowing that others are struggling against the same word puzzle as you at 6 in the morning while you’re getting ready for work. There’s significantly less magic in playing casual Internet games, which mostly appeal to the “coin drop” addiction of arcade games (keeping players around to suck up more advert banners).

More on this subject to come in the future, especially if we find more games like Ian’s that can procedurally generate local experiences.

Speech, Speech, Speech!

Posted in Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on February 16, 2009

I just realized people recorded this information, so I’m putting it here as a reminder to build a proper CV.

I’m giving my first lecture ever! And it’s going to be a series of them!

Dr. Casey O’Donnell at the Grady School of UGA has invited me to lecture to game design, journalism, and digital media classes on Monday of next week. I’ll be talking mostly about journalism and games, digital media applications for journalists, interactive mapping, and newsgame design. Considering the fact that all the knowledge I have on these subjects comes secondhand from my professors (Ian Bogost, Janet Murray, Carl DiSalvo, and Celia Pearce), I’ll be lucky to make it out of the PJ building alive! Hopefully I can make it sound young and fresh for those in attendance. So if you’re a UGA student, ping me about the classes, times, and locations and we’ll see about getting you in to make fun of/criticize me.

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Newsgames and Documentary

Posted in Columns, Film, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on January 16, 2009
I know you’ve already looked at the title and exclaimed: “Cinema Envy!” Well step off it for a moment, because I’m not going to sit here and lament how newsgames “aren’t as good” as documentaries. Rather, I’d like to take a look at the various sub-genres of documentary in order to identify some room for new types of newsgames that we might not have seen yet. Along the way, I’ll make some  comparisons between works in both media. I promise not to analyze them using the same standards or theories. I’ll also try to avoid stepping on Ayo’s toes here, because she’s planning on upcoming post on the value of transparent bias and reflexivity in film and games

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There are some games that are painfully reminiscent of the cliché of “talking head” documentaries. Ian and I examined a game called Homeland Guantanamos earlier in the semester about an alien (both legal and illegal) detention facility and one particularly troubling death that took place there. What started out as an intriguing investigation simulation quickly turned into a series of poorly motivated fetch quests linking together video clips of interviews with detainees. The makers almost seem to have given up on editing a properly engaging documentary and instead “settled” on making a video game, a medium they apparently associate with sloppy narrative and multimedia-happy tedium. The idea of going into a detainment area for unwanted or criminally suspect aliens does however call to mind Fred Wiseman’s work on High School and Titicut Follies. These are basically one of the precursors (print muckraking or “yellow journalism” being the other) to investigative TV reporting.

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Investigative journalism works in any medium – for a time. By transposing oneself onto the camera’s POV, both Wiseman films and investigative news allow one to gain access to secret or contested spaces; however, recent studies have shown that TV viewers are perceiving such “soft journalism” as a poor turn for television news. And we don’t see documentaries like Born Into Brothels or Iraq In Fragments causing the same amount of public commotion as did Titticut Follies, which – along with works such as Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish – raised widespread concern over the well-being of people held in mental health facilities.

Perhaps its time for serious games to step up to the plate and take on the muckraking mantle? I don’t think it’s diminutive to say that what counts as soft news in TV and film is much “harder” than most of the material one comes across in video games: it’s a nice place to start and develop from. Video games simulate processes and spaces better than any other medium, and they grant a modicum of control that aids engagement with an issue. What I’m saying is, Homeland Guantanamos could have been a really important newsgame. If a game similar to Molleindustria’s McDonald’s tasked itself with focusing on one of its four mini-simulators, say the cattle processing plant, then something far more meaningful than an investigative report would emerge. PETA’s Mama Kills Turkeys pairs the familiar Cooking Mama sim with shocking video footage of poultry plants. This could have been a really persuasive piece, but the work falls mostly on deaf ears because the game itself doesn’t focus on the troubling part of the cultural phenomenon (namely, the mistreatment of animals in processing plants).

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Moving on, “intimate” documentaries are an intriguing branch of the genre that we really don’t see converted into the newsgame medium. Art video games such as Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation and Passage seem to share a lot in common with the experimental home movies of Stan Brakhage, but this kind of document doesn’t really count as news. I’m talking more about games that would relate one person’s own point-of-view on a current or historical news story. If you’re my age, then you hear all the time about our parents were doing when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination or the Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Lots of films dealing with the period call upon these nostalgic moments, so it’d be exciting to play a game that simulates the feeling of anxiety or wonder at watching these events unfold.

Ross McElwee makes some of my favorite intimate documentaries, and he deals with many issues that would fit comfortably within “serious” gaming: love, death, religion. His Sherman’s March starts off as an exploration of the historical event and quickly spirals off into his own march through legions of “eligible” Southern bachelorettes. It might seem like I’m harping for more first-person perspectives in newsgames, but it seems like the metaphor used in McElwee films is an entertaining and accessible way to approach historical and current issues. One game called Medieval Unreality, a collection of personal reflections on blood feuds in Albania created as an Unreal mod, replicates this model (in a necessarily less humorous way than McElwee). What we have here is a violent FPS being turned into a non-violent, collaborative meditation on loss and reconciliation – accomplished through metaphor and evocative imagery.

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Next, some documentaries seek to muddy the waters of truth and falsity about a news event. The Thin Blue Line and Capturing the Friedmans are some good examples of this. The latter reminds me of a nightmarish nonfiction version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where each new firsthand account of a supposed mass molestation brings the viewer further and further away from understanding the “facts” of what happened. A game like Kuma’s John Kerry’s Silver Star Mission could have accomplished something like this. The company claims that their game will “present the player with the facts needed to decide what happened” the day Kerry supposedly ran a swiftboat nose-first into an embattled beach and shot a fleeing Viet Cong at great personal risk. In the middle of Kerry’s presidential race, conflicting perspectives on what exactly occurred during that mission arose and brought into question whether or not he deserved his Silver Star. Instead of showing both accepted and dissenting versions of the events, the game simply regurgitates Kerry’s own story.

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Another example, closest to the goal of The Thin Blue Line, is the JFK Reloaded game that seeks to show how hard it would have been to make the Oswald’s killing shot from the depository. This was to be the world’s first “mass-participation forensic construction” of a historical crime, and a contest was held to see who could get closest to matching the conditions claimed in the Warren Commission. Ian’s written before about the shaky ground on which video “evidence” stands in court cases and the rising acceptance of simulations in courtrooms, and I’ve also read a bit about the Innocence Project that seeks to get convicts off of death row by exposing flaws in their legal proceedings. Newsgames dealing with such contested court cases seem to be an obvious direction for such simulations to develop.

Finally, many newsgames seem to follow the “Michael Moore” style of wildly biased “documentary” work. Moore’s early work on Roger and Me and The Big One cast the director as a crusader for the underdog on a highly personal quest. For a few years, it was touching to see him approach the business leaders he criticized with pleas for their participation in the work. Since Bowling for Columbine, these pleas have struck a discordant tone with more and more viewers – raising such questions as, “is a senile old bat like Charlton Heston really the bad guy here?”

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I personally think that September 12th makes its argument against “tactical bombing” pretty well, but that might only be because I already agree with its premise. Someone trained in counterterrorism or ballistics might have good reason to disagree with this premise – namely, it’s blatantly reductionist and it doesn’t propose an alternative solution to the war on terror. Some of Molleindustria’s work can also be seen in this light. See my post on their McDonald‘s game and how it ignores some verification work that might otherwise strengthen its model. These games are most similar to Moore’s Sicko and Fahrenheit 9/11: we know what they’re arguing against – and they do it well – but whether we agree with them in the end is usually reliant on the opinions we enter into playing/watching them with.

These Moore documentaries, and the newsgames I’m comparing them, work because their bias is transparent. Moore’s habit to skew the order of certain timelines in his films aside, everybody knows what they’re getting into when they pay ten dollars for a ticket. As long as the makers of these newsgames don’t actively seek to decieve their players, then I can’t see anyone mounting a strong opposition to them based on bias. Newsgames aren’t satisfied with presenting facts. Unlike traditional print and TV news, they task themselves with persuading players to see an issue their way. It might be necessary to take a more nuanced or balanced approach – presenting both sides of a contentious subject matter and letting the player decide which is more plausible – before we see these games make any converts.

Follow Up: Against Escapism

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on January 16, 2009
My last post on how video games weren’t necessarily escapist (and the subject I initially set out to address: how they also might fit Chomsky’s propaganda model) raised quite a few objections, so I’d like to see if I can clarify my meaning on a few of those points. By the end, I’ll try to segue back onto the subject of newsgames and how they relate to this issue.

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On the subject of escapism. This is where I got myself into the most trouble. I failed both to understand how important the notion of escape is to many gamers and to clarify the exact type of escape I was addressing. I admit that many people play video games not to avoid thinking about the war on terror and the economic recession, but rather to avoid thinking about their jobs, relationships, and other more direct troubles. This comment from the last post that calls me to task most effectively:

My argument is that the very games that support the possibility of a noteworthy gaming industry are the ones that support escapism. […] This isn’t the escapism of the great depression, and nothing can quite be that, so to use the term in a modern context it *has* to be adapted to modern sensibilities. Otherwise you’re just saying the 1930s are over and little else. […] I don’t believe that the reasons people need an escape have stayed the same, since I think we an agree that it’s a cultural phenomenon, and our culture has changed.

What I’d like to point out is that alongside the Great Depression, people in the 30’s also had to deal with the same day-to-day problems that we still do – only to a perhaps heightened degree thanks to the partial-shattering of public spaces by recent information technology. If we’re going online and into video games to find interpersonal engagements, then I think this is an attempt to recreate these lost public spaces rather than to escape from their destruction.

Back on topic: the historical assumption – which might of course be a false one – is that people latched onto musicals and screwball comedy not to escape common woes such as having a belligerent boss or a nagging spouse, but specifically the larger social woes of economic depression and social stratification. I am unsure of the degree to which this is true, but I’m betting that a lot more people who play games are regularly worried about the economy and foreign policy than they are willing to admit on Internet gaming forums. Video games would be a likely place to go to avoid having to think about such issues. My assertion is that many video games deny players – at least players who pay attention to the story – a complete escape from these worries.

Many gamers and non-gamers are familiar with the Grand Theft Auto series, so it’s fertile ground for drawing points. This series has dealt with gang violence, drug use and distribution, poverty, immigration, and ethnic minority issues to a much greater degree than any other game franchise. Here’s one example: Ian has talked about the tacit argument that San Andreas makes about the food choices that many underprivileged Americans have in their neighborhoods – it inspired him to make his own game, Fat World, about the politics of nutrition. What this shows is that we can find connections to the real world even in a game featuring the primary mechanics of shooting guns and stealing cars. Whether or not one realizes it while they’re playing the game is a different issue – but it’s likely that these ideas do enter into our subconscious thoughts while we’re playing only to resurface later on (McGonigal’s idea of an “experience grenade”).

Whether you agree with his design criticism or not, Richard Bartle’s recent unexpected controversy over a torture quest in WotLK is proof towards my assertion. See, when people thought about the issue long enough to argue with Bartle they revealed the fact that they’d been thinking about the game and its moral implications all along (they were just choosing to ignore them in most cases). Users brought up examples of genocide, poisoning, animal cruelty, racism, and other questionable practices in WoW quests. Whether or not they thought the moral implications of these quests were serious enough to forego some easy experience points is irrelevant. People aren’t escaping from such real world issues by playing games, they’re dealing with them in highly structured ludic encounters because it’s a fun way to feel potency over realistically insurmountable problems.

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On the subject of catharsis. I guess people have quite a few different ideas on what catharsis actually is. This isn’t surprising, because our historical literary source for the word doesn’t do much to clarify its meaning. Despite whatever changes in definition the word may have experienced (most people seem to reduce it to meaning any sort of “release”), I refer specifically to its original use in Aristotle’s Poetics (and later, Politics): a purification of two emotions, fear and anxiety. Brenda Laurel (one of my favorite video game writers) has applied the Poetics to computing, but I haven’t read this book yet myself. I’m not convinced at the moment that the dramatic structure of a game is much like that of a Greek tragedy; however, I do think that Aristotle’s catharsis has some relevance to the issue of games and escapism.

I hold that escapism and Aristotelian catharsis are mutually exclusive. This comment from the last post encapsulates the counter-argument to my position:

You seem to draw a distinction between escapism and catharsis as they relate to art/media, and it is this distinction that I call into question. Is not the cathartic value of video games that which we use to escape from life’s ills? […] I would even argue that, because of the control they offer a player, many video games are even better methods of escapism than the glitzy movies and Broadway plays you reference. What better way to escape than to completely transport your conscious into that of a digital avatar, fighting the ills of modern life in a way only possible by way of video game?

Aristotle valued tragedy over comedy (any play with a happy ending, not necessarily funny) because it forced viewers to come to terms with their own beliefs, character flaws, and mortality. The Oedipus cycle is the prime example of such work: we’re forced to watch a good person and his family suffer for sins outside their own control. What I’m getting at here is this: taking control of a digital avatar in order to fight the ills of modern life is the opposite of escapism. A game confronts you with a problem, you can usually relate this problem to one you’ve observed in daily life or the news, and then you deal with it. The agency that games grant us in these simulated alternate versions of warzones and economically depressed neighborhoods is a way of “purifying” (catharsizing?) our fear and guilt over these situations.

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On the subject of the propaganda model. I definitely made a grave misstep when I mentioned the effects of modern shooters on the “tender” minds of young players. It wasn’t my intent to fall into the category of the anti-gaming scaremonger talking about the negative effects of games on children. One commenter that agreed with me based on perceiving my comments in this light wrote:

The fact is, most war games promote war… (as do many films, though many war films are also anti-war). Whether the hostiles are Mexican or Russian is useful to a point, but the greater issue is war begets war.

I don’t find this to be true at all. I’m staunchly anti-war and anti-violence; I’ve been playing violent video games since I was 4 years old, and I still don’t think violence solves real world problems. On the other hand, I think the idea of trying to remove violence as a primary mechanic in most mainstream games is misguided – at the least, it’s a bit hasty considering how long it took popular TV and film producers to realize that conflict wasn’t essential to plot progression. One of my professors, Celia Pearce, has a lovely anecdote that she shares whenever a “concerned adult” asks her about the psychological effects of violence in games: almost all mammals playfight, and they understand the difference between it and real violence. Surely your clever little children are at least as smart as puppy dogs and kitty cats?

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Chomsky’s propaganda model isn’t about dark government agencies embedding mind control into your media, it’s about subtly controlling public opinion through the exclusion of some stories and facts. If there are no AAA titles dealing explicitly with the war in Iraq, all this means is that the industry is missing out on a great opportunity to be the prime medium through which young Americans interact with the news. Instead of rehashing my half-formed ideas about the shortcomings of the mainstream gaming industry, I’d like to finally bring the subject back to newsgames.

The majority of newsgames, in that they don’t rely on corporate funding for their development, completely avoid the danger of falling into the propaganda model. In their unflinching goal of simulating experiences relevant to public issues, they avoid the pitfall of being labelled escapist and trivial by non-gamers. Even though I think its possible to recast mainstream gameplay as engaging real issues through metaphor or displacement, there’s still the fact that many players probably enter into them explicitly for escape. This is why newsgames have struggled to gain a popular following, I think: because one doesn’t start playing one of them as a means to cool off or forget about what’s happening outside.

People don’t avoid playing newsgames because they’re boring – quite the contrary, most of them build off of tried-and-true “fun” game mechanics and utilize the stylish Flash animation that has defined the most recent generation of TV cartoons. Rather, I suspect that they avoid them because they’re afraid of purposefully mixing their pleasure with intellectual engagement. I’ve struggled to show how mainstream video games might not be escapist, because I’d like to help break down the wall between the act of playing a shooter and the act of playing a newsgame.

Newsgames in the Pipe

Posted in Columns, 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 post it to the JAG blog before that happens)

Every once in awhile, I struggle with the idea of the breaking newsgame. How could a newspaper, or an independent game developer, possibly make a game on the fly that was both “worth playing” and directly relevant to the news of the day? The makers of newsgames have, for the most part, freed themselves from worrying about this problem by dealing mainly with ongoing, long-term public issues; however, I constantly have the nagging feeling that these games need to become quite a bit more timely before being attractive as a regular feature for a news source. Let me share the story of a recent flurry of ideas exchanged on this subject.

6a00c22522e470549d00d4144918623c7f-500pi.pngWe recently had a demo day here at Georgia Tech. Sitting in the corner of the room at our News Games booth, I watched (with a twinge of jealousy) Raph Koster and some dudes from the EVE Online team celebrate the accomplishments of some of my classmates on a board game they’d been working on all semester. None of the famous folks were coming up to ask me about my thoughts on the crossroads of news and gaming. Maybe this just isn’t something that has a direct impact on their work? Just when I thought I wasn’t going to be having any good conversations that day, a middle-aged man shuffled toward me and asked, in a British accent, if I had anything interesting to show him. It took me a few moments to spy his name tag.

This was Richard Bartle: one of the early online gaming movers and shakers, and architect of my ten long years of MUDding (I played Gemstone and Mihaly’s Achaea). This man was a personal hero of mine, sure, but did the old Wizard have any tricks up his sleeve when it came to thinking about newsgames? As it turns out, he did. It also turns out that he was only talking with me for so long to avoid the pesky necessity of leveling his warlock up to 80 in WotLK (joking). Perhaps all the little esoteric niches within the critical gaming community were closer together than I’d previously thought. After some polite conversation on the nature of our research, I shared with Bartle some of the roadblocks we’d been coming to. On the subject of the absence of the breaking newsgame, he had this to say:

“Well, we all know the Queen is going to die someday. So we could make a game about it today, and release it when she does.”

This seems like such an obvious partial answer to the  problem – one which Ian hints that he already might have been thinking of – but it’s one that we really hadn’t talked about in discussions of the topic before. At first I thought making such “predictive” games might somehow violate journalistic integrity; however, it turns out that this would fall squarely within the practices of most news outlets. There are a few different manifestations of this. First is the article on something one knows is going to happen once. Obituaries for famous people are commonly written long before their actual deaths, and they are constantly updated as these people continue to survive and add to their accomplishments. The second case is when one knows that a decision or outcome will fall in only a small number of ways. One such example of this is the tradition of pre-making two headlines for the two possible resolutions to a presidential race. And then there’s the pre-making of material for events that are known to occur cyclically: weather, economic activity, politics, etc.
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When we start looking for examples of games that might fit this predictive mold, we run into some initial hiccups. Take, for example, the “obituary games” dealing with Steve Irwin’s death by stingray. How could one possibly have predicted that he would die this way, let alone made a game about it beforehand? This isn’t as big of a hitch as one might initially think. You simply have to choose which information you can be most sure about. For example, Paul Newman was pretty old when he died. You wouldn’t have had to predict exactly what he would die of to be able to make a great video game where an old man surrounded by salad dressing bottles fantasizes about his early days as a cowboy or Cool Hand Luke. In the case of Steve Irwin, it was likely that he’d die playing with dangerous aquatic animals. Despite being unable to know which animal would manage to penetrate his catlike reflexes, one would still be able to create most of the underwater gameplay mechanics, placeholder art, and sound bytes before the actual event occurred.

For the second case, that of pre-making a news story that will assuredly break in one of only a few possible directions, I’d like to take a look at some of the media surrounding Obama’s recent election. When it comes to biting, timely satire on a public issue, nobody can really hold a flame to Comedy Central’s Daily Show and South Park. The night after polls closed South Park aired an episode (click on “About Last Night…”) wherein Obama wins the election, liberals get drunk and riot in the street to celebrate, and conservatives fear for the end of the republic while locking themselves away in a fallout shelter. Now, it’s possible that Parker and Stone have such an ace team on their hands that they were able to make this episode in one night’s time. But it’s more likely that they’d pre-written the shows for either decision (and had of course already prepped the art for both).

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To my knowledge, there weren’t any games that addressed the public hype over this event – probably because we were all celebrating or cursing the event in “real” life. But that’s not to say that such games wouldn’t be enjoyable and interesting to experience. We’ve talked a lot about how great it would have been if the CNN “holograms” on election night had simulated for viewers the experience of being in Grant Park that night. It wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for somebody in Second Life or There.com to have recreated this space inside a virtual world for people to experience in real time (please drop a comment if this was actually done in some way). Of course, it is an incredible asset for virtual worlds that they can play host to post-election celebrations and grumbling drunken escapes in ways that the South Park episode did. Doug Wilson is planning a series of posts on our explorations into the world of Kuma Games and their re-creation of current and historical war zones. They do some decent work toward trying to allow players to “take part” in actual military encounters (like the capturing of Saddam’s sons, for instance). It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for such a company to make the kind of predictive leaps in game development that I’m talking about here.

Finally we come to the idea of games about cyclical events. Doug is also planning a post on hurricane and meteor-strike calculator “games.” Such simulators, which allow users to input various sorts of data about the size and location of storms or extraterrestrial objects in order to see the amount of havoc they might wreak, could easily be expanded into games about actual events. We’ve played some games that retrospectively look back at the events in New Orleans during Katrina, but there’s no reason that such games couldn’t have been made on a “breaking news” deadline: “Try to rescue survivors from rooftops… but beware, some of them will shoot at your helicopter as you attempt a descent!” On the subject of the cyclical nature of the economy, we have the fact that most everyone knew we were headed into a recession many months (or years) before feds actually announced that we’d officially landed in one. Newsgames about the recession and its impact on various sectors of the corporate and public world could have easily been pre-made for this event.
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Now, it’s one thing to come up with the stories and core mechanics for games such as these before the event strikes, and it’s another thing to have the art and assets ready and up-to-date when the final details are reported. Bartle also addressed the subject of content creation for breaking newsgames. Advocating a Farmer & Morningstar-style approach (introduced in their Lessons from Lucasfilm’s Habitat), he asserted the fact that the core game mechanics should be separated from the graphical content should there be a technological leap in the latter before the predictive breaking newsgame can be published. He entertained my idea of multiple news sources outsourcing the work of creating newsgames to an independent company supplying the lot. This is probably the only conceivable way that a newsgame developer would have the fiscal security and size to hire the amount of people required to make games on a regular or breaking news schedule. If the people who pioneered info-visualization in newspapers and their websites (Alberto Cairo is our preferred source of information on the subject) could figure out a working model for their work, then there’s probably a solution to this problem out there in somebody’s head as well. What I’ve written here is only a tentative first step in that direction.

We wrapped up the conversation by talking about (non-video game) journalists and their standing disdain for games as trivial. Bartle seemed to think that this was the largest obstacle toward making games a common sight on news websites. We can only hope that more journalists will pick up on the potential for video games to address serious or personal issues, following the odd example of the BusinessWeek Arcade that Ian posted about. One disconnect here might be the fact that a reporter has to work on strenuous daily deadlines and sometimes pull all-nighters to bring a story to print, while most makers of newsgames have no such deadlines and can therefore be seen as pronouncing judgment from a temporally distant Ivory Tower. Perhaps the availability of breaking newsgames might interest or satisfy journalists in a way that current such games do not.

EDIT: Richard wanted me to know that he thought it was funny that I’d described him as a “shuffling, middle-aged” gentleman. I wanted to note that I would never describe the man as “shuffling” in general. He’s as regal as they come. If he denies that fact that he’s quite a bit older than I am, then I will also go along with him on this point. The man is damn sprightly.

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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