Playing Politics: Videogames for Politics, Activism, and Advocacy
First Monday

Playing Politics: Videogames for Politics, Activism, and Advocacy by Ian Bogost



Abstract
Videogames have dominated popular culture for some time, but only in 2004 did they make a significant break into the world of politics, advocacy, and activism. This paper provides an overview of a variety of types of games used for political speech, from endorsed party messages to activist dissent. After explaining the state of the field, I discuss approaches to design and measure success for such artifacts. While some political opinion is black and white, most issues occupy grey areas, heavily influenced by other public policy issues. Can healthcare reform really be separated from taxation, national budgeting, tort reform, and social security reform? Far from neatly isolated problems, policy issues are complex systems that recombine and interrelate with one another. In particular, I will interrogate how videogames afford a new perspective on political issues, since they are especially effective at representing complex systems. Central to the process of creating and understanding such games is an understanding of “procedural rhetoric” — the way that a videogame embodies ideology in its computational structure. By understanding how games express rhetoric in their rules, we not only gain a critical vantage point on videogame artifacts, but also we can begin to consider how to design games whose primary purpose is to editorialize, teach, and make political statements.

Contents

Procedurality
Procedural Expression
Videogame Histories
Procedural Rhetoric
Playing Politics

 


 

If the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election made citizens more aware of the process of counting votes, the 2004 election made us more aware of the process of campaigning for them. Ten years after the availability of the Internet and the World Wide Web outside the science and education communities, and four years after the dotcom bubble burst, the past election was the first to make broad use of digital technologies beyond the “storefront” style Web site of the last two election cycles. Part of this delay has to do with timing — with four years between major elections, campaigns, candidates, and party organizations didn’t benefit from the unfettered, continuous advances of Internet technology in the 1990s. Successful exceptions mostly came in the form of public affairs firms, for example Grassroots.com, a technology firm chaired by ex–Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry that specializes in online advocacy and recruitment [1]. In most cases such efforts centered on corporate interests, trade associations, non–profit and non–governmental organizations (NPOs and NGOs). In short, technology–aided advocacy remained largely the purview of private groups with specialized communications needs.

Meanwhile, Internet access among American voters rose dramatically during the decade between 1994 and 2004. Citizens learned they could buy everything from books to gas grills online. eBay ushered in a new era of niche microbusiness. E*Trade and Ameritrade marked in a new era of e–banking and investment. Local and state governments even launched “Egov” initiatives to provide online access to services like motor vehicle registration and tax filing to their citizens. According to the Pew Research Center’s (2005) Internet and American Life Project, 63 percent of adult Americans were Internet users at the end of 2004, compared with roughly 50 percent in 2000, a gain of 10 percent. Yet in a 2000 post–election survey of Internet use carried out specifically for civics and politics, the Institute for Policy, Democracy, and the Internet (IPDI) concluded that roughly 35 percent of Americans use the Internet to get information about politics (IPDI, 2000). An analysis of online campaigning in the 2000 election estimates nine million visits to Bush 2000 Web site and seven million to Gore 2000 (Bimber and Davis, 2003); visits to the Bush 2004 Web site nearly double to 16 million visits and visits to the Kerry 2004 Web site nearly triple to 20 million (Cornfield, 2005). These results suggest that on the whole more Americans were using the Internet for political purposes over other purposes circa the 2004 election cycle.

In 2003, major candidates finally started taking greater advantage of the public’s hunger for easily accessible information on politics and public policy. Led by campaign manager Joe Trippi’s then–controversial decision to pursue hundreds of thousands of individual supporters and donors rather than fewer corporate and institutional supporters, Howard Dean’s longshot campaign for President spawned numerous innovative uses of the Internet for campaigning. In a commentary affirming “that the Internet has become an essential medium of American politics,” analyst Michael Cornfield outlines five online campaigning innovations that came out of the Dean campaign: news–pegged fundraising appeals, “Meetups” and other Internet–organized gatherings, blogging, online referenda, and decentralized decision–making (Cornfield, 2005). Dean’s news–pegged fundraising appeals solicited immediate responses to news events, many of which included traditional Republican $2,000/plate fundraisers. Meetups took advantage of interest–sharing Web site Meetup.com to help supporters self–organize in specific localities [2]. Blogging, a massive social phenomenon inside and outside politics, created virtual communities in the same way Meetups created physical ones. Blogs also gave supporters (and detractors!) ad hoc access to read, comment, or even publish their personal perspectives on candidates and issues. Online referenda, an offshoot of blogging and news–pegged fundraising, allowed the campaign to ask its constituency for an opinion — a kind of casual, non–binding referendum. And decentralized decision–making underwrote the other four innovations, giving power and voice to the electorate rather than the candidate.

Online referenda, an offshoot of blogging and news–pegged fundraising, allowed the campaign to ask its constituency for an opinion — a kind of casual, non–binding referendum.

One notable omission from Cornfield’s list of innovations is social software. An advanced form of online community building, social software systems are software applications that let people construct networks of person–to–person interactions. Perhaps the most popular of these is Friendster, a service that lets people find new friends among their friends and their friends’ friends [3]. Friendster bills itself as a social service best used for dating and finding new friends. When users sign up for the service, they create a profile that describes their interests, location, and other basic information. Subscribers are then encouraged to invite their friends to join. Each member can search or browse through the network of friends and friends’ friends. If they find someone whom they’d like to meet, the service facilitates a permission–based introduction through the links that connect the two parties. More specific applications of social software include tools like LinkedIn, which facilitate business relationships instead of arbitrary personal ones, with a special focus placed on deal–making, job hunting, and recruiting [4].

In the aftermath of the 2004 election, political uses of technology remain focused on extensions and revisions of the five Dean campaign innovations, with the addition of initiative–specific social software. As focus moves from campaigning to advocacy, NPOs and NGOs have taken up individual contributions, blog and blog–like communications, and ad hoc organization as guiding strategies. For example, non–profit Spirit of America has relied on the network effect of individual contributions to raise money for specific development projects in Afganistan and Iraq, such as baseball equipment for local communities or sewing machines for local women laborers [5]. The organization then builds social software–style hooks for members to recruit other members, a kind of automated grassroots outreach that is sometimes called “emergent” [6]. Following current trends in marketing, such campaigns often strive to capitalize on the uneven connectedness of a small percentage of the population. By appealing to so–called “influentials,” one can create a broad base of supporters (Berry and Keller, 2003, IPDI, 2004).

Without exception, all of these innovations take advantage of the Internet’s affordances for rapid updates and ad hoc access. These initiatives represent a new type of “virtual grassroots outreach,” using the Internet as a bonding agent for ad hoc communities of constantly–involved constituents. As history would show, Dean would be remembered for his innovations in politicking more than for his politics, a point to which I will return later. However, all of these techniques also have another common property: they rely on computer technology solely for its ability to change and accelerate dissemination, not for its ability to change representation. In short, what political technology lacks is a meaningful engagement with the computational — or procedural — power of the computer.

 

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Procedurality

In her influential book Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray (1997) defines four essential properties of digital artifacts: procedurality, participation, spatiality, and encyclopedic scope. The Howard Dean innovations and their successors currently take advantage of two, sometimes three of these properties. All current political technology harnesses the participative nature of the medium; if nothing else, blogs and news–pegged fundraising create coherent, ongoing participation with a campaign or initiative. Blogs, Web sites, and meetups also take advantage of the spatial property of the computer, creating coherent environments for voters to explore. Meetups even span the gap between virtual and physical spaces. And the ease of publishing and storing news, comments, and conversations on blogs and via online referenda take advantage of the encyclopedic affordances of computers — their ability to store and retrieve massive quantities and varieties of information. But none of the popular techniques for Internet–based campaigning take advantage of the procedural affordances of the medium.

Procedurality is a concept that may be unfamiliar to readers unfamiliar with the discipline of computer science. Procedure usually conjures notions of officialdom, even bureaucracy. In common parlance, a procedure is a static course of action, an established way of doing something. Likewise, procedure and the law are often closely tied. Courts and law enforcement agencies abide by procedures that dictate how actions can and cannot be carried out. Procedurality in this sense is fixed and unquestionable. It is tied to authority, crafted from the top–down, and put in place to structure behavior and identify infringement. Procedures are sometimes related to ideology; they can cloud our ability to see other ways of thinking.

In computing, procedurality refers to the core practice of software authorship. Software is comprised of algorithms that model the way things behave. To write procedurally, one authors rules that generate many instances of the same type of representation, rather than authoring the representation itself. Procedural systems generate behaviors based on rule–based models; they are machines capable of producing many outcomes, each conforming to the same overall guidelines. Procedurality is the inherent value of the computer, which creates meaning through the interaction of algorithms. This ability to rapidly execute a series of rules fundamentally separates computers from other media.

Procedurality in the computing sense does bear commonality with the more common sense discussed above. Like courts and bureaucracies, procedural software outlines rules of execution. But computational procedurality places a greater emphasis on the expressive capacity afforded by rules of execution.

While such ability is magnified in the computer, it is not unique to the computer. In fact, any system that seeks to establish patterns to define meaning can be deemed procedural. I have argued elsewhere that procedurality can be read in both computational and non–computational structures (Bogost, 2006). As cultural critics, we can interrogate literature, art, film, and daily life for the underlying processes they expose. One example of extra–computational procedurality is microbiologist Jared Diamond’s (1999) book Guns, Germs, and Steel, an alternative approach to understanding history. Instead of recording the events of human history, Diamond looks at the configurations of material conditions and asks how they produce political, social, and expressive outcomes. These outcomes in turn recombine with their underlying material conditions to produce new historical moments. Such an approach to history goes far beyond the relation between contemporaneous events, asking us to consider the systems that produce those events.

 

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Procedural Expression

Procedural representation such as software and Diamond’s history manipulate symbols and concepts as their core mode of expression, suggesting that procedurality is a cultural, not merely a mechanical phenomenon. In her call for meaningful interactive drama, Janet Murray introduces the concept of procedural authorship. Such effort, says Murray,

“... means writing the rules by which the text appears as well as writing the text themselves. It means writing the rules for the interactor’s involvement, that is, the conditions under which things will happen in response to the participant’s actions.”

Murray cites Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza program as an early example of this kind of procedural expression (Weizenbaum, 1966). Eliza modeled a therapist, responding to users’ text–based input in much the same way one would expect from a Rogerian psychologist. Here is a sample exchange from Weizenbaum’s original Eliza, which ran on MIT’s MAC time–sharing system in the mid–1960s (capitalized lines are computer responses):

Men are all alike.
IN WHAT WAY?
They’re always bugging us about something or other.
CAN YOU THINK OF A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE?
Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
YOUR BOYFRIEND MADE YOU COME HERE
He says I’m depressed much of the time.
I AM SORRY TO HEAR YOU ARE DEPRESSED
It’s true. I am unhappy.
DO YOU THINK COMING HERE WILL HELP YOU NOT TO BE UNHAPPY?
I need some help, that much seems certain.
WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO YOU IF YOU GOT SOME HELP?
Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR FAMILY
My mother takes care of me.

As a technical experiment, Eliza is an example of artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP); the computer takes the user’s input, parses it into units of meaning that the program can understand, and then assembles and presents a response, including the proper grammatical transformations to maintain the illusion of language fluency. In the case of Eliza, the program seeks out keywords such as “I am” or “you” and manufactures transformations based on them. The computer program has no real understanding of the meaning of the user’s input; rather, it is taking that input and spinning it into a conversation. Eliza is a machine for generating conversations according to procedural rules.

Of course, the Rogerian psychologist is perhaps not the most meaningful interlocutor. Since Eliza, considerable research in the field of artificial intelligence has centered on the creation of agents like Eliza. Some agents are meant merely to process bits of data, like keyword searches or security tools. But authors of agents have more lofty goals, hoping to create more human–like believable characters whose behavior is authored procedurally with special–use computer languages. While a literature review of this large field is impossible in the present context, I have previously articulated procedural expression in the general sense with the term “unit operations” (Bogost, 2006). Unit operations are characterized by their increased compression of representation, a tendency common over the course of the twentieth century, from structuralist anthropology to computation. AI is an especially fungible area of procedural expression, and as such AI practitioners often align their computer science practice with art practice (see Penny, 2000). AI researcher and interactive drama author Michael Mateas has even given the name “Expressive AI” to the combined practice of AI research practice and art practice (Mateas, 2000). But procedural expression isn’t limited to the highly technical field of AI research. In fact, some of the best examples come from an increasingly common medium: videogames.

 

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Videogame Histories

One popular genre of videogames offers procedural representations of history. These games create representations of causal factors that shaped particular historical events, or more commonly the broad progression of human history. Some of those games craft serve as explicit political commentaries while others do so implicitly.

In fact, some of the best examples of artifacts that enact Diamond’s conception of history (mentioned above) are videogames. Games like Civilization (Firaxis Games, 1991) and Empire Earth (Stainless Steel Studios, 2001) focus on the progress of history from era to era. As software systems, these games can enact one or more historiographies, representing them with rules of interaction rather than patterns of writing. In Civilization, technological innovation enables military dominance, which the player must exercise to progress through history effectively. In Empire Earth, local events serve as parts of an overarching, Hegelian progress forward. Games like Zeus (Impressions Games, 2000) and Medieval: Total War (Creative Assembly, 2002) attempt to expose the salient traits of specific historical moments. In Zeus, historico–mythical moments like Hercules’s labors take shape in the context of the material production required to support them, such as marble mining marble to build temple suitable for invoking the hero. Educational technologist and games–and–learning theorist Kurt Squire showed that Civilization mediated students’ understanding of world history in a different way, especially the relationship between physical, cultural, and political geography and history (Squire, 2004).

... videogames are increasingly becoming a forum for artistic expression and ... social expression.

In addition to occupying a huge space in current popular culture — videogame software sales totaled US$7.3 billion in 2004 (Electronic Software Association, 2005) — videogames are increasingly becoming a forum for artistic expression and, more importantly for the present discussion, social expression. The field of digital art has produced a wealth of social commentaries, and some game–based artifacts have emerged from that sphere of influence. Many of these take the form of electronic game modifications or “mods,” alterations of existing commercial games. In 1999, cyborg anthropologist Anne–Marie Schleiner and her collaborators designed a mod called “Velvet–Strike” for the popular multiplayer first–person shooter Half–Life Counterstrike (Schleiner, 2002). Velvet–Strike allowed players to spray virtual posters with political messages such as “Hostage of an Online Fantasy” and “You are your most dangerous enemy.” While interesting as a “software intervention,” Velvet–Strike is more a commentary on videogame genre conventions than a commentary on social conditions.

One commercial game that takes on a social challenge through gameplay proper was Chris Crawford’s game Balance of the Planet (Crawford, 1990). Released on Earth Day 1990, Balance of the Planet was a simulation game that modeled environmental issues and their consequences. In Crawford’s words, the game dealt with “the complexity of environmental issues and their entwinement with each other and with economic issues. I wanted to demonstrate that everything is connected, that simplistic approaches always fail” (Crawford, 2003). In the game, the player makes choices about a multitude of variable settings, from lake acidity to radiation to oil spills. The game even requires the player to place a value on human lives — and a separate value for third–world lives versus urban industrial lives. Balance of the Planet allowed the player to simulate an adjustable value system, to witness the effects of that value system, and to carry that perception beyond the gameplay experience.

While videogame–based recreations of historical events like D–Day (DreamWorks Interactive, 1999) and Pearl Harbor (Electronic Arts, 2003) have been common for the last two decades, more recently a number of videogames have taken on more explicit representations of history, fashioning themselves after another newly politicized medium, the documentary film. Among this new subgenre, several examples stand out in particular.

Two such games were created explicitly in the context of artistic practice. Los Angeles artist collective C–Level created Waco Resurrection (C–Level, 2003), a game-based reenactment of the 1993 stand–off between the U.S. Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents and David Koresh’s Branch Davidian followers. In the game, players don a plastic David Koresh mask with implanted microphone and are “resurrected” into a 3D representation of the Branch Davidian’s Waco, Texas compound. Once inside, players must use voice commands to enact incantations that give Koresh the ability to do divine battle against he ATF, convert agents to his cause, and lead followers around his compound. The same year, another artist collective, Kinematic, released 9–11 Survivor, a game in which the player is challenged to escape the burning World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. In the game, the player is spawned in a pseudo–random location in the building. The game’s most controversial feature, some locations have escape routes via stairway, some are blocked by fire, and some are simply dead–ends. In certain cases, players were faced with the choice of being engulfed by flames in the building or throwing themselves from windows.

While highly controversial, such games are not limited to the sphere of art practice, a community with a long history of challenging and upsetting social norms. Two games of equal note were created by commercial developers with a hybrid interest in historical expression and commercial gain. Kuma Reality Games, a commercial developer based in New York City, released Kuma\War in 2003 (Kuma Reality Games, 2003). Kuma\War wasn’t just one game about one event, but rather a sort of broadcast network for game–based representations of recent news events. First distributed during the moil of the first year of the second Gulf War, Kuma\War’s first mission challenged the player to reenact the U.S Army’s stand against Uday and Qusay Hussein around a Mosul villa. As part of the company’s launch PR, they touted the player’s ability to choose whether to follow the events of history — in this case destroying the entire villa with anti–tank TOW missiles — or attempting an alternate plan, such as overrunning the villa in the hopes of capturing and interrogating the Hussein brothers. Since July 2003, Kuma has released nearly 40 additional missions, including the 1998 breaching of Osama Bin Laden’s compound and reenacting John Kerry’s controversial 1969 Silver Star swiftboat mission. According to the Kuma Games, the purpose of Kuma\War is to give Americans a better appreciation for the dangers faced by American and coalition soldiers in conflict.

Senator Ted Kennedy and others called the game “despicable,” and the media in general had a field day objecting — and therefore drawing attention — to it.

But perhaps the most controversial of all of these documentary games was JFK Reloaded, created and self–published by Scottish developer Traffic (Traffic, 2004). Released on the 41st anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, JFK Reloaded puts the player in the shoes of Lee Harvey Oswald, on the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. The developers claim to have created the game to put to rest any suspicions of a conspiracy theory in the assassination, and to that end they set up the game to allow the “recreation” of the Warren Commission’s account of the shooting. The simulation includes a sophisticated physics and ballistics model, and the player’s only task is to use that physical model to recreate Oswald’s three shots and their trajectories as accurately as possible. After firing, the game offers a replay and analysis, showing paths and impacts for each bullet. Senator Ted Kennedy and others called the game “despicable,” and the media in general had a field day objecting — and therefore drawing attention — to it.

Tracy Fullerton (2005) has discussed the ways in which these games relate to the genre of documentary film and especially the latter medium’s history of both recording events and expressing or theorizing about them. Because games like Kuma\War and 9–11 Survivor appear to take on specific, historical events, it’s only natural to compare them with other media forms like documentary. In fact, the creators of all these games have explicitly aligned their artifacts with filmic and televisual media — C–level compares Waco Resurrection to documentary; Kuma Reality Games claims that Kuma\War offers “a new way of experiencing the news”; Traffic calls JFK Reloaded a “docu–game.” These gestures stand largely as posturing: part of the goal of such games is to challenge the notion that games can’t or don’t take on a broader range of topics. But the comparison with documentary occludes an important aspect of these games, their procedurality. While the subject matter itself is comparable to documentaries and news broadcasts, to understand what the games are saying about these historical events we need to ask how the player interacts with the rules to create patterns of meaning.

Waco Resurrection’s most salient feature is not the representation of the Branch Davidian’s Waco compound, but the use of voice commands as a primary method of gameplay. By forcing the player to utter Koresh’s messianic interpretations of the book of revelation, the player is forcibly immersed in the logic of a religious cult. The player takes on the role of a cult leader in the game; the words he utters are not his own but those of Koresh, and the player quickly becomes absorbed in the power of these incantations. The game embodies a specific cult, but it creates an experience of religious fanaticism in general and shows how such fanaticism conflicts with the interests of government. While its skin is that of the Branch Davidians, the procedural expression at work in Waco Resurrection serves to depict the lure and madness of religious fanaticism in general and to remind the player how fine the line is between sensible, “state–sanctioned” and threatening, cultic religious practice. On further review, Waco Resurrection deals less with the 1993 event in Waco and more with the entire system of contemporary American religious expression and extremism.

Similarly, 9–11 Survivor’s procedural expression extends beyond its apparent representation of one person’s potential doom in the WTC towers. While the game has been denounced for trivializing victims of the 9/11 attacks, its relevance comes from its solemn and careful treatment of victims’ actual and potential experiences. 9–11 Survivor’s procedural expression comes principally from the interaction between spawn locations in the building and obstacles the player might face while trying to escape. One of the more horrifying memories we non–victims have of 9/11 is watching so many people choose to throw themselves out of windows 80, 90 floors up. These people must have known the certain doom they faced by jumping, and such knowledge only further underscores how ghastly the situation must have been inside the building. By modeling the aleatory nature of individual fate of a 9/11 WTC worker, 9–11 Survivor creates one of the few representations of the intertwined role of chance and chaos on that fateful morning. During some sessions of 9–11 Survivor the player has no escape; during others the player is faced with the decision to burn or to jump. But beyond an embodied experience of the procedural interactions between plane, building, and worker, 9–11 Survivor depicts the strange new logic of security and terror in our post–9/11 world. Uncertainty is perhaps the most ineffable of topics in this “war on terror,” a political frame that attempts to recast geopolitics into a traditional battle in which there are known enemies and known winners. Yet 9–11 Survivor’s subject is precisely that uncertainty, which the game represents through its procedural generation of scenarios, exit options, and limited tool use in extremely dangerous conditions. 9–11 Survivor invites us to reflect and empathize with the victims of the WTC attacks, but more so it invites us to consider all the potential traps and escapes in our workplaces, homes, shopping malls, and public spaces — to consider our changed relationship with such spaces since 9/11.

Unlike 9–11 Survivor and Waco Resurrection, I contend that Kuma\War is less earnest in its attempts to create meaningful expressive relationships between players and current American foreign policy. While Kuma offers “re–creations of real–world events,” it builds scarcely few procedural hooks into such experiences beyond those required to carry out the historical account and perhaps one alternate scenario on the same strategic trajectory. Missing from Kuma\War are political and social circumstances, commentary, and elucidation that would frame these events in order to give the first–person interactivity of the game sociopolitical meaning. Players do not gain any meaningful insights into the subtle tenors of U.S. military aggression when they opt for advancing troops to slaughter perimeter guards in order to capture Uday and Qusay Hussein at their Mosul villa, rather than bombarding it to destruction with TOW missiles. The more interesting rhetoric surrounds the military’s need to capture or kill (either one) Uday and Qusay in order to demonstrate control over the regime’s demise, and thereby to win further local support. And that kind of military rhetoric goes unchallenged in the Kuma\War mission. Unlike 9–11 Survivor and Waco Resurrection, Kuma\War offers a relatively weak procedural representation of modern day warfare, including ballistics, troop movement, and chain–of–command, but leaving out the local, national, and international political structures that give such encounters meaning. John Kerry’s Silver Star mission held political currency because so much credibility rested on Kerry’s status as war hero. Democrats held him up as a compassionate leader with military credentials; Republicans derided him as an indecisive ruse without the backbone to lead. The Silver Star mission represents an important moment in Kerry’s ontogeny to be sure, but divorced from the record of the rest of his public and private life, the Silver Star mission only recreates the fact that Kerry’s military status might be a political issue, rather than exploring how or why it would be. As it stands, the Kuma\War mission doesn’t provide an adequate representation of the logic in Kerry’s own mind — his rules of engagement — to make it an effective window onto his quality as a leader, then or now.

Of these games about historical events, perhaps the most procedurally expressive is JFK Reloaded. While the game offers the smallest spatial representation of the four games — the player’s control is limited to the view out of the sixth floor book depository window, and the entire game world only reproduces half of Dealey Plaza — it offers a richness of interaction thanks to the heavily proceduralized representation of the motorcade itself. Instead of static animating the path of the motorcade, the simulation constraints its trajectory to the historical path, but accounts for interruptions or disturbances based on the physics and agent model. While the designers encourage players to recreate the assassination as realistically as possible, clever players quickly realize that alternate strategies produce intriguing results. In the historical record and according to the Abraham Zapruder film, Kennedy was shot about halfway along Elm St., the street directly in front of the book depository. But the simulation starts just before the motorcade peers around the County Criminal Courts building on the corner of Houston and Main streets. If the player sights properly before the motorcade’s arrival, he can successfully take out William Greer, the presidential limousine’s driver, just before he turns right onto Houston from Main. Because the game runs both a sophisticated physics simulation and is aware of agent casualties, shooting the driver alternately stops the vehicle or causes it to speed ahead, either onto the grass of Dealey Plaza or into an embankment on the other side of Houston St. Once the vehicle stops, the assassin has a relatively clear shot at a stationary President in the back of the limo. And this scenario is but one of many possible alternatives made possible by the procedural interaction of the motorcade’s physics model and the passenger casualty behaviors.

Without a doubt, this is a disquieting experience to have with a videogame.

Without a doubt, this is a disquieting experience to have with a videogame. But as someone who has no personal memory of Kennedy or his assassination, the man and the event has only ever entered my consciousness as mythology. JFK Reloaded had two distinct and very different effects on me as a player and as a citizen. First, it embodied me as an assassin like no other videogame has done. Many — perhaps most — games put the player in first–person view behind a firearm, but few are as physically demanding as JFK Reloaded. The precision and accuracy required to pull off the three shots of the Warren Commission Report not only struck me as nearly impossible (perhaps casting doubt rather than clarity on that particular historical record) but also gave me the chilling feeling of the assassin’s psychopathology. And like Waco Resurrection or 9–11 Survivor, the impression I got from taking the role of the assassin extended far beyond the specific historical moment recreated in the game. In particular, the game gave me an impression of the performativity assassination itself, the planned, almost choreographed actions and their potential impact on a populous. The simulation seemed to suggest that the task of killing President Kennedy could be more “efficiently” carried out, to put it crassly. Why did Oswald take the specific actions he did? Decades of historians, forensic scientists, and conspiracy theorists can try their hand at answering the question. But JFK Reloaded made me realize that the assassin’s role, unlike the military sniper’s, is that of spectacle as much as accuracy.

This notion of spectacle leads me to the game’s second effect. While the nation’s shock at Kennedy’s death assuredly would not have been any less sharp had Oswald taken a first shot at Greer and then a second at the President, now a sitting duck [7]. But certainly JFK’s legacy would have been dramatically changed had he met a less spectacular end. Certainly Kennedy’s tragic demise closed the door on a great deal of criticism about his personal life — criticism we would relive 35 years later with Bill Clinton. But more importantly, Kennedy’s administration witnessed some of the most complex and mysterious events of the twentieth century. The Vietnam conflict that John Kerry and others would play out was sown during Kennedy’s tenure; Kennedy oversaw the unauthorized CIA operation that led to the Bay of Pigs invasion; and, of course there’s the whole question of where union leader Jimmy Hoffa really is. Kennedy was a man who took things into his own hands, and no matter how we may feel about his spectacular public execution, there is no denying that it contributes to his legacy.

Jared Diamond’s purpose was to expose the underlying patterns that determine why history played out in the way it did. Diamond is not concerned with individual historical figures or even specific historical moments except as they participate in the much broader scope of historical possibility. By writing a procedural history, Diamond gives us access to a system for making sense of individual historical moments and personalities. Even though they appear to represent or recreate historical events, games like JFK Reloaded and Waco Resurrection serve much the same purpose: they represent the material, social, and cultural conditions that underlie historical events. Given the opportunities historical videogames espouse, it should be possible to construct videogames that facilitate player understanding of contemporary political processes and issues. Keeping this notion of procedural expression in mind, now I would like to return to political practice and ask how games can change and improve citizens’ engagement with politics, advocacy, and public policy.

 

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Procedural Rhetoric

Gonzalo Frasca generalizes the social function conveyed by games to simulations in general. “Simulation authors,” says Frasca, “do not represent a particular event, but a set of potential events. Because of this, they have to think about their objects as systems and consider which are the laws that rule their behaviors. In a similar way, people who interpret simulations create a mental model of it by inferring the rules that govern it” (Frasca, 2001). In such simulations, says Frasca, “... the goal of the player would be to analyze, contest and revise the model’s rules according to his personal ideas and beliefs.” Under this rubric, games become rhetorical opinion texts that players can explore rather than merely read or view.

Games like Waco Resurrection and JFK Reloaded are procedurally expressive; they embody their commentary in their rules. These games aren’t explicitly rhetorical or persuasive, but they do invite the player to participate in their representation. A game like Balance of the Planet, discussed briefly above, has persuasion as its primary expressive goal, in this case persuasion toward a certain ecological belief. When games leverage procedural expression to represent, communicate, or persuade the player toward a particular biased point of view, they exhibit what I call procedural rhetoric (Bogost, forthcoming). Playing such games can have a political impact because they allow players to embody political positions and engage in political actions many will never have previously experienced, and because they make it possible for players to deepen their understanding of the multiple causal forces that affect any given, always unique, set of historical circumstances. I want to suggest that procedural rhetoric is precisely what is missing from current uses of technology for politics.

Playing such games can have a political impact because they allow players to embody political positions and engage in political actions many will never have previously experienced ...

In December 2003, Gonzalo Frasca and I co–designed the first ever videogame endorsed by a U.S. Presidential Candidate. The Howard Dean for Iowa Game was commissioned by Dean for America to help fencesitter supporters understand the process and power of grassroots outreach (Persuasive Games, 2003). The Dean Game helped open a new genre of political videogames. In the game, players made a virtual trip to Iowa in order to help campaign for a Dean win in the important Iowa Caucus. They recruited friends and acquaintances to join the campaign, canvassed neighborhoods, passed out pamphlets, and waved Dean signs to encourage Iowans to attend the caucus and stand in support of Howard Dean. Despite its success building a virtual community of hundreds of thousands of supporters, the campaign had a continually harder time reaching out beyond that core audience. Part of the reason was the abstractness of its communications strategy. Technophile Deaniacs evangelized the benefit of decentralized decision–making, but the average citizen couldn’t necessarily grasp such a vague concept. In addition, more and more potentially sympathetic supporters simply didn’t understand what “getting involved” really meant. Go to a meetup to do what? The campaign (rightly) saw this challenge as a great obstacle to their broad acceptance.

The game was designed with two core procedural rhetorics to address this challenge. The first was a procedural representation of the logic of grassroots outreach. The game featured a simplified map of Iowa, split up into semi–arbitrary regions. At the start of the game, the player had only one supporter unit available, him or herself. The player could place that supporter anywhere on the map. After having set the effectiveness of a supporter through a campaign mini–game (more on that in a moment), that supporter worked non–stop, enacting “virtual outreach” to win over other virtual Iowans. In the main map screen, more effective virtual supporters worked more quickly in their region; a circular gauge showed their progress. When the gauge filled, a new supporter spawned, ready for the player to place for additional outreach. Multiple supporters in the same region would work together, speeding up the outreach process.

As the game progressed, the speed of supporter generation increased exponentially. As players positioned supporters to work together on the map, their reach and effectiveness increased. The map also represented relative levels of Dean support in each region, depicting more support in a darker shade of blue. While the game was a single–player Web–distributed experience, the outreach that each player completed in a single session was saved to a server. This data was normalized for each player, allowing individual players to take advantage of the “real” in–game outreach their fellow players had already completed (see Bogost, 2004). In so doing, the game allowed the player to experienced an accelerated network effect — concretely communicating the rather abstract idea that one supporter can actually make a difference in the campaign.

The second procedural rhetoric was a simplified representation of the kinds of real–world action supporters could perform once connected to a local group. The game was created on a very short timeframe, and so only three types of activity were represented — sign–waving, door–to–door canvassing, and pamphleteering. Each time the player placed a supporter unit onto the Iowa map, the game would load one of these campaign mini–games. The player’s performance in the mini–games dictated that supporter’s effectiveness on the main Iowa map. The three mini–games each deployed extremely simplified representations of each of these outreach activities; for example, to play the sign waver mini–game, the player positioned a supporter near as many passing pedestrians as possible and clicked to wave a sign. By creating simplified patterns of action to represent each of these activities, we hoped to create a coherent understanding of what it meant to get involved. Interestingly, by repeating the same three mini–games in sequence for every supporter the player generated, we also represented the repetitiveness of grassroots outreach, a fact not lost on many players.

Qualitative analysis of online responses to the game suggested that many would–be supporters did gain an increased appreciation for the campaign’s grassroots outreach strategy. But the most interesting responses provided an insight that the campaign itself would fail to recognize, tragically, until after the Iowa caucus dismantled the campaign. While the game did provide an accurate and convincing procedural rhetoric for grassroots outreach itself, it failed to distinguish Dean from any other political candidate. As PopMatters.com reviewer Sean Trundle wrote:

“I have to believe that there’s more difference between any two candidates than the image on the front of a brochure or the name on a sign. And if there isn’t, or if this game leads people to believe that there isn’t, won’t it have the opposite of its desired effect? If handing out leaflets for Dean is the same thing as handing out leaflets for Kucinich, why should I vote for either of them?” [8]

After collecting numerous iterations of this same sentiment, I concluded that The Howard Dean for Iowa game hadn’t failed in its mission — create a procedural representation of grassroots outreach — but in its conception. And that conception ran deep into the heart of the Dean campaign itself. When I shared our qualitative assessment of these responses with the campaign, encouraging them to use such evidence as a reason to talk more about policy and less about grassroots supporters, I was kindly reminded that the main challenge the campaign faced was indeed numbers — getting as many people as possible involved. I remain convinced that this failure to put coherent political rhetoric in the hands of its army of supporters was the Achilles’ heel of the campaign.

Taking this lesson to heart, I focused special attention on the procedural representation of public policy in later election games. In the early fall 2004, the Illinois House Republicans commissioned a game I designed to represent their positions on several public policy issues at the center of their 2004 state legislative election. These issues — medical malpractice tort reform, education standards policy, and local economic development — are abstract and dry at best. As such, citizens would be even less likely to have engaged them in the public or private forum, which provided only soapbox sound bites or lengthy, unreadable policy documentation. Moreover these topics, like most public policy issues, are tightly interwoven with one another. Educational quality affects job qualification, which in turn affects economic welfare. Take Back Illinois (Persuasive Games, 2004) was an attempt to create a complex, interrelated procedural rhetoric that communicated the candidates’ positions on these topics.

Take Back Illinois offered four games in one, three for each of the policy issues and one Howard Dean–like game about the power of citizen participation. These sub–games were interrelated; play in one affects performance in the others. Each sub–game provides a goal for the player you have to reach. For example, in the Medical Malpractice Reform sub–game, the player must raise the public heath level above 80 percent. The sub–game goal and the player’s progress toward it were displayed directly under the game field. A small calendar served as a timer for the game. The calendar starts at 1 January and counts up one day for every few seconds of game time. To win, the player had to reach the goal before the calendar reaches the end of the year.

The procedural rhetoric for each policy issue was carefully designed to compress as much detail into the smallest possible ruleset. For example, in the Medical Malpractice Reform sub–game, a representation of a city was filled with citizens of varying health (health, ill, gravely ill). Unwell citizens were contagious, and healthy citizens nearby them would eventually become ill themselves. If left untreated, gravely ill citizens would die. The city contained several medical offices, and the player could send sick citizens to those offices for treatment. However, Illinois suffered under unusually high medical malpractice insurance rates, much higher than its neighboring states. The candidates’ position on tort reform was partially motivated by the potential reduction in insurance rates such changes would encourage. The game provided a “Policy Panel” which allowed the player to change simple public policy settings for the game environment. In this case, the player could alter maximum non–economic damages awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits as well as money invested in medical research to prevent repeat tragedies. In the Medical Malpractice sub–game, maintaining a high threshold on non–economic damages keeps insurance rates high, which is likely to cause doctors to leave the state. Once this happens, the medical office dims and the player can no longer treat citizens there.

The other policy sub–games created similar procedural rhetorics for each of the issues. In the Education Reform sub–game, players had to simultaneously manage a handful of school districts across the state. Some districts started out with different educational standards in place, and some districts enjoyed disproportionate teacher funding. To play the game, the player had to “teach” in each district by keying in a Simon–like memory sequence that corresponded with the educational standard in each district. The policy position embodied in the game’s procedural rhetoric was precisely that maintaining multiple standards across the state made the educational system on the whole difficult to manage. Players would quickly understand this position upon being forced to remember four or five different memory sequences for all the schools. To play more efficiently, the player could reassign standards on a district–by–district basis using the Policy Panel. The player could also reassign funding to needy schools in order to raise their educational output.

In public forums, policy issues are often discussed independently, even though most are bound to one another in significant ways. To communicate the rhetoric of interrelations, Take Back Illinois maintained a set of scores for each sub–game and used those scores as inputs for settings in other games. For example, higher performance in the Educational Reform sub–game increased the efficiency of job training centers in the Economic Development game.

To play the game successfully, the player is forced to acknowledge the campaign’s position on the issues it represents — for example, it is impossible to win the Medical Malpractice Reform sub–game without reducing maximum non–economic damages for malpractice lawsuits. The game’s procedural rhetoric is a compressed version of the campaign’s policy position. In playing the game, the player is not “brainwashed” or otherwise fooled into adopting the candidates’ policy position, but rather he is afforded an understanding of that position for further inquiry, agreement, or disapproval.

 

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Playing Politics

Through procedural rhetoric, videogames can create highly compressed versions of the embodied experiences both of other citizens and of policymakers that the Take Back Illinois offers a rich example of the potential role for procedural rhetoric in political communications. Literacy expert James Gee argues that literacy is best suited to semiotic domains, embodied contexts of environmental and social practices in which individual knowledge gains distinct meaning (Gee, 2003). Creating embodied experience of public policy issues is very difficult, and our current methods for doing so are either too meager or too detailed. Games such as those discussed above differ from political simulations meant to guide decision–making, such as the public policy simulations the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) runs to guide economic policy. They also differ from computer systems used by the Pentagon to model political responses to current or potential conflict. Whereas these computer simulations strive to be predictive, videogames like Take Back Illinois strive to be expressive; rhetoricians fundamentally interest themselves in making convincing arguments in favor of a specific point of view. Procedural rhetoric always remains open to reconsideration, objection, or expansion, whether through further procedural models or normal written and spoken discourse.

To hold the Internet as the apotheosis of technology–enabled campaigning ignores the procedural power of computers, discounting the very core of what makes computation a meaningful medium for expression.

Even though I believe that procedural rhetoric is the missing link in the future of technology–based campaigning, the “five Dean campaign innovations” also remain central to such strategies. What blogs, meetups, and news–bound fundraising fall down is in rallying conversation around the issues, instead of rallying conversation around the communication tools themselves. The Internet’s affordances for rapid updates and ad hoc access have opened new frontiers for the dissemination of information and the creation of communities. What the Internet cannot provide is meaningful subject matter upon which to focus that attention. To hold the Internet as the apotheosis of technology–enabled campaigning ignores the procedural power of computers, discounting the very core of what makes computation a meaningful medium for expression. As a culturally relevant, procedurally replete medium, videogames offer a promising way to foreground the complexities of political issues without overwhelming the layperson.

While some political opinion is black and white, most issues occupy grey areas, heavily influenced by other public policy issues. Can healthcare reform really be separated from taxation, national budgeting, tort reform, and social security reform? Policy issues are complex systems that recombine and interrelate with one another. Videogames afford a new perspective on political issues, since they are especially effective at representing complex systems. By understanding how games express rhetoric in their rules, we not only gain a critical vantage point on videogame artifacts, but also we can begin to consider how to design games whose primary purpose is to editorialize, teach, and make political statements. End of article

 

About the author

Dr. Ian Bogost, Assistant Professor of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Institute of Technology, creates political games for educational and campaign use. He is the author of Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006) and the forthcoming Persuasive Games: Expressive Power of Videogames (MIT Press).
Web: http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/~bogost, http://www.watercoolergames.org, http://www.persuasivegames.com
E–mail: ian [dot] bogost [at] lcc [dot] gatech [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. See http://www.grassroots.com, a paradigm for marriages between Silicon Valley and Beltway interests.

2. Far from being relegated to the world of politics alone, Meetup.com supports communities of almost every kind, from pug owners to anime fans.

3. See http://www.friendster.com.

4. See http://www.linkedin.com. LinkedIn was founded by former PayPal EVP Reid Hoffman. PayPal was an early innovator in person–to–person networks for ad hoc financial transactions. The company was acquired by eBay in 2002.

5. See http://www.spritofamerica.net.

6. Despite the popularity of this term among political cyberpundits, emergence is really an imprecise way to characterize ad hoc person–to–person networking. The term is adapted from its use in complex systems theory, where it refers to coherent structures and patterns that come from small–scale interactions over time. An often–cited example of emergent systems is the ant colony, in which each ant acts in accordance with its own surroundings rather than receiving commands from some centralized source.

7. One conspiracy theory even suggests that Greer himself might have fired the fatal shot. See http://community-2.webtv.net/Larry762/fontcolor3300FF/page4.html for a typical explanation.

8. See http://www.popmatters.com/multimedia/reviews/d/dean-for-iowa-game.shtml.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 15 August 2006; accepted 25 August 2006.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday.

Copyright ©2006, Ian Bogost.

Playing Politics: Videogames for Politics, Activism, and Advocacy by Ian Bogost
First Monday, special issue number 7 (September 2006),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/special11_9/bogost/index.html





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