Games for the Many – 'a UK non-profit workers cooperative of games designers, developers and artists trying to make a differenceæ, created the viral election game CorbynRun in 2017that reached over two million people.
Victor Fleurot, co-founder of 2084/ and the Civic Game Jam series, delivered a workshop on video games and socio-political change in the Transeuropa festival, which took place on 24-29 October in Madrid. In the festival’s context of promoting pan-European processes of solidarity, participants in the workshop were able to plan the design of video games with a focus on activism and civic innovation using the new formats and interactive mechanisms offered by digital games.
Joan Pedro-Carañana (J.P-C.) Could you explain the main idea of the Civic Game Jam?
Victor Fleurot (VF): The Civic Game Jam brings together game developers and activists to make video games on social and political issues. The third edition will take place in Berlin on 18 November at the BTK University of Art and Design. We want to show that games can raise political awareness, challenge existing practices and open new channels for civic engagement.
J.P-C. What organisations are behind this initiative? Could you explain the process that led you to come together for this?
VF: The series is a joint initiative by visual activism platform 2084/, game community website Berlingamescene.com and the BTK University of Art and Design in Berlin. The dedicated team of ten volunteers also includes game designers, workshop facilitators, students and civic games enthusiasts.
We all share an interest in exploring video games as a medium for political narration and civic engagement. As it turned out, late 2016 and early 2017 was a time of intense political soul-searching for many. This made it easier to bridge the gap between activists and game developers.
J.P-C. What brought you to video games in the first place?
VF: Many different reasons. Video games offer a level of immersion and interaction that few other forms of creative expression can match. Like films, it has taken time for games to be taken seriously as an artform, but that is finally happening. Political theatre and documentaries can find a digital extension through games. We are constantly debating the influence of technology on our societies and politics. Why not use a medium at the heart of technological changes to express critical ideas on these developments?
J.P-C. Could you provide some examples of video games that have been developed to promote social and political change?
VF: Early influential figures in this field include game designer and researcher Gonzalo Frasca as well as Paolo Pedercini, founder of Molleindustria. Their political games cover topics from the war in Afghanistan to the unsustainability of the food industry. Another classic example is “Papers, Please”, a game about an immigration officer at a fictional border crossing. The game’s success exposed a large audience to its mix of geopolitical and personal ethical questions. Thanks to the work of game educators such as Tracy Fullerton, a new generation of developers is working on inclusive, non-mainstream games that are pushing the medium's political boundaries.
Civic Game Jam presentation at the Transeuropa festival. Joan Pedro-Carañana. All rights reserved.
A new generation of developers is working on inclusive, non-mainstream games that are pushing the medium's political boundaries.
J.P-C. What are the key elements to consider in the development of video games for social change?
VF: From our experience with Civic Game Jam, the most powerful games are those that combine social and political awareness with effective game mechanics. For this to happen you need people with advanced game design skills to translate political issues into intuitive and provocative experiences. Like novels and films, it's a very fine balance between profound stories that lack engaging mechanics and works of high entertainment value that only skim the surface of political issues. When the balance is right, the results can be eye-opening. It usually takes a mixture of confidence and humility for people with different skill sets to get the most out of their creative potential.
J.P-C. I was very interested in your explanation about how video games often give an illusion of agency. Could you explain this for our readers?
VF: This is particularly true for political and civic games, although it may apply to some extent to games in general.
There is a strong element of manipulation by offering choices that have pre-defined outcomes. When you watch a Michael Moore documentary or an investigative report, you may get the feeling that logical steps are being taken that you would personally question. If you feel a clear disconnect, the conclusions and overall message will not resonate with you. There is a strong element of manipulation by offering choices that have pre-defined outcomes.
But in a game, these logical constructs can feel much more intuitive because you are given the choice of how to proceed at different points in the game. So the outcome feels like the logical consequence of your personal decisions, which is much harder to question or disentangle. Another aspect is the manipulation through reward mechanisms that nudge people into taking certain actions. Just like Orson Welles and Guy Debord did with film and TV, those powerful tools that can also be addressed critically through games.
J.P-C. What are the current power relations between the development of alternative video games and the big corporations that dominate in the industry?
VF: I do not have enough experience and inside knowledge of the industry to answer this question. But it is clearly a very sensitive topic that will impact the development of video games as a diverse, inclusive medium. The hope would be that the more people value games' cultural contribution, the more game developers will be able to explore different genres and production models.
J.P-C. Do you think it is possible to reduce the power of corporations so that alternative games may become more important? How?
VF: As with the arts in general, state funding and support can help to maintain a level of diversity and experimentation. Interestingly, while some of the new right wing anti-establishment movements have tried to use video game forums and aesthetics for their cause, it is radical left wing politicians who have openly talked about their cultural potential.
Talking about the potential for video-games at Transeuropa festival.
Mélenchon in the 2017 French elections… vowed to develop a national video game agency if elected.
This was the case of Mélenchon in the 2017 French elections, as he vowed to develop a national video game agency if elected. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn's supporters have launched “Games for the Many” to make political games and bring together politically active game developers.
J.P-C. What plans do you have for the future?
VF: It has been an amazing first year for the Civic Game Jam with three editions in March, July and November in Berlin. We are planning the 2018 series and establishing contacts to build a network of European cities and expand the concept beyond Berlin. Everyone with an interest in the topic is welcome to get in touch and join the civic game community as we expand to cover more themes and broaden the range of formats.
Victor Fleurot at Transeuropa festival. Joan Pedro-Carañana. All rights reserved.