Videogames as Propaganda

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magine an RPG developer who is faced with a broken inventory system and decides to tackle the problem by writing more interesting back-stories for the game’s NPCs. Better writing might improve the game’s overall experience, but it doesn’t fix the inventory problem. This is essentially the same situation in which we find ourselves in American government. There are deep systemic problems with our government and society: a failing education system, the largest gap between rich and poor since the Depression, rising health care costs that threaten to collapse our economy, unaccountable military spending, a Senate incapacitated by arcane rules; the list goes on. Yet the only way we as a society try to address these problems is by electing new leaders, usually from the other party, who promise to solve them for us. While new personalities rotate on and off stage, the structural problems remain; the stars put on a show while the theater crumbles.

Much of the problem lies in a basic lack of public understanding of these systemic problems. Here is where videogames hold great promise. Videogames are systems, and so by their nature can be very good at replicating real systems. Through replication and direct interaction, a player can learn about a real system via its virtual counterpart.

Because it has great power for communication and learning, the videogame medium can also be used for misinformation or, more bluntly, propaganda. Instead of representing a smaller version of a system as it exists, videogames can create a more appealing alternate reality, disguised as the real thing, to deceive players into understanding the world as the designer would prefer. But how do we differentiate between an actual educational game, and one that purports to be instructive but is really designed to misinform? By looking at a game’s source or why it was created, its objective, and the system it creates, a player can decide for themselves if a game is trying to tell the truth or if it’s just propaganda. I’ll break down four games as examples.

The ReDistricting Game

The ReDistricting Game, developed by students and professors at USC School of Cinematic Arts, teaches players how congressional redistricting works in the US, and how the rules are used to political advantage. Most of us have heard the term “gerrymander”, and some may have an idea of what it means, but how well do we really know how it works and why it’s a problem? I happen to live in one of the most preposterously-shaped congressional districts in the country:

But why is it shaped that way? How does it effect elections? The ReDistricting Game answers these questions by forcing you to do the actual gerrymandering. You’ll have to follow the law by maintaining equal population numbers between districts, but you’ll also need to please representatives of your chosen party, interest groups, and your new district lines will need to pass through Congress. You must manipulate the population density and demographics to produce a favorable result for your party.

The ReDistricting Game does a great job of simplifying the problem, but not distorting it, and includes nearly all of the elements at play in real-life redistricting. Very importantly, their view of the problem is an accurate, non-partisan one. The game does not offer an immediate solution, but focuses on teaching the problem.

The most compelling part of the game is when you’re actually moving around the district lines on the map, and watching the effects of your actions in real-time. Edge a district line a little more south, and suddenly you’ve included a high density of Democratic-voting citizens, giving the Democratic candidate a sure chance of winning that district’s election. By allowing the player to directly manipulate the system and presenting the results immediately, the game forces the player to understand the system; conquering the game’s mechanics directly equates to comprehending redistricting.

The ReDistricting Game is conclusively not propaganda. It’s developed by professors and students of communication arts, with a clearly stated objective of teaching how redistricting and gerrymandering works, and it creates an honest representation of that system. There is no misinformation, and no deliberate skewing of reality for the sake of the objective or the designer’s motivations.

America’s Army

It’s been around since 2002 and is on its third iteration, so most of us are already well aware of the “realistic” first-person shooter created by the US Military. America’s Army started as a recruiting tool, but it has transformed into an FPS phenomenon. Having been around for so long, there has been plenty of scholarly discussion already on the game, and the Army freely admits it is propaganda. Still, we should take a look at specifically why it’s propaganda.

America’s Army was created to encourage young adults (males) to enter the military. Such intentions nearly immediately push the game into propaganda territory, but it’s technically possible to design a system that faithfully portrays the consequences of enlistment. America’s Army clearly does not provide that realistic system, however. As an FPS, it focuses on recreating one aspect of military life: combat. If the game succeeds at getting the player to join the military, there are many more aspects of military life that the player will experience, many of them negative, that America’s Army specifically leaves out. Even if we ignore the vast transformation of personal life involved, the military’s own objectives have shifted significantly since 2002, requiring the army to carry out far more non-traditional, non-combat missions. By focusing strictly on the FPS elements of military combat, America’s Army shows an obviously skewed reality of the military.

America’s Army is conclusively propaganda. While it provides a realistic combat system and clearly states its intended goal, it misinforms the player by not providing a system that honestly addresses the nature of the goal. The ReDistricting Game just wanted us to learn about redistricting, and it does that. America’s Army wants us to enlist, and it purposely avoids showing the player the full consequences of that decision.

The “Forever” Election Simulation Games

Theoryspark is a game developer that puts out election simulators for political science nerds, and for those looking to learn the intricacies of how campaigns are coordinated on a national scale. The Forever series simulates actual upcoming (and past) elections, allowing the player to manage the various resources that go into winning elections. At their core, the Forever games are just like other turn-based strategy games with clear-cut win scenarios. There’s a set of rules to learn, resources to manage, and opponents to out-pace.

Because there are so many variables that go into campaigns and elections, the Forever games are not a good way to try and predict the outcomes of actual elections – especially when dealing with hundreds of nationwide Congressional elections. Instead, Theoryspark creates a realistic starting point for the player, a snapshot of the actual political environment at the time the game is released, and the player then manipulates the outcome from there. Many aspects are beyond the player’s control, and all you can do is try to prepare for any bad press that might show up in the next news cycle.

The games do not put any emphasis on any one strategy, and are not biased toward any candidates. While some candidates may be “stronger” than others, it’s merely an attempt to simulate reality. If Theoryspark were trying to manipulate the player, it chose a rather poor way to go about it.

While one might argue about the legitimacy of the Forever series’ modeling, it is most certainly not propaganda. The objective of the games is to simulate a campaign for the player to manage themselves, with the added excitement of being attached to real candidates. The system that is provided does this successfully without committing any sort of election fraud. I would argue that the Forever games aren’t a very efficient teaching device, as they are rather limited in their audience – people who love both turned-based strategy games and running elections. That said, I would definitely suggest trying out the demos because they are pretty fun games.

U.O.Me

Please note that I have not played U.O.Me, as it has not yet been released. I am basing my opinion and analysis strictly off the developer’s previews and description.

U.O.Me is billed as an educational game, created by Eric Heis and Nicola Moore. They are employees of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative “think-tank” primarily responsible for the “Reagan Doctrine” of the 80′s, Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” during the 90′s, and much of the Republican Party’s policy agenda and political rhetoric over the last 30 years. The game makers are, in other words, distinctly partisan and have a vested interest in not just educating the public, but also advancing their ideas as the correct solutions.

U.O.Me wants you to pay off your share of what it calls “The Real” National Debt, $62 Trillion, or $201,000 per US citizen. Where does that $26 trillion number come from? US national debt is slightly over $13 trillion at the moment. It looks like they are using a figure that was passed around by Republicans during the 2008 Presidential campaign, which includes future liability on social services “promised” for future generations (actually these services are “promised” for the sake of budgeting because the reality is that Congress can change Social Security and Medicare eligibility laws). So the $62 trillion includes social service payouts far into the future that are currently “unfunded”, or unaccounted for. This appears to be the starting point for the game, and the actual gameplay revolves around making decisions on how to reduce this number. The developers’ hope is that “by the time the game is over, players will understand what a huge challenge reducing their personal share of the national debt really is.”

Unfortunately, U.O.Me begins its argument leaps and bounds beyond what the general public likely understands about the national debt. So much is taken for granted here about the problem that the rest of the game’s exercises in teaching solutions become useless. If the game was interested in truly educating on the national debt, it would first focus on laying out the difference between a yearly budget deficit, and the $13 trillion national debt – the two are quite often confused. Further, the difference between the $13 trillion and $62 trillion figures should be made very clear (also, $62 trillion is rather arbitrary – other “liability” estimates from the Federal Reserve reach as high as $109 trillion – it all depends on how far into the future you want to calculate). And let’s drop the $201,000 per US citizen number – it’s completely meaningless for at a few reasons: if you’re including future debt, you need to include future population; we have a progressive tax code, so there is no reason to assume lower and middle class citizens “owe” as much as the wealthy; the number suggests an inherent misunderstanding of the debt problem, which does not leave me confident in the game’s solutions.

U.O.Me also looks to make at least one critical mistake with player-game interaction. The preview shows a part of the game where the player runs back and forth, catching falling money in a pot. What that has to do with solving the national debt, I have no idea, but it reeks of a lazy attempt to associate two opposing concepts: “conservative fiscal policy” and “fun.”

Rather than implement an interactive system that teaches the player about the hard choices our country faces, U.O.Me is most definitely a piece of political propaganda. $62 trillion and $201,000 are artificial numbers useful for sound bytes but they do not represent the complex reality of the debt problem – in this case, by simplifying, the game is distorting. The game’s stated objective is invalidated because the game refuses to approach the problem honestly. With U.O.Me, the system (or lack of one) reveals an alternate objective to the stated one: push conservative rhetoric about national debt.

Society and government are complex systems, made up of many smaller systems. Videogames are also systems, and “winning” at a videogame means successfully understanding that system. This dynamic makes games a great potential source for learning about society and government. The ReDistricting Game teaches us how redistricting works; The Forever series teaches us how campaigns are managed. America’s Army teaches how soldiers kill, but not much else; U.O.Me distorts the system it attempts to simulate, ruining any lesson it might try to give.

I am sure that more games will continue to be made that model our real political environment, the kind of games that teach us how our system really works (there are many more already than mentioned here). Only by understanding how our government works as a system can we hope to improve it. But we’ll also need to stay vigilant in dismissing misinformation and deception in these games. Allowing The ReDistricting Game into the classrooms of young students could be of great benefit, possibly educating enough individuals to create a successful movement that finds a solution to the problem. But allowing a game like U.O.Me into the classroom would be disastrous, a blow to the honest public debate required to keep a democracy strong.

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