[-empyre-] Videogames of the oppressed / oppressive games

paolo - molleindustria paolo at molleindustria.it
Mon Mar 4 03:20:05 EST 2013

Ok, I definitely should tell you a little more about what I do and throw 
in some extra conversation starters.

Since playing is time consuming and we are all busy, here's a video 
covering most of the games I made until 2010 (texts found on the internet):
You can also find videos and material about the more recent ones like 
Unmanned and Phone Story.

Anyway, Molleindustria is a project about games and ideology, it's a bit 
of art, media activism, research, and agitp[r]op.

The idea is to apply the culture jamming/tactical media (remember 
tactical media?) treatment to videogames: speading radical memes and, in 
the process, challenging the language of power, the infrastructures, the 
modes, genres and tropes of the dominant discourse which was omnipresent 
in videogame culture.

The half joke is that I came up with Molleindustria because I failed at 
starting my own television. In the early zerozero - mid Berlusconian age 
- we had pirate TV stations popping up in all the major Italian cities 
in what came to be known as the Telestreet movement. It wasn't just 
television with radical content, but a radically different way of making 
There was a nice medium-is-the-message / form-follows-content thing 
going on, resonating with software, net.art and hacker culture as well.
There was this idea that the political sphere was boundless: something 
we do, and we are subject to, every day and every moment. The half-naked 
show girls on prime time television, the charming millionaires of the 
soap opera Dallas, the software, the protocols, the fantasies coming 
from the booming-and-busting Silicon Valley were no less political than 
the occasional vote or the sanctioned spaces for political debate.
And, of course, the demonstrations in the streets, the boycotts, the 
occupations, the strikes…

And yes, I am very familiar with Gonzalo Frasca's work. I launched the 
project in 2003, the same year September 12th came out and Ian Bogost 
started to write about "videogames with an agenda".

One thing I share with them is the idea that videogames are 
representational media. They are always about things. There is, of 
course, a gradient of abstraction in that a game like SimCity is 
unquestionably about cities (or gardening) while a game like Tetris is 
about more general themes such as order vs disorder, control & 
optimization, or the tragicomical limits of human cognition.
The less abstract are the games, the more they tend to be problematic 
and fall under scrutiny. There is a lot of literature discussing the 
urbanist ideas advanced by SimCity or the portrayal of contemporary and 
historical conflicts in first person shooters or strategy games.

To interpret a game and to make games that mean something, people use a 
variety of approaches.
Some aspects can be tackled with traditional storytelling and 
narratology. For example, later this week, pop-feminist Anita Sarkeesian 
will launch the first installment of "Tropes vs women in games", an 
online video series dissecting the representation of women in videogames.
However, there are aspects of games that can't be fully understood by 
simply breaking down characters and plots. Games, simulations and 
interactive media are systems of rules, and these rules produce meaning 
as well: they define the relationships between the purely 
representational bits (images, sounds, text…) and the agency of the 
players within the system.
To be honest, we are still trying to figure out how this procedural 
rhetoric actually works and how people interpret these "texts" with so 
many moving parts. But that's the fascinating part.

I'm interested in promoting this kind of procedural literacy through my 
games. I believe games can get people used to "think in systems" and 
that a holistic, ecological, non-reductionist way of thinking is 
desperately needed in our [cliche' alert] increasingly interconnected 
world ravaged by global crisis.
Part of this literacy consists in understanding that digital and non 
digital models are informed by ideologies and systems of values (when it 
comes to scientific simulations the story is a bit more complicated). 
They are artful depictions of reality, and as such, we should describe 
them not in terms of how "realistic" they are, but in terms of the 
arguments they deploy and the narratives they support within the larger 
context. This is, by the way, the reason I often use satire, cartoonish 
styles, and a rather overt authorial "presence": to defuse the 
temptation of interpreting these games as objective.

I feel like I have to mention the issue of representation because there 
is another trend, another way to conceive and use games that has more to 
do with behavioral change. The marketing power fantasy referred as 
"gamification" is part of this trend, but also slightly more legitimized 
endeavors like the many exercise games pretending to fight obesity.
This approach is less concerned about the semiotics and the aesthetics 
of games, and more focused on games as systems of incentives to produce 
actual, quantifiable change in the way players behave outside of the 
game (if there is an outside). If you are not familiar with gamification 
and the like, imagine attributing arbitrary points and rewards to 
certain behaviors, pushing people to voluntary monitor these behaviors, 
and then creating the conditions for competition/self-evaluation based 
on the score system.

Commentators like Ian Bogost have called bullshit on gamification and I 
largely agree. But having worked in marketing in the past, I'm quite 
familiar with the structural hype cycles of the field. You have people 
overselling techniques to oversell services and products. Everybody is 
lying to everybody else on multiple levels, intra- and extra-corporate. 
But as a whole the advertising system works because it succeeds at 
pervading every corner of the mindscape with the discourse of consumption.

To me it is not too crucial to find out whether or not you can control 
people through game-like systems. What's more intriguing is that the 
fantasy is out there, strong and loud. Governments and corporations are 
investing lots of money in this idea.
Feasible or not, this is the object of desire of contemporary capitalism 
and as such it's worth investigating.
Is the fantasy of gamification a testament to the decline of money as 
the general, all-encompassing incentive to regulate human relations?
Could it be a premonition of the next power paradigm? We went from a 
disciplinary society (the stick) to a society of control (mass 
surveillance). Is the society of the incentive (the customized carrot) next?
Is gamification a tension toward the measurement of the unmeasurable 
(lifestyle, affects, activism, reputation, self esteem…), being 
measurement the precondition of commodification?


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