Gaming under socialism

In a recent episode of the politics/comedy podcast Chapo Trap House, a listener asked “What can socialism do for gamers’ rights?”. The question was obviously a joke, but the hosts produced a humorous and somewhat thoughtful answer.
Thankfully, there is no such a thing as “gamers’ rights” in the sense of something distinct from consumer rights. The joke was likely a reference to the sense of entitlement and tribal identification that fueled the gamergate campaign. But the question of what gaming would look like in a socialist world has haunted me for days. Not only because I’m a leftist and I care about games, but because of how it relates to many crucial issues of 21st century radicalism.

When imagining socialism it’s easy to picture utopian or dystopian visions pulled from Star Trek or 1984, but a near-future socialist system wouldn’t look so radically different from the one we live in. We can imagine it without resorting to fictional technologies or elaborate space exploration allegories.

Traditionally, socialists have been reluctant to prescribe detailed visions of the society they would like to establish, focusing instead on contradictions of capitalism and providing generic formulas like “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. One of Marx and Engels’ earliest ideological battles was against utopian socialists like Proudhon, who proposed visions of perfect societies without an analysis of class conflicts and historical contingencies.

Utopian socialists, marxists, and anarchists tend to share the idea that once the bourgeois state is abolished, moving toward an ideal society would require a continuous free experimentation of practices, an application of the scientific method to social problems — that is, science as a self-correcting system based on concrete data.

In this view, once the universal ideals of freedom and equality are established as parameters for success, a blueprint for a socialist world is unnecessary because it would emerge organically once truly democratic systems are in place.

However, the lack of images of a socialist future is a huge challenge to the Left because it leaves us only with the failed examples of “actually existing socialism” from the 20th century. Even if the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc demonstrated a remarkable technological prowess, they didn’t seem to have a particularly lively game culture.

Tetris didn’t really take off until it was published in the West. Consoles and coin-ops were essentially rip-offs of American and Japanese products. They were expensive and mostly themed around war.

Since the end of the Cold War, the current capitalist hegemony has not been based on proposing neoliberalism as the best option, but rather as the only possible option. That’s why I think it’s important to exercise some radical imagination.

A game industry without bosses

To put it bluntly, the end goal of socialism is to socialize and democratize the means of production.
This comes from the understanding that much of the injustice in this world is the result of a small class of people leveraging these means of production to exploit other people’s labor, accumulating more wealth and power in the process.
Many corporations are already collectively owned: they are driven by swarms of investors and bound by a ruthless competition that forces them to constantly maximize the exploitation of their workers and the environment. With nothing but atomized greed in charge, with weak regulations and no accountability, capitalism represents familiar contradictions and crisis: inequality, unemployment, bubbles and overproduction, environmental devastation, and so on.
Socialism wouldn’t automatically solve these problems, but it would at least provide a framework to address them, letting citizens democratically decide what to produce, how to produce it, and what to do with the surplus.

 In my kind of socialism, big game companies would be run cooperatively by workers. They would be confederated to allow the sharing of resources while maintaining a good deal of creative autonomy.
The exploitative labor practice known as crunch time, would likely be disappear in a democratic workplace, or be activated only in emergency cases.
Cyclical layoffs are a common occurrence even in successful companies and cause a good deal of stress and instability among employees. The industry has plenty of horror stories of people getting laid off, rehired, and laid off again by the same company, due to poor planning or to the inconsistency of game development cycles.
With a low level of competition between companies and a high level of coordination between projects, such misalignments and redundancies would be mitigated.

Game folks are experts at solving this kind of problem: all management games deal with optimization of limited resources. Imagine the internal management practices of a typical company abstracted to a higher level to coordinate different units around the world.
We are talking about a creative industry which needs a dynamic ecosystem, support for individuals with a vision, and room to experiment and fail. Technological and cultural production is inherently non uniform, fast-changing, and unpredictable. Permanent employment in the game industry, in the classic industrial unionist sense, may not be possible without causing stagnation and inefficiencies.

But this structural flexibility doesn’t have to translate to workers’ precarity. The idea of Flexicurity, while still somewhat vague, is meant to address this dilemma. Flexicurity is a set of principles meant to increase adaptability without deteriorating the working conditions. In other words, high mobility in the labor market combined with social security, unemployment services, and lifelong learning. Some implementations of this model already exist in European economies.

Workplace democracy would also create spaces to address more subtle forms of exploitation, such as gender and racial discrimination, which are pervasive in male dominated industries and across the tech sector. Of course, socialism would not magically transform sexist individuals, and, of course, we don’t have to wait for a revolution to fight discrimination: enlightened companies can implement equitable and diverse workplaces under capitalism as well. But the institution of horizontal structures and regular assemblies on the workplace would create a culture of cooperation and participation. Employees will be empowered to call out abusers and express grievances.

Indies of the world, unite!

The rise of independent development already gives us a glimpse of a socialist future in which game makers can define their own labor practices, share revenues more equitably, and be less subservient to publishers and marketers. What is still missing, especially in the United States, are structures to support independent efforts.
Indie success stories typically involve individuals working on multi-year projects without income or health insurance, risking their personal savings or going deep into debt.
We shouldn’t romanticize self-sacrifice and financial risk-taking, and be aware of how survivorship bias shapes our idea of success.

Indies would have major advantages in a socialist country, or even in a more easily achievable social democracy.
Universal healthcare and public education would reduce the pressure to work for a company at any condition just to pay student debt and get health coverage. The possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, already threatens the career of many American indie developers.
Public funding for the arts, despised by free-market fundamentalists and widely supported by progressives, would support the most original projects and help build a thriving independent community. Business stimulus money from industry bodies would help kickstart more ambitious projects. Today, the Ontario Media Development Corporation (part of the Ministry of Culture) offers $250K production grants to Ontario-based indies.
Some form of Universal Basic Income is likely to be introduced in the transition to a socialist economy, and would further empower artists to pursue independent endeavor (more about this below).

Seizing the means of distribution

One could argue that in the game industry the means of production are already in the hands of the people. Making games doesn’t necessary require huge capital or machinery. Game engines, open source code, know-how, and assets are accessible to anybody with enough time and passion. It’s a general outcome of digitalization and the Internet: anybody can make games, almost with the same ease as creating thinkpieces, or shooting funny cat videos.
As I pointed out in the past, this excess of creativity and the democratization of cultural production goes hand in hand with a shift toward the control of distribution platforms by corporate conglomerates. If the “content” is abundant and therefore cheap, then the best way to make money is to control the way it is distributed, aggregated, filtered, and made artificially scarce.

The vectoral class, as defined by McKenzie Wark in A Hacker Manifesto, manifests itself in the game industry with digital marketplaces like Steam, the App store, or Playstation Network. These platforms leverage their exclusive control over hardware, operating systems, protocols, and pre-existing user bases (i.e. the kind of capital that is *not* in the hand of the people) in order to impose a sort of tax on the content that is sold or bought.
At least 30% of what you spend on a game goes to distributors like Steam or the App Store. Additionally, game makers may have to subscribe to developer programs, or acquire costly development kits for the “privilege” of accessing users.
Think about it: developers actually make the games, they promote them, they assume all the risks, they are forced to comply to terms of services that limit freedom of expression. Meanwhile platform capitalists like Steam don’t do shit beside maintaining aggregators and devising baroque anti-piracy systems.

There’s no point in socializing production without socializing distribution as well. Digital monopolies amount to little more than protocols and these protocols can be modified if they lock-in and screw over users and developers. Digital marketplaces can be democratized by instituting full revenue-sharing systems and by allowing stakeholders and end-users decide how much to reinvest in the platform. Much of the work of content filtration and ranking is already performed by the gaming communities (ratings, tagging, curating, greenlighting, etc.). To the gamer, a socialized Steam would pretty much look like the current Steam.

The alternative distribution channel itch.io is already putting more focus on community building and inclusivity. Itch.io has no submission fees or draconian guidelines, it provides tools for game makers to organize game jams and share assets. More notably, the majority of titles are available on a Pay What You Want basis, which is built upon a meaningful fan-developer relationship. Compare this to to Steam’s manipulative sales that pit loyal fans against opportunistic ones while encouraging a digital hoarding behavior.

No five year game plans

One of the main goals of socialism is to rationalize production in order to avoid under- and overproduction, ensure sustainable development, and address the paradox of unemployment.
But nobody wants a bureaucracy in charge of determining how many and which games need to be made. Video games are non-essential goods at the bleeding edge of technological innovation, their production cannot be centrally planned according the projected “needs” of a population. In these circumstances it may be a good idea to keep voting with our wallets.

Money, or some kind of credit, will still exist in a near-future socialism. Money has a bad reputation among radicals, because it appears to be both the mean and the end of all forms of economic exploitation. But money and price systems can also be seen as mere technologies to attribute value to things. A consumer market functions as a distributed, emergent computing system in which prices are the synthesis of a multitude of ever-changing desires and conditions.
Moreover, letting people determine how to spend money is the most practical way to allow for different lifestyles and work/life balances. The crucial part would be preventing the allocation of wealth into the kind of private property that can reignite a process of accumulation or speculation.

Today, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter allow producers to gauge the demand for innovative products. They eliminate the need of publishers and investors who can front money (expecting a return), and socialize the entrepreneurial risk among the users who believe in the viability of certain ideas.
Peer funding systems like Patreon support the careers of individual artists or projects that don’t fit the Kickstarter model of a flashy, one-off, capital intensive product.

It’s not hard to imagine public crowdfunding platforms that empower both consumers and ambitious creators without extracting significant fees. Admittedly, crowdfunding often resembles a consumerist popularity contest dominated by already established creators. But it wouldn’t be the only way to pitch ideas. Other kinds of grants directed by experts in the various fields would identify and support less populist endeavors, not unlike the many art and science granting initiatives we have in place today.

It’s also possible to imagine a kind of socialism or transitional society in which everything works pretty much like a market economy, with free enterprise in all sectors except for the financial one, which would be socialized.
In this model, financial institutions would loan money according to democratically set priorities and not to mere profitability. Additionally, an entirely public financial system would end speculation, predatory loans, and other unproductive ways of making money from money.
In the gaming field this could affect more structural types of innovation: it is possible that, given the possibility, a population would decide to prioritize green technologies and cancer research rather than sophisticated virtual reality hardware or esport stadiums. Democracy can be a pain sometimes.

Gaming Commons

Capitalism’s inherent drive toward expansion results in the commoditization of more and more aspects of our existence. Relationships are captured and turned into commodities by social media; care work traditionally done by women within the family is increasingly professionalized; abundant resources like water are made artificially scarce and sold for a profit; the DNA of organisms emerging from the labor of generations of farmers are patented; the few remaining public services are under constant threat of privatization.
The promise of socialism is exactly the opposite: to de-commoditize an increasing portion of what we make and do, starting from basic needs such as food and shelter, education, healthcare, childcare, and even access to transportation and information. In other words it’s a struggle for the expansion of guaranteed human rights. The right to life, education, or mobility, for instance, should take precedence over the right of the entrepreneurial class to profit from health services, schools, or ride sharing apps.

Digital games are non-rivalrous goods in that they can be easily reproduced and distributed at almost no cost. Because of their potential abundance, they are perfect candidates for decommodification. The obvious question “how can developers make a living if their games are available for free?” has a variety of answers that intersect with all the issues presented here. Public funding for games can be conditioned to the public availability of the work (as it happens, in theory, with publicly funded scientific research); voluntary support and peer patronage can integrate forms of Universal Basic Income; a reduction of the workday would allow more time for self-motivated activities.

Many independent gamemakers (not to mention artists, writers, or musicians) already produce important cultural work without expecting any significant income from it. What they get instead is social capital, respect within their communities, a sense of purpose that alienating jobs can’t provide.
But operating in a gift economy under capitalism can be privilege. Many aspiring artists simply don’t have the required surplus of income or time, the family support or the environment to work for glory and “exposure”. Moreover, free cultural work is regularly harnessed and exploited by a class of speculators: from platform capitalists harnessing user generated content, to landlords cashing on the desirability of creative neighborhoods; from marketers ripping off emerging street styles, to art world professionals making a career off unpaid labor.
Culture can be conceived as a common good which anybody can access to and remix as long as we are able to compensate prosumers according to the different degrees of participation.

Socialism was theorized before the emergence of the cultural industries, and it is still associated to the early industrial era. Old timey socialists often fetishize the blue-collar working class and are unable to update their analysis and demands to economies centered around immaterial labor and services. It doesn’t have to be that way. Countless of thinkers and activists have been updating, complicating, hybridizing traditional critiques of capitalism to address the ever-changing relations of production.
Ultimately, if a significant portion of society determines that videogames are important, and access to culture is a right, then the productive forces should be organized accordingly, and not left to the whims of an exclusionary market.

Power to the gamers

Due to the tragic parable of the Eastern Block, life under socialism is always portrayed as dull and homogenized, in stark contrast with the cornucopia of consumer choices provided by capitalism. As a matter of fact, we don’t have any historical examples of countries switching to planned economies from an advanced industrial stage, and therefore Cold War-era comparisons are not useful.

I want to make the argument that democratic socialism would be beneficial for our lives as consumers as much as much as our life as producers.
For starters, the most obnoxious byproducts of capitalist competition would disappear under socialism. In gaming, artificial scarcity measures such as preventing backward compatibility of software and hardware would disappear since they don’t serve any purpose other than maximizing the publisher’s profit at the expense of consumers. Intrusive DRM systems would be made obsolete by cultural commons.The exploitative design patterns of free-to-play games, borrowed directly from gambling, would likely be regulated away.

Gamers have different tastes and habits so it would make a lot of sense to have a differentiation of gaming hardware: portable devices, room scale VR, public arcades, etc. On the other hand, I can’t think of any good reasons to have cyclical console wars in which manufacturers of almost identical products compete through intellectual property, exclusive games, patents, or proprietary accessories. The would be no need to choose between Playstation and xBox, Oculus and Vive, PC and Mac.
The most socialistically reasonable solution is to have different classes of general-purpose computing machines sharing a set of open standards.
Technological innovation can still have a competitive element, for example by having a multitude of independent research labs pitching prototypes for mass production, or responding to particular challenges like DARPA’s funding solicitations.

If you come from an economically privileged background, under socialism you may end up owning less stuff but, in principle, it would be better stuff.
Consider how gaming contributes to our throwaway society. Planned obsolescence is an irresponsible, environmentally unfriendly industrial practice, so consoles and computers would be designed to be upgraded in order to maximize their components’ life cycles. Obsolete machines would be repurposed to less intensive duties, and then recycled.
Don’t picture artisanal consoles made of cork and biodegradable cardboard! Recycling electronics would be an advanced system design effort involving an ecosystem of open hardware and standards, mandatory modular architectures to encourage repair and reuse, responsible e-waste disposal methods, government programs enabling and enforcing protocols for sustainable development. The Fairphone project and the Electronics Take-Back Coalition are existing prototypes for this kind of initiatives.

The soul of a gamer under socialism

Growing up as a gamer you may experience a sudden transformation in your relation to time and money. As a kid you have plenty of time to kill but little money to spend on new titles. Young gamers are very vocal when a product doesn’t deliver the expected amount of entertainment so game companies are compelled to stretch and bloat their games, lavishing whiners and completionists with optional sidequests.
However, once employed, a $60 tag on a AAA game won’t burn a hole in your pocket but investing dozen of hours in a single game experience becomes a difficult decision.

The end goal of a communist society is not only to take “from each according to their ability”, but also to liberate as much time possible from the tyranny of work. There is a rich tradition of refusal of labor in the libertarian left which animated social unrest throughout the sixties and seventies. The radical opposition to alienating factory jobs is arguably one of the driving forces behind the restructuring of Western economies into more creative, automated, and information-based economies.
Fast developments in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics presage the automation of more and more intellectual and service jobs. The spectre of technological unemployment is regularly evoked in the discourse around self-driving cars.
A socialist recognizes that unemployment is an inherently capitalist contradiction. The solution is not to oppose automation or “bring back” coal and auto-industry jobs but rather to make sure that the benefits of a higher productivity per capita are equitably distributed. Work less, employ everybody.

But if people work less won’t they have less money to spend on trivial things like videogames?
A Universal Basic Income could be a way to gradually enact this redistribution process. The idea is to separate income from labor, giving everybody a minimum income regardless of their employment status. It wouldn’t be enough to disincentivize people from working completely, and it shouldn’t be seen as an expanded unemployment benefit, or a replacement for all social services. I’d rather see the UBI as a way to redistribute the wealth created by all the forms of unpaid labor: the diffuse, intrinsically motivated cultural production accumulating into general intellect, the affective and domestic labor that keeps society going, the socially created prestige of a neighborhood that congeals into rent increases, the emotional costs of an increasingly flexible labor market, and so on. If capitalism commodifies everything and extracts value from anyone, we ought to demand more than a raise.

In the gaming microcosm we have plenty of examples for this kind labor: user generated content and modding, community activity online and offline, amateur reviews, machinima and streaming, free games, open source code, gamified machine learning training like Google’s Image Labeler or Quick Draw.
Naturally, we shouldn’t expect a hobbyist cosplayer to be paid to dress up at a convention, that’s exactly the kind of pursuit that should be decommodified. But at the same time we should be aware that this labor performed for free is systematically harnessed and capitalized. Every Minecraft block, social media update, piece of fan art, interaction in World of Warcraft contributes to the wealth, brand, and potential market value of a company.

In a capitalist economy the UBI would require a lot of taxation and would be fought fiercely, but consider this: from the point of view of the Silicon Valley ruling class, the UBI is a reasonable alternative to having their heads put on a spike by hordes of unemployed.
Outside of tech circles, bosses may not have the systemic thinking nor the long vision to understand the existential threats of technological unemployment. And that’s where politics comes into play: it’s the socialists’ duty to constantly remind them of the possibility of their heads ending up on a spike. Even in a hypothetical peaceful transition to a social democracy, the option of putting the bosses’ heads on a spike should always be on the table. That’s the only way to negotiate progressive reforms.

In a very (very) ideal scenario, a gradual de-commoditization of basic services, combined with increasing automation along socialist lines would result in a graceful extinction of the ruling class.
The post-work society humorously referred as Fully Automated Luxury Communism is both a gamer utopia and an opportunity for artists and entertainers. Without dull jobs (or lack thereof) occupying our minds, we will need more ways to keep us stimulated and chase away our sense of existential dread.

Who pays for that?

Growing up under in the shadow of Capitalist Realism it’s hard to conceive how we could have more while working less. Who pays for a massive expansion of social services when we can barely fund the existing public sector? Wouldn’t socialism grind the economy to a halt and make everybody poorer?

Despite certain caricatures, socialists don’t want to slow down capitalism or revert back to a pre-capitalist economy. Marx and Engels admired the power of capitalism to organize production and create an unprecedented surplus – they just couldn’t get over the inequality and the inefficiencies of a free market system. This view of socialism/communism as an acceleration of productive forces is being revived by some currents within the contemporary left. Their proposition is not to merely regulate the economy nor to create local, fleeting alternatives to capitalism, but rather to unleash the full potential of technology, to reclaim the modernist idea of collective mastery over society and the environment.
It’s a vision that works against the conservative meme of the economy as a zero-sum-game. Obviously, a comprehensive redistribution of wealth would have to take into account reparations for centuries of racial, patriarchal and colonial oppression, but it can’t be simply reduced to taking stuff away from those who have more than the average.
The expansion of productive potential would be coupled with the recalibration of priorities and with the unlocking of resources squandered in war and surveillance, speculative finance, prisons, or fossil fuel subsidies. Think about the material and spiritual wealth that could be created by the two million able-bodies incarcerated in the US! Think about the resources crystallized in empty McMansions and Tomahawk missiles!

Marxio and Luengels

What about the games themselves? Will violence and competition be banned from socialist videogames? Are we going to play tame educational games about tolerance and social justice?
Hopefully not. Under a democratic socialist regime, freedom of expression would be sacrosanct. Given the traditional role of art as counter-power, we would see a diversity of ideological positions in videogames, including explicitly anti-socialist ones.

More generally, cultural manifestations tend to reflect a society’s dominant values and material conditions. One of the earliest evidence of human play is the family of “boardgames” known as mancala, dating back to the Neolithic period. Mancala games display strong analogies with seeding and territorial management, and can be interpreted as way to conceptualize the emerging agrarian culture. In the same vein, the stylized warfare of chess, or the karmic structure of Snake and Ladders, are unquestionably informed by the concerns and the moral systems of the societies that generated them. It’s not just a matter of providing a familiar metaphor for a series of rules; we make and play games to structure our way of thinking about the systems we inhabit.

Nothing prevents us from imagining and creating socialist games today, but it’s likely that with a radical transformation of the relations of production and with an expansion of the democratic possibilities, we would crave for different games: games that problematize cooperation and collective decision making. If it sounds boring, try Overcooked or Pandemic.
Perhaps the opposite may happen as well: participating in democratic and relational processes every day might push us toward hyper-individualistic, hyper-competitive, sociopathic shooters that can give vent to our repressed primate impulses.

On a more pragmatic level, serious games and simulations would conceivably be used to discuss and unpack complex challenges. Today, framing social issues like poverty or clean energy as “problems” to which we ought to find “solutions” masks the central role of capitalism in perpetuating them. As long as people are allowed to get rich by controlling food supplies and burning cheap fossil fuels, there will be no technological fix that makes everybody happy. But in a classless society predicated on justice and equal rights, technocratic projects like Buckminster Fuller’s World Game would be much less naive and problematic.
The World Game had several different formulations, the most ambitious one was a hypothetical computer simulation fed with real data from all over the world. In a sort of resource management game, players would collectively try to “Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”. Bucky Fuller imagined the World Game to be played competitively by teams and live-televised globally like an esport. The best solutions emerging from these competitions were meant to be turned into actual policies.

Playing in utopia

In conclusion, socialism is not the promise of a society free of problems and conflicts, but that of a society equipped to address these problems. Global warming will still be a huge existential threat for the human race. Abuses of power, corruption, and discrimination will definitely stick around. Fierce debates about the usefulness of space colonization or virtual reality will keep consuming us.
Gamers and game developers are a perfect constituency for the socialist project: they are good at collective problem solving, they are used to manipulate and think in systems, they enjoy agency and power.

There are many ways to conceive socialism, communism and the all the possible stages between them (not to mention the century-long debates about how to enact such deep transformations).
Regardless, in a profoundly conservative climate, when it’s tempting to just play defense and settle for the lesser evil, it’s a good exercise to think about the kind of world we really want to see. Whether your utopia is a primitivist commune or a Scandinavian-style mixed economy, whether or not it’s achievable in your lifetime, it would at least provide a direction and parameters by which you can define your political goals.

Casual Games for Protesters

I teamed up with poet, performer, and activist Harry Josephine Giles to put together a collection of games to be played during protests. Casual Games for Protesters is a kind of response to the daunting question “What can game makers do in the age of Trump”. It’s a gesture but also a serious proposition, a way to see protests as experiences that can and should be crafted. We are soliciting guest contributions and we’ll be adding more games in the days to come. This is the project statement:

Casual Games for Protesters is an ongoing collection of games to be played in the context of marches, rallies, occupations and other protests. They require very little preparation and equipment.
Protests can often be alienating or difficult to access for some people — whether that’s because of safety concerns, lack of physical accessibility, burn-out or just not knowing how to get involved. And rallies and marches can be overwhelming, formulaic in their structure, unnecessarily grave, or even boring to attend.
We believe it doesn’t have to be that way. Participating in social change should be exhilarating, social, intellectually and physically stimulating, liberatory and fun. Games can help craft those collective experiences.

Of course, context is crucial, and not all games make sense in all situations. The dignity and rage of the Ferguson uprisings involved mourning victims, expressing anger and campaigning for better lives. The blockade of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock is shaped by the traditions and beliefs of the Native American tribes that lead the protests. Such situations may not always leave room for playfulness — or they may call for a different kind of play.

We have tried to compile a wide variety of games from many different sources and imaginations. We’ve remixed folk and parlor games, added a political twist to acting and training, borrowed liberally from our precursors, and made up new things entirely. We are indebted to a long tradition, from the experimental theater of Augusto Boal and the New Games Movement, from the creative protests of C.I.R.C.A. to the world of modern live-action games. Direct inspirations were the Tiny Games format popularized by Hide & Seek, Metakettle by Terrorbull games, and the playable poetry of Harry Josephine Giles.

What we haven’t included yet are less casual and more pre-prepared games for specific events. Such games could be deeply integrated with the theme and the tactics of a protest, complement its theatrics, and inform actions of civil disobedience. We hope that some of our games might inspire such inventive, radical and effective tactics.

We will see an escalation of unrest and mass participation in the coming years, in opposition to the resurgence of the extreme right in Europe and North America, as part of global responses to climate change and floundering neoliberalism, and in both local and international movements. Countering protest fatigue and making activism more approachable and stimulating must be a priority for everyone.

protestgames.org

Molleindustria’s Highlights from 2016

No Man’s Sky with imaginary voiceover by Werner Herzog

2016 has been declared *annus horribilis* for months, and there is a good chance it will remembered as the year when everything started going to shit in the Western World.
Despite being recently swept by the proto-fascist backlash known as Gamergate, the world of videogames has yet to respond to the new turn. The big-budget game industry, with its glorification of dystopia, cold war nostalgia, and fragile masculinity product lines, will probably adapt and produce even more baroque hyperstitions to serve new and old powers.

Outside of the games-for-gamers niche we’ve seen a lot of developments this year. We’ve seen the second coming of Virtual Reality met by the indifference of the masses – a scenario that may actually encourage more artistic and experimental use of the technology. We’ve seen the Pokemon GO fad, which may serve as a demonstration of the power of games to reclaim and transform public spaces. We’ve seen some first-wave indie developers upping the ante without compromising their visions: the hauntingly beautiful INSIDE, the sprawling madness of The Witness, the existentialist infinitude of No Man’s Sky, are multi-year team projects made possible by the success of previous releases (hence the importance of supporting your favorite game makers).

Imbroglio and Stephen’s Sausage Roll. Charmingly ugly and yet the greatest games ever made, formally speaking

One-person outfits without million dollar budgets pushed things forward in even more interesting ways: Quadrilateral Cowboy builds upon the Blendo Games’ stylish short-pieces; Imbroglio is another dizzingly deep roguelike by Michael Brough, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll is the culmination of Increpare’s ongoing exploration of block-pushing games. A banner year for puzzles.

Here are some of my highlights from 2016, with the usual emphasis on politically-aware/ underrated/experimental works:

1979 Revolution: Black Friday


1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a documentaristic game about the Iranian revolution. The gameplay is reminiscent of titles like The Walking Dead or Heavy Rain: a mix of cutscenes, linear interactions, quick time events, and multiple choices that occasionally produce major outcomes.
The game takes the player to the events preceding the Islamic Revolution with very little context or exposition, letting them gradually unpack the complexity of the conflict. They have to face the impossible moral dilemmas of a revolution doomed to fail, negotiating the protagonist’s background and desires. Everything in the ~3 hours game is tuned to maximize emotional impact and meaningful play. 1979 Revolution is bleak and uncomfortable but also masterfully produced and researched. An engrossing introduction to one of the key events of our times.

Venti Mesi


The Resistance against the Nazi-fascist regime toward the end of World War II is a defining moment for the Italian people. Relatively limited geographically but deeply rooted in civil society, the Resistance prefigured a democracy yet to come, provided a model for a regime change supported from below, and still gives us a way to grapple with our tragic past. We, the Italians, were the bad guys, but the good guys were among us, and fought when it was time to fight.
Venti Mesi (Twenty Months) is a collection of short interactive stories based on actual events happened in Milan in the months before the Liberation. They are all from the point of view of common people dealing with the unraveling of their nation, and all adopting brilliant visual and narrative strategies.

Bomb the Right Place


The rise of Trump is forcing all satirists to reconsider their approach. The next president of the United States is already a caricature of himself, and has a talent for occupying the media space with his outrageous and grotesque posturing. By receiving mostly bad press, he effectively erased the feeble and confused message of the establishment Democrats. That’s why most of the newsgames series GOP Arcade, with its one-liner games like “pussy grabber”, felt short and inadequate for this political phase (admittedly the stated goal of the site was simply to make the “election slightly more enjoyable”).
However, Bomb the Right Place is pure genius. It’s a kind of a geography puzzle and a riff on the old joke that Americans learn about new countries after they bomb them. Bi-partisanly challenging.

Job Simulator


There is something inherently contradictory in room-scale Virtual Reality (or “VR with hands”). The first wave of VR promised mind altering experiences, non-human perceptions, post-verbal languages and more; it underdelivered in part due to the lack of good mimetic interfaces, in part to the sickening disconnection between camera and body movements. Systems like the HTC Vive or the Oculus Touch solved some of these issues at the price of remapping the space of action back to our miserable human scale and our miserable human limbs.
Job Simulator makes the most out of this contradiction, by re-proposing familiar scenarios distorted by the limited affordances of the technology.
The Vive launch title presents itself as an artifact from the future, a kind of museum exhibit allowing people to play as workers of the late 21st Century: a white collar in a cubicle, a convenience clerk so on. The player is asked to push cartoonish buttons or juggling objects around, leaving room for some mild workplace sabotage. The robotic guide provides a satirical, slightly off description of the job.
Job Simulator is a clever joke on Virtual Reality escapism and indirectly poses some questions about futurism, bullshit jobs and the post-work society we should be moving toward. But above everything it’s a very satisfying lightweight puzzle and an experience unlike anything I’ve tried before. Exaggerated Reality is more fun than Virtual Reality.

Two interviewees

I have a soft spot for simple and elegant political games. Two interviewees is a commentary on gender discrimination on the workplace developed in one day by Mauro Vanetti (who is also an anti-slot machine activist).
A male and female candidate are getting interviewed for a job, the screen is split, the questions are the same. The player picks the answer for both characters.
From our vantage point we can see the notes taken by the interviewer which reveal an implicit bias. A confident, resolute answer will make a good impression coming from the male character but it will be perceived as threatening or arrogant from the female counterpart.
The scenario is quite similar to the many field studies on gender and race bias consisting in sending out identical resumes from fictional identities with male, female, white or typically African-American names. Studies that confirm, over and over, that prejudices and more or less implicit discrimination is still widespread.

The Game: The Game


Dating sims, with their creepy heteronormative tropes have been ripe for parody and subversion for quite a while; the flamboyant Wrestling With Emotions and the porno terrorist Viral by artist-rapper Fellatia Geisha are two notable examples. But nothing gets close to The Game: The Game in terms of conceptual rigor and execution.
The creator, my friend and colleague Angela Washko, spent years researching the world of pick-up artists and its intersection with the “manosphere” (i.e. outspoken right wing misogynists on the Internet), an effort that included a long interview with the infamous Roosh V in an attempt of “radical empathy”.
The Game: the Game distills an in-depth research on seduction methods devised by pick-up artists in the form of a dating sim. The format is a perfect match since many of these techniques are basically conversational algorithms. Instead of playing the part of the seducer, you are put in the shoes of a target of an actually existing pick-up artist and subjected to his perplexing, pathetic, very rarely clever techniques. Every dialogue is based on actual primary sources and presented without exaggeration or ideological filters. An eerie original soundtrack by Xiu Xiu contributes to the utterly uncomfortable but engrossing experience. The project currently exists only as gallery installation but it will be released for digital download once completed.

The Last Guardian


I’ve been pointing at how animal companionship in videogames tends to be informed by an utilitarian and reductionist logic: Pokemon are both weapons and collectibles, existing in a fictional world designed to naturalize this instrumental relationship, Neko Atsume is an addicting conditioning device dispensing immaterial cuteness for your time and money; virtual pets are nothing but a few lightly dressed variables banking on our tendency to attribute feelings and thought to artificial entities, the Tamagochi effect.
The Last Guardian is an epic tale of domestication and healing that manages to transcend this instrumental relationship. Gameplay-wise it’s an action/adventure with simple puzzles that can be solved by indirectly manipulating a griffin-like creature named Trico. However, there is no way to see the companion as just a way to reach a platform or as a formal constraint, like the helpless girl in Ico, the game’s direct predecessor. Trico’s behavior and characterization is vivid and subtle, it develops over time, and yet stays unmistakably “other”. Trico resists direct control, misunderstands you and then surprises you by autonomously navigating the impossible architecture. It’s often a frustrating experience, but frustration is an integral part of the aesthetics of the game.

San Andreas Deer Cam


Art that transforms commercial games through modding or subversive play has been around for more than 20 years. Today, with the explosion of game spectatorship (live streaming, let’s plays, absurdist stunts), it might loop back to the realm of internet folklore and find a mass audience. San Andreas Deer Cam is a mod of Grand Theft Auto V that followed a computer controlled-deer in real time. The deer exhibited a deer like behavior and showed us the familiar simulacrum of Los Angeles with completely different eyes, traversing the built environment in oblique ways, naively crossing highways, taking us to places and vistas we would have never thought to explore. The live stream gained a big following on Twitch. Day and night, online spectators commented and interpreted the inscrutable motivations of the deer, creating their own micro-memes and inside jokes.
The city was still functioning like a gangsta rap paradise and the deer retained some of the properties of the human avatar. For example, crossing the boundaries of an airport unleashed an unreasonable response from the militarized police, wrecking havoc throughout the city. Hilarious and mesmerizing to watch, it gave the trite GTA franchise a new reason to exist.

Bonus

Some excellent indie games from this year that didn’t fit my peculiar narrative: To Build a Better Ballot, Liyla & the Shadows of War, Mu Cartographer, I love Fur, Thumper, Really Bad Chess, Spaceplan, Push me pull you (already among my games of the years back in 2014), Reigns, Triennale Game Collection, Kentucky Route Zero act IV.

Weird Reality / VIA


Last week I had the pleasure to participate to Weird Reality and VIA, respectively a conference and an arts+music festival organized by some good friends and colleagues.

Weird Reality was a symposium for the VR/AR curious and the VR/AR skeptic which managed to incorporate, in the words of a participant, “an incredible wonderful diversity of gender, ethnicity, age, experience & trust in tech”.

Graduate students shared the stage with Virtual Reality pioneers like Brenda Laurel; creative industry professionals mingled with artists-provocateurs like Jeremy Bailey critical theorists like Wendy Chun, who delivered a fantastic takedown of the “VR as empathy machine” narrative. Hopefully videos of the talks will be posted online in the next months here.

Scene from A Short History of the Gaze

The intersection between the conference and the music festival was the VR salon, a collection of arty, offbeat works where I got to show my new project, A Short History of The Gaze. It’s my first, and probably last, Virtual Reality “experience” and I was surprised by the very positive reactions. I’m still figuring out the best way to put it out in the world given its susceptibility to spoilers, and the general inaccessibility of headsets and gamer-grade computers.

Here’s some great VR works to keep an eye on:


Laura Juo-Hsin Chen is one of my favorite artist working with VR right now. Her MASK series tackles various subject with hand-crafted headsets and software enabling performances and bizarre social interactions.

In her Daily Life VR, she turns mundane actions like eating, pooping, sleeping into imaginative immersive and social experiences.

Claire Henshker is mostly known for her immersive recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining through the process of photogrammetry.

At the conference she presented her upcoming project: Zen Zone, a sprawling imaginary ecosystem conceived and art-directed a 6 years old kid named Zen over the span of several months. The process of collecting and assembling all the outlandish creatures and the handmade assets is a great story in itself; it even involved mo-capping the kid mimiking the movements of his imaginary creatures. I understand it would be experienceable as 360 movie and as a real interactive scenario, with an Attenborough-esque voice over by Zen himself.

The Institute for New Feeling is an art clinic/collective committed to the research of “new ways of feeling, and ways of feeling new”. Their project include humorous but credible treatments, therapies, and wellness products. At the salon they displayed a work in progress of Ditherer, an immersive store for HTC Vive that prefigures the future of ethical shopping.
Picking up virtual products from the shelves of a warehouse transports you to a vivid dream-like world representing the narrative of the product. In the currently available scene, grabbing a virtual avocado takes you to Tom Selleck’s controversial ranch where you are bombarded by trivia and bits of avocado history, eventually ending up in a perfect recreation of GW Bush’s living room to enjoy their “famous” guacamole, in a kind of farm-to-table reverie. It’s actually even weirder than it sounds and I’m really looking forward to see more products.

Sarah Rothberg brought a work in progress of Oops I put on your headset!, a vapor-wavey app that simulates the experience of accessing the artist’s computer. Somewhat reminiscent of the hyper-millenial software memoir Cibele or the gone but not forgotten Noby Noby Boy app. The old cyberpunk idea of Virtual Reality as operating system/browser gets an wry and much more imaginative reboot.



DiMoDA: The Digital Museum of Digital Art
, is certainly not the first online/downloadable exhibition but it’s probably the most invested in the conversation about the distribution and commercialization of natively digital art (or more specifically, of a type of walkable art installations made in Unity).
Their (anti)institutional framework includes various degenerations of a virtual architecture from which you can access the artists’ worlds, exhibitions IRL, and collectors’ editions of the works: usb drives embedded in slick 3D printed objects.
The controls of the VR version were unfortunately barf-worthy, but the environments were quite interesting and unlike anything I’ve seen in the gaming world. I see a possible convergence between the “walking simulator” type of indie game, and this increasingly more recognized art genre. Let’s join forces and kill these boring photorealistic 3D environments once for all.

For a more complete writeup, check Blair Neal’s post on medium.

Top Ten 2015 Games You Don’t Have To Play


2015 was the year gamers were finally relieved from the burden of play.

The explosion of streamers on Twitch and YouTube and the rising popularity of eSports legitimized “passive” forms of engagement with the game form. Interactivity – as in mashing buttons, making choices, organizing artfully constructed disorder – has always been overrated anyway: there is so much going on in the head of a pattern-seeking neo-couch potato or in the social dynamics around a game event.

Since the real world is going to shit there’s mounting interest in Virtual Reality. Alas, in absence of appropriate interfaces, the Second Coming of head-mounted media amounts to a collection of 19th century-style panoramas, disembodied theme park rides, neck-operated tourism and other semi-static gazeables.

The democratization of game development evokes Indiepocalyptic nightmares: if 37% of all purchased titles on Steam have never been played, there may be an overproduction of entertainment, or better, a crisis in the attention economy.
Perhaps buying in public is the new playing. Perhaps watching Let’s play videos is a more efficient way to go trough the to-play list.

In the more underground circuits, the tyranny of the gameplay has been defeated. Traditional notions of goals, agency, winning vs losing are secondary to production of open-ended worlds with unique atmospheres and styles. The derogatory term “Walking Simulator” has been adopted by a new wave of gamemakers that are leveraging Unity’s bias toward First Person Shooters to create contemplative, mysterious spaces where guns and swords are simply not needed.

In 2015 Independent game developers have been more inclined to further blur the game/app boundary as demonstrated by the critically acclaimed playthings Panoramical and Plug and Play, the procedurally generated alien art of Strangethink, the avant-garde educational titles Earth: A Primer, Metamorphabet and Nicky Case’s Explorable Explanations.

Indies are more aware of the performative aspect of game making. According to Robert Yang “The most important thing about a game is that it exists, because that means you can think about it.”. A game, played or unplayed, is just a meme in the infosphere, an unit of culture stretching across media, fighting against the oblivion imposed by post-Twitter social filters.

Moreover, the very idea of existence in the game world is flexible. In order to compete in a saturated market, independent developers have to build their own artisanal hype machines; they have to give the impression that a game exists months or years before its hypothetical release.
It’s telling that the first independent game featured on a late night tv show is a game that doesn’t exist yet. The upcoming No Man’s Sky is the most appropriate 2015 Game of The Year.
Here too, discourse and social practice take control: talking about what games could or should be, participating in a crowdfounding campaign, sharing excitement and work-in-progress screenshots, may just be more satisfying than playing the actual games.

Non exhaustive list, in no particular order, and for the sake of polemics.

Sonic Dreams Collection


Arkane Kids, with their Room of 1000 Snakes, and Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective already changed the history of video games – in a subliminal kind of way, at the very least.
But this series of faux artifacts from the Dreamcast era is a technical and conceptual triumph: the Sonic Game To End All Sonic Games.
Sonic Dreams Collection, with its deviantartsy kinkiness and built-in Vine-maker is the ultimate meme-game. It’s an instrument for the production of bafflement that no YouTube streamer can refuse to play. In the pulverized spectacle of game streaming, bewildered reactions are the currency, and games like this are goldmines of WTFs.

Her Story


Old New Media folks would call it database storytelling. Old gamers would see it as harbinger of a Full Motion Video revival. And yet Her Story, while being a technologically appropriate period piece, resonates with the very 2015 spike of interest in complex criminal cases: from the podcasts Serial and the Message to the documentary miniseries Making a Murderer and The Jinx.
Her Story, with its investigate-by-keyword-search gameplay, may be the most accessible game ever made: good for both solitary and group play, challenging without being punishing. A great holiday present for your non-gaming relatives.

One of them


When I played Pierrec’s tiny game I was so struck that I offered to port it to HTML5. It’s a character study that doubles as a (very spoilable) PSA: simple, effective and strangely replayable. If newsgames have a future, it is in this type of experimental shortform work.

Cobra Club


2015 was the year of Robert Yang. It has been hard to keep up with the indefatigable developer, modder, critic, activist and educator. His series of short gay games are at the forefront of a sexual liberation wave that has been sweeping the independent gaming scene for quite a while.
A couple of years ago I lamented that “we created technologies that make the simulation of a grenade launcher way easier than a caress”. Robert seems to address precisely this technological deficit by creating sophisticated vignettes to solve problems that have not been solved before: the buttocks deformations in the spanking game Hurt Me Plenty, the suggestive cheek in Succulent, the steamy water bouncing on the shoulders of Rinse and Repeat‘s hunk, the complex physics of the ballsack in Cobra Club. Beneath the gif-worthy, giggle-worthy surface, all these games have a very focused conceptual direction in which personal, formal, and political concerns converge. The dick-pic-cum-grindr simulator Cobra Club may be the best of the series so far or, if you prefer, the one that most effectively demands to exist in our thoughts.

Casual Games for Casual Hikers


Outdoor games have always been associated with abstract, manicured playing fields or, more recently, with urban spaces. The mess we like to call nature comes with built-in challenges and obstacles: camping as survivalist roleplay, conquering a mountain as archetypal Hero’s Journey, rock climbing as embodied puzzle…
For the more casual nature-gamers, Harry Giles proposes a series of conceptual exercises to be performed while hiking, in company or in solitude. Casual Games for Casual Hikers is a brochure of “Stories to tell, rules for kicking pebbles, ways to name mountains, maps to draw when you get home”. Slightly more playable than Yoko Ono’s event scores from Grapefruit, equally whimsy.

Beginner’s Guide


Game luminary Frank Lantz chastised critics for their inability to talk intelligently about The Beginner’s Guide. The game presents itself as a collection of prototypes made by a fictional character named Coda published with an in-game commentary by The Stanley Parable’s co-creator Davey Wreden, acting as himself. While traversing these bizarre worlds we learn about the tense relationship between Coda and Davey, which becomes a mean to explore a variety of issues in creative work: the legibility and playability of game art, creative blocks, social and self-imposed pressures, and so on.
While such metafictional devices have been used at least since Don Quixote, in the gaming world they are still relatively unexplored and have led to outlandish speculations.
Authenticity concerns aside, by existing as a self-aware, self-critical, work about the relationship between game makers and their audience, the Beginner’s Guide seems designed to defy any possible criticism. It tells you how to play it, what to think about it, and even how you should feel when you play it. Of course, like the titular character in the Stanley Parable, you can choose to disobey.
It’s a dense and clever work that you play in a breeze and sticks in your head for a long time.

A Series of Gunshots


Pippin Bar is known for sublime joke-games such as low-fi dick fight, or the Marina Abramovic line-waiting simulation The Artist is Present.
A Series of
Gunshots is a bit of a departure in tone and style. A minimalist gem that may be the most poignant playable commentary on gun violence to date.

Little Party


If I had to pick my favorite “walking simulator” among the many twee, stylish releases I’ve played this year, I would choose Little Party. Mostly because under the twee, stylish surface it hides a certain melancholy and a rare subtlety in its environmental storytelling. Playing as a middle aged woman, you find yourself awkwardly hanging around in a cabin during an art-party organized by your teenage daughter. The only way to interact with other characters (and move the elliptical narrative along) is by expressing motherly apprehension, because something has to go wrong.

Cibele


Cibele pretty much plays itself, being ostensibly a fictionalized reenactment of play sessions experienced by the author Nina Freeman a few years ago. From its mock operating system interface, you can snoop on Nina’s empowering/self-deprecating selfies and teenage poetry before launching the game-within-a-game Valtameri.
There, you semi-automatically grind on apathetic monsters while a semi-automatic, apathetic online romance develops between Nina (channeling her slightly younger self) and a more experienced player.
Despite the lack of agency, the game format is employed effectively to portray what’s around a game: the cross-fire of instant messages, the in-game social status bleeding off-game, the identity performance on social media with the related projections and deceptions, the inevitable eruption of bodily desires.
Millennials may find Cibele relateable and therefore wholly laudable. Non-digital natives like me may find it perplexing and cringeworthy. If anything, Cibele made me feel lucky for having spent my adolescence offline.

Foldscape


Porpentine’s file-based poem is an understated treat. Her ability to generate entire universes in tweet-length verses congealed in a neatly .zipped package in a time when apps and paternalistic operating systems are making us forget about file systems. Foldscape is a game too, provided that you have the required hardware to run it in your head.

P.S.

Of course 2015 also gave us many great games to be played in a more traditional sense. Among my favorites: the hardcore-kawaii puzzle Snakebird, the claymation bad trip Hylics (a true gateway drug to JRPGs for people who hate manga), and the First True Italian Game Wheels of Aurelia.

Bumper stickers for self-driving cars

In a world of self-driving cars, what’s going to happen to the art and tradition of bumper stickers? Will our gaze be ever drawn to these cheeky statements while traveling automatically? Is the car going to be less of extension of the self and more of a family member, with its own personality, affiliation and trite jokes? And what about the possibly long and turbulent period of coexistence between human drivers and AI?
Made on a whim, down the street from CMUber.






BooFlag

BooFlag is a little game made after reading this article on the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Charleston. It’s also an unofficial sequel/companion piece to Americlap, one of the greatest games ever made.

p5.play

I just released p5.play, a javascript library for the creation of games and playthings. It’s still a beta but it includes features that are common to most 2D games: Sprites with animation support, collision detection and resolution (limited to Axis Aligned Bounding Boxes and circles for now), a camera and functions to facilitate mouse and keyboard input.
The library is built with accessibility – not performance – in mind and tries to not be “opinionated” in terms of how a video game is supposed to work, something that is easier to say than to implement.

P5.play is an add-on to p5.js, which is in turn a spin-off / spiritual successor of Processing, a popular tool among creative coders and educators. I’m looking forward to adopt p5.js in my courses at CMU and happy to be finally contributing to an open source project.

Check p5.play here

The Great Art Upgrade – DiGRA 2013

This talk was delivered as keynote for the Art History of Games conference, that took place during DiGRA 2013. While the infamous Can Games Be Art? question is now being carefully avoided like an inappropriate text you sent while drunk, some references and questions may still be valuable to the world beyond the small group of scholars that gathered in that hotel basement in Atlanta. It’s a minimally edited transcript/note dump, please forgive the informal tone.

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Molleindustria’s Highlights from 2014

2014 has been another great year for indie games, with the long awaited releases of Nidhogg and Broken Age (part 1); the genre-defining Threes (and its unfortunate clones); the outrageously polished Monument Valley and Hohokum; the new chapter of Kentucky Route Zero. What follows is a list of my personal favorites, among the ones I managed to play, in random order, with special attention to social commentary and more overlooked titles:

80 Days


80 days is a resource management/choose-your-own-adventure game set in an alternate Victorian-era world. Honestly, a text-heavy steampunk adventure based on Verne didn’t initially sound like my thing, but this work is so wonderfully written and tightly designed that I couldn’t stop playing. The universe is vivid and broad, it makes you want to abandon the wager and get lost in some distant city.
Few games dared to reimagine the past through a progressive, anti-colonialist lens: 80 Days managed to defuse and subvert the orientalist, Euro-centric bias of certain travel literature. This is not only an big accomplishment in gaming, but also a great example for all fantasy fiction.

Bounden


The Dutch studio Game Oven continues to explore “open” gameplays that activate bodies and minds in unique ways. Bounden, created in collaboration with the Dutch National Ballet, is a playable choreography for two people and one phone – arguably the most original use of a smartphone’s gyroscope+accelerometers. An elegant alternative to the glorified skinner boxes we refer as rhythm games.

Coming Out Simulator 2014


Somebody had to make a game about this topic and I’m glad it was Nicky Case. Coming Out Simulator is both autobiographical and speculative, letting the player explore all the likely outcomes of a very tough conversation. The year in the title, mocking the naming convention of “actual” simulators, may turn out to be clever touch, putting the piece in a historical context with rapidly shifting stances on sexuality. Will coming out simulators be completely different in 2024?
Also check Nicky’s The Parable of Polygons a fresh and timely remake of Thomas Schelling’s Segregation model from the ’70s.

Cyborg Goddess


Cyborg Goddess or “A cost-benefit analysis of two archetypes available for women” is a playful riff on the conclusion of the influential text A Cyborg Manifesto. While Donna Haraway preferred the figure of the cyborg (capable of defying the human-machine binary) to the essentialist archetype of the goddess (embraced by feminists but unfit for the challenges of a rising digital technocracy), Kara Stone and Kayte McKnight seem to propose an even more badass synthesis of the two.

Desert Golfing


It’s easy to dismiss Desert Golfing as a tedious anti-game or a hipster parody of Angry Birds. But Justin Smith’s minimalist masterpiece can be much more, as long as you have the discipline and zen-like patience to endure the first few hundreds holes. After a sufficiently long exposure, your mind becomes a physics engine emulator and the game feels more like a stand-up comedy routine made of angular ridges, impossible mountains and malevolently placed pits. Sure, you are often the butt of the jokes, but the designer (or whatever hybrid man-machine created and ordered the levels) is also capable of making you feel good, proud, confident.
More a practice than a game, Desert Golfing is what Journey tried so hard to be.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad


Kickstarted in 2013 but widely distributed in 2014, Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a co-operative game where the abolitionist forces (the players) try to liberate as many slaves they can from the Southern plantations (through the network of activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad) while trying to build support for the abolition of slavery.
The network structure of the board and the long-term vs short-term goal negotiation is reminiscent of Pandemic but the higher degree of complexity makes collaboration truly necessary, attenuating the problem of leading players who tend to micromanage less expert ones. A strong integration between mechanics and theme, plus a rigorous treatment of the subject matter make Freedom simply the best educational board game out there.

How Do You Do It?


A Delightful autobiographical vignette. The designer Nina Freeman based How do you do it? “on memories I have of trying to understand sex as a child… hiding under my bed or in little makeshift forts… I really do want people to know that, despite the humor, we were trying to show something real. Never gonna stop using games to remind people that young girls are not just an advertising demographic – they have real feelings & real lives”.

Pair Solitaire


I hate most standard deck card games and above everything I hate solitaires. And yet, Pair Solitaire, with his one simple rule, is so compelling that makes you wonder how it is possible that in centuries of card game design, nobody appears to have discovered such an elegant gameplay. Highly addictive, it will make you appreciate the sublime beauty of numbers and sets.

Pale Machine


For some reasons, playable music videos are still rare. Negotiating the inherent linearity of a song with the interactive aspect is a serious design challenge. Ben Esposito shows us the way with Pale Machine, a collection of surreal, uncanny scenes rendered in a charming low-poly style.

With Those We Love Alive


With Those We Love Alive is Porpentine’s most ambitious and mature twine game to date: a sprawling weird fiction universe presented with lysergic and yet restrained writing; a queer fable of isolation and abuse; a commentary on the relationship between art and power; an experience that is likely to stay in your head and on you skin long after you close the browser.

Push Me Pull You


It’s both a shame and a blessing that Push Me Pull You is currently only playable at festivals. This two vs two noby-noby-sumo is an amazing spectator sport and it’s probably best played in short sessions, like a game from the good old arcade era. Competitive eSport-type of games tend to rely on either complex, maximalist gameplays or on super-tight control systems. Instead, Push Me Pull You is extremely simple, messy and flaccid, but allows for complex tactical manoeuvrings and demands a high level of coordination between the butt-faces. And hey, if you can’t make it at any game event showcasing PMPY maybe you can organize your own.

Experimental Game Design – Critical Playthings


This year’s installment of my undergraduate course Experimental Game Design went really well. Students designed non-digital games (outdoor and tabletop) for the first half of the semester and worked on digital projects for the second half. You can find course materials here, and downloadable final projects in the student area, mostly Mac only.

AMC Arcade 2014

This year I had the honor and pleasure to curate, along with Porpentine, a showcase of critical, radical, queer, transformative independent games for the Allied Media Conference.

This is the selection, based on a variety of parameters (themes, diversity, available controllers, accessibility…):

Love Punks by Yijala Yala project
10 Seconds in Hell by Amy Dentata
Nothing to hide by Nicky Case
Cyborg Goddess by Kara Stone and Kayte McKnight
Love is zero by Porpentine
To Build a Better Mousetrap by Molleindustria
How do you Do It? by Nina Freeman, Emmett Butler, art by Jonathan Kittaka, audio by Deckman Coss
The Cat and the Coup by Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad
Perfect Woman by Peter Lu & Lea Schönfelder

Porpentine also edited a mixape of Twine games you can download from here.

To Build a Better Mousetrap – Release Notes

To Build a Better Mousetrap, a long-awaited management game about innovation and labor, is finally out!
The game premiered last December at FACT gallery in Liverpool along with the article/talk Videogames and the spirit of capitalism.

I tried to describe To Build a Better Mousetrap as “Richard Scarry meets Karl Marx” or “Information visualization without information” but it’s really a development of the idea of “playable theory” I explored before with the Free Culture Game or Leaky World: using games and simulations as cognitive maps, as objects to think about systems and about broad social dynamics in abstract. This time however, I tried to avoid text and labeling in favor of transparent flows of resources and iconic elements.

The result is somewhat cryptic, dry, and against the current trend of narrative indie games, but some players may recognize a cast of classic characters: the Surplus Value, the Reserve army of labor, the Fordist class compromise, the alienation resulting from division of labor, and one of today’s hottest capitalist contradictions: the decline of employment as result of labor saving technologies a.k.a. “the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”.

To build a better mousetrap can end in bankruptcy, retirement, and insurrection/post-scarcity socialism.
Can you save capitalism from itself?

Making Games in a Fucked Up World – G4C 2014

These are the slides and the edited notes from a talk I gave at the Games for Change Festival in New York. The talk was targeted to that specific audience (bureaucrats from the nonprofit industrial complex, TED-style technopositivists, game advocates…). Certain parts such as my take on metrics and social change, which may seem obvious to most people, were actually quite inflammatory in that context.
You can find a video of the talk here plus Q&A.

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Phone Story Donation Update

Two years ago the first profits from Phone Story were sent to Tian Yu, one of the Foxconn employees who attempted suicide after enduring illegal overtime and abusive working conditions.

Due to the infamous ban from the App Store the game is available only on the web and on the Android Market for $1, which yields around 66 cents of per unit (Google keeps 30% of the revenues). After the initial spike, the sales slowed down to a dribble, but it is still selling nonetheless.
Adding an exceptional exhibition fee from the Next Level conference I managed to collect $2000 which have been donated to these two amazing organizations:

The Electronics Take Back Coalition‘s goal is to require electronics manufacturers and brands to take full responsibility for the life cycle of their products.

China Labor Watch collaborates with unions, labor organizations and the media to conduct in-depth assessments of the Chinese factories producing goods for US companies. They recently co-run a campaign to protect Apple’s workers from dangerous chemicals.

*Images from the The Story of Electronics

We Are Videogame Historical Materialists

BUY HERE FOR ONLY $20

Support a good cause and fashionably declare your belief that videogame culture is funded on an economic basis and reflects class relations and struggles!
Historical Materialism is less scary than Marxism and can be worn ironically!

Started as a joke on Venus Patrol’s We Are Videogame Romantics, this T-Shirt is a fundraising effort for the annual game and simulations track at the Allied Media Conference I help to organize.
I’ll post the line up soon, meanwhile you can find some information on the previous editions here and here.

For each T-Shirt we make about $10 which will fund or subsidize travel and accommodation for speakers.