In the last few months, one of the biggest international stories has been WikiLeaks. Spokesperson and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange and his organization have been making headlines by openly sharing private, secret and classified documents from anonymous sources. The purpose behind the organization is to expose “oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.”
The goals and ethics behind WikiLeaks have gained support from independent thinkers and has spawned projects like WikiLeaks stories (However, some also believe that the actions behind WikiLeaks may be more “risk” than “right”). An interesting game to come out of this project is “Leaky World”. The creators of the game are Molleindustria, an Italian team of artists and game designers looking to reclaim video games as a form of mass communication and create games that address pressing issues or express feelings or ideas, like other forms of art.
We spent some time talking to Molleindustria’s founder, Paolo Pedercini about the creation of Leaky World and its international perception.
1. Molleindustria is known for challenging what the video game media should be used for. What motivated you to take Molleindustria in that direction? And how do you see the relation between complex social issues and the media of video games?
I’ve been making political cartoons and fanzines for few years, I dabbled with journalism and traditional politics. I even formed an anarcho-punk band back in ‘99. But somehow all these efforts seemed pointless to me, I always felt I was reaching people who already agreed with what I had to say. Also, consider that I grew up together with Berlusconi’s media empire so I learned very quickly that politics is not only what happens in the halls of power or in the channels devoted to public discourse. Berlusconi’s unique mix of free market ideology, populism, xenofobia and mafia attitude took root in the Italian minds way before his direct involvement with politics. And this happened through 20 years or so of pervasive, idiotic pop culture.
When the alter-globalization movement emerged I simply thought we were at the beginning of an all-encompassing wave of renewal and that “we” were going to create a different kind of popular culture, in the same way “we” were starting to create different kind of media (Indymedia, pirate TV stations, etc.). Video games were (and still are) an important element of youth culture and, at least back in 2003, there was no trace of alternative voices in this field. Games were simply the worst of the worst: crass, militaristic, sexist, aligned with all of the dominant values. It looked like a good place to start.
2. Leaky World is your latest game - it focuses on one of the biggest stories in world news right now. Why did you feel it was important to relay Julian Assange’s message through an interactive medium?
Leaky World is a contribution to a project called Wikileaks stories. I felt compelled to participate because it’s probably the first concerted activist effort emerged from the indie games community. Of course there are a lot of games dealing with social issues out there, but I think there’s still this myth that you need a game company and a substantial budget to make a game so the only entities investing in this kind of initiatives are part of the non-profit industrial-complex. As a consequence, most of these “progressive” games reflect the misery of the sector and focus on saving fat, American kids or blogging for Africa.
The idea behind “Wikileaks stories” is basically to make games about the stories emerged from the embassy leaks. Except I don’t think games are particularly good at “telling stories” and the stories generated from the diplomatic cables so far are definitely interesting but not exactly as earthshaking as many people thought. And that’s why we all ended up talking about Assange’s broken condom: the man hunt and the double dating plot was paradoxically a stronger and more compelling story to tell and consume. So I thought the best thing to do was to zoom out from the reductive narrative, “United States vs Crazy hacker” and take a more systemic approach. I used a text by Julian Assange as a starting point and the result is a strange, abstract, analytical (and obviously speculative) glimpse into Assange’s mind.
3. What has been the reaction so far from your community and the media in regards to Leaky World?
Considering the very limited scope of the game and its rather experimental implementation, the reactions were very positive. I had to adjust the difficulty level a couple of times after the release since the perceived unwinnability (initially) or the perceived easiness (after the first patch) of the game was interpreted by players as some kind of statement about the inexorable failure/success of radical transparency.
The media coverage in Europe was good, it appeared on the two biggest Italian newspapers, on Wired and Rolling Stones (this is unusual, Italian media don’t generally like my stuff), on a major French newspaper and TV channel, on a couple of big outlets in Germany. The big surprise is that journalists seemed to “get it”, especially to get its intentional ambiguity. In America the reactions were colder, it was well received by the indie community but I can’t say it contributed in any relevant way to the public discourse. The game was released when the New York Times was being accused of espionage and US media were suddenly switching from supporting/ambivalent toward Wikileaks to witch-hunt mode. If you followed the affair only through American media this change of attitude might seem a natural occurrence, but if you look overseas you’ll notice that the cablegate is still generating a lot of very interesting news.
There is a name for this phenomenon: “the chilling effect”.
You can play Leaky World here.