Teaching, Persuading, Lampooning

I’ve been thinking more about “Airport Security”. Maybe I’m being unfair and judging it by the wrong criteria: given the off-the-scale absurdity, maybe it would be most reasonable to regard it as a kind of interactive editorial cartoon, rather than as an interactive argument.

I might put Persuasive Games’ Disaffected into a similar category: it’s a frustrating game to play, in a way that pokes fun of the frustrations of a copy shop in real life, without actually emulating the system at work in any depth. And their Presidential Pong goes even further, with the game-play almost entirely separate from the political content, which is expressed chiefly in editorial-cartoon format. (The “special powers” of each candidate are cute, but some of them work better than others, both as political comment and as powers within the game.)

Is there a single axis here, from anti-advergames and lampoons through semi-educational pieces like Electrocity into hard-core investigative or scientific simulations?

And how much do supposedly incidental aspects of the user interface determine our experience? I’m not talking about the assumptions buried in the simulation — those are necessarily ideological — but about surface qualities, like how difficult or easy various tasks are, how well optimized the game experience is, and how it uses the frustration that Grant Tavinor identifies as one of the key emotions evoked by gaming.

I’ve now played several games whose persuasive point was mostly achieved by a) annoying the heck out of the player and b) framing that annoyance as the natural result of some kind of unreasonable system — Airport Security is only one example. This may be emotionally effective, but is it rhetorically fair?

6 thoughts on “Teaching, Persuading, Lampooning

  1. All genres simplify when they simulate. A well-designed serious game aims to get players to think about where the game is unfair, so that they learn more about the real system it is emnulating, rather than keep trying forever to beat a rigged system. (For some artists, that can be the point of a political piece.)

    Haven’t played this game, so here’s a grain of salt to go with that.

  2. Yes, I’ve generally been thinking about this in terms of rigged systems where the rigging is at the simulation level. But playing, say, “Disaffected” (a game in which you play bored, inefficient Kinkos employees), I found that a lot of the rigged aspect didn’t come from anything about the way reality (an actual copy shop) was reflected in the world model of the game (the interaction opportunities and the way they affect outcome).

    Instead, much of the difficulty of playing arises from interface decisions, like the fact that you have to navigate your character around (slowly and inaccurately) with arrow keys rather than being able to click on destinations and tasks (as you can do with many casual task-management games of the Diner Dash variety).

    I can think all I want about how annoying that is, but it won’t teach me anything about the real-world copy shop situation. At most, I might be able to say that the feeling of inefficiency and sluggishness I experience correlates abstractly to the subjective experience of being bored out of my skull by a dead-end job.

    Which returns us to a crazy assertion I made a few months ago, but which I increasingly think might be right: media differ more in their description of subjective experience than in their description of objective reality. In a casual-style game, the interface design can have significant expressive power, conveying (or inducing) a reaction to the content of the simulation.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts.

    In fact, a cartoon is exactly the model we had in mind. That game is an example of what we (and some others) have been calling a “newsgame,” a short editorial or editorial cartoon in news form. The game in question was produced around a year ago, right after the liquid ban, as a direct response to it. It was developed and released in about two weeks, and our expectation is that the player will spend only a few minutes with the game. So the scale of experience is perhaps different than your original review/mention assumes. Since these genres aren’t (yet) stable, your reaction is of course totally valid.

    As for your thoughts here, I discuss a lot of these ideas in my recent book _Persuasive Games_, including the issue of tight coupling between argument and procedural model. I know you mentioned it once here on the blog, having read the sample chapter on MIT’s site. You might want to check out the whole thing.

  4. There are (relatively speaking) fun games based on entirely mundane activities, like fast food service. They achieve this fun through the streamlining of interface, so you don’t have to stare at the burgers cooking, you can just click on them. (I was at a fast-food place once where the sole employee was handling dozens of orders at blazing speed, so it resembled a videogame, but that’s not really the norm.)

    So for a game like Disaffected to make its point at all, some of that mundanity (at least in the walking around) has to be included.

    On the other hand, I’d argue something like it being easy to click on the wrong item of clothes in Airport Security doesn’t have anything to do with the rhetorical message and is just an interface flaw. The interesting question then is: when is an interface problem part of the purpose, and when is it just bad?

  5. Clearly this was part of the point of Disaffected, yes. (It gets even more irritating when your avatar becomes “confused” and reverses normal directional commands.)

    But I think it’s risky making the interface for something deliberately clunky as “part of the point” unless you’re confident that you can get your whole concept across in a few minutes of play: otherwise, the player is likely to quit before he finds out what you intended him to learn.

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