“maybe make some change”

Aaron Reed’s “maybe make some change” is a more polished, web-accessible release of the work that premiered at the IF Demo Fair as “what if im the bad guy”. Aaron is releasing it today on the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of our war in Afghanistan. (Edited to add: there’s an authorial perspective on this piece here.)

When “what if im the bad guy” was presented at the IF Demo Fair, I didn’t get through it: the game play required putting yourself in the shoes of a soldier, committing violent acts and in some cases typing racial epithets. (At least, as I recall this was unavoidable, but I obviously don’t have access to that version to double check again.) This was just too uncomfortable for me to do in public, and possibly at all, so I put the game aside.

“maybe make some change” has dialed back the challenges to complicity a bit — at least, it’s now possible to get by with typing more generic insults — and as it’s presented in browser, I could try it at home. It concerns a situation that is actually much less ambiguous than I had thought from the original presentation, the unprovoked murder of a civilian by soldiers angry about the losses to their squad. The player revisits the same scene again and again from the different viewpoints of different people, and contact with different points of view equips the player with more verbs to use. It’s disturbing, as indeed it’s meant to be. “maybe make some change” plays both with complicity (the player must, for part of the time, engage in or describe activities that she might not approve of, sometimes in order to conform with the demands and expectations of other characters or institutions) and the assertion of agency (in that, to reach the end state, one must start acting in ways that break down those demands and expectations).

As a technical demonstration, “maybe make some change” is also very impressive: it combines images, sound, and type effects with a Glulx-based text parser very effectively, and presents another challenge to the idea that interactive fiction has to take a specific creakily-old-fashioned appearance. That said, it does really benefit (IMO) from being text-based. There’s something about typing out each of the commands that cements complicity more than simply clicking through hyperlinks could, and moments when it’s important not to have all the affordances strictly spelled out. This is really a must-try for anyone interested in the potential of IF as a medium, though I hesitate to say that because it sounds like I’m encouraging people to ignore the content in favor of the technical presentation. And “maybe make some change” demands engagement at the content level more than most.

Part of the message of the piece is that we need to pay more attention, collectively, to the wars we’re engaged in and their implications — with “maybe make some change” itself as a contribution to that process.

I can’t argue with that point, though underneath it are others much harder to grapple with. How do we prevent shameful and wrongful conduct by our soldiers in war? Is that even possible to do? Doesn’t war dehumanize and terrorize to such a degree as to foster sadistic impulses in at least some of the participants? Is it meaningful to talk about a just war?

“maybe make some change” doesn’t really attempt to get into this territory, which is fair enough — it’s hard to imagine how a fifteen minute web experience could answer those sorts of questions. Most of its impact comes from the focus on a specific, true situation and a named individual in that situation. There were some moments that rang more true for me than others, possibly because the mindset of military machismo is very foreign to me, but it nonetheless conveys compactly and interactively some excellent points about the different motives at work behind exposing and reshaping information, and about the difficulty of completely labeling anyone, even the most apparently bigoted or dangerous people in a situation. I miss the work’s original title, “what if im the bad guy”, because it creates problems around the label “bad guy” — and that’s still a core concern of the piece in its final form.

6 thoughts on ““maybe make some change”

    • Yeah, I get that, though I found in practice that it settled down to something I could follow fairly quickly (either because I was getting more focused on just the text layer, or because the sounds/etc actually die back a bit — I’m not sure which, in retrospect). I think it’s meant to feel somewhat overwhelming, though obviously not so much so as to become unplayable.

  1. Finally played it through to the (an?) end. I really like the technical achievement (though I found the video game backgrounds too distracting), but it felt a little too ambitious in trying to make a big statement in a small venue. I couldn’t help but think about the subject it was drawn from (which is, I gather, part of the point), but at the same time I couldn’t stop thinking about other options that should have been available, in both the game and the “kill team” situation. A “dialogue” that starts by telling me that I only know how to shoot is arguing from pretty broken premises.

    The need to type out the (frequently repellent) actions does make it more immediate, and I was definitely reluctant to type some statements over others. I wonder how much more difficult it would be for the player/reader if they had to use a voice interface and actually say what they wanted to do.

  2. SPOILER ALERT

    I thought the massive amount of frustration in the game was the point; I think that constant repetition of doing the “wrong” thing is supposed to portray the lack of options for Adam Winfield, the protagonist. This was the horrifying story that came out a year ago about a rogue Army platoon that was murdering Afghan civilians and finally got caught: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-kill-team-20110327

    The constant lack of choices and the null prompts for choosing the “wrong” action attempt to recreate the frustration that Adam had while trying to do something about the murders. It was a first person perspective to give you the sense of the mental battle inside Adam’s head. There are no more choices because he didn’t think he had any. I believe the ambiance makes an even stronger experience with the constant barrage of video and audio. If you thought you were experiencing sensory overload, imagine what it was like for any of the soldiers to be surviving through Afghanistan. I thought it was a combination of experiencing the events and trying to recall those events in court.

    I agree it was confusing, but I slowly picked up on the premise and appreciated it when I realized what it was about. The confusion and the overload made sense to me as the story became more and more familiar. I also was previously familiar with the story, so I am a bit biased. Then again, the whole point of the game was to educate the player about a real life event. Even the original title “What if I’m the bad guy” was part of a tattoo on one of the involved soldiers, PFC Justin Stoner, who ended up blowing the whistle on the murders during a physical.

    You can type “more” at any time to learn about what happened. I consider it to be a piece of interactive art more than an actual game. It was more about simulating Adam’s experience than giving the “player” new options to take some different approach. I know that sounds very pretentious but I think it’s more akin to what someone would expect at an art exhibit. I think that it’s great that the piece can be shared with the entire world through the internet.

    • I thought the way the story (if that’s the word) unfolded was very well put together, and I think the feel the author was after was achieved. After another day thinking about it, my problem basically stems from being unable to accept the “nothing he could do” premise. I’m pretty familiar with the narrative (as played out in the media, at least) and it’s hard for me to imagine a unit command climate so broken that SPC Winfield could not have gotten someone in the chain to listen, especially over the course of time in which the events occurred. By all reports, it WAS a very broken unit, but even so, if he had access to Facebook to talk with his dad, he had access to resources outside his own local chain of command who absolutely would take an interest.

      To me, this is the biggest hole in the actual story, and it’s the biggest hole in the fictional work. In real war, you don’t go straight from the corpse of your buddy to the murder planning session to the field to the court room, and there are lots of opportunities to break the cycle in between. Winfield’s helplessness was partially illusory; the protagonist’s was hard-coded. I liked the concept and execution, but it’s more caricature than simulation of the horrors of modern warfare.

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