PRACTICE 2015, Hamilton, and the power fantasy

So I’m at PRACTICE, one of my favorite game design conferences.

This year it has featured a lot of people talking in various ways about narrative design and the power fantasy: Meg Jayanth on the unfairness and hidden statistics in 80 Days; Erik Svedäng talking about fragile game design in the intentionally breakable else Heart.Break(), where it’s very possible (or even easy) for the player to wander the game world at length without making any progress; Anna Kipnis on the narrative power of simulation as exemplified in Dear Leader; people on Twitter discussing the fantasy of violence demonstrated in Ben Ruis’ talk about Aztez. There’s been lots of discussion about the appeal of reducing the power of the player character in order to express the experiences of marginalized people, to allow the NPCs to speak (such as the side characters in 80 Days), and to demonstrate problematic systems.

The constraint-and-powerlessness theme comes up a lot in interactive fiction. And often to good effect! Squinky’s mechanics exploring social awkwardness, IF works about mental illness and slanted systems; my own experiments in Bee with getting the player to accept that they can’t win the spelling bee and that pursuing that goal isn’t necessarily rewarding.

Sometimes, though, I feel like this is still too easy. It’s challenging to accept that there are situations where you can’t do anything useful, but once you have accepted that fact, you’re off the hook. I don’t feel responsible for the misfortunes of the side characters I met in 80 Days, since it is impossible to alter them. I don’t really feel complicit in the system that makes their oppression possible. In real life, recognizing that the system around me is broken can become a reason to withdraw and disengage from politics and activism of any kind.

So I’ve realized from this discussion that there’s another kind of player agency experience that I also want to explore. I mentioned this during the Feedback Loop session yesterday, but it was a new enough set of thoughts that I’m not sure I articulated it very well. Specifically: the situation where you have limited but not zero power.

This is, I think, the reality of democracy. I am morally responsible for the actions of my government and for the oppressive social systems I belong to. I did not design them, but I have not dismantled them. It is, of course, impossible that I could dismantle them singlehandedly. In fact, it’s unlikely that I will ever make any visible difference. To the extent that that there are obviously effective ways for one person to change a large system, most involve extremely violent or disruptive actions that would be a net negative. Nonetheless, the difficulty of making a difference does not remove the responsibility to try to improve both the immediate situation of the marginalized and the system itself.

Counterfeit Monkey is about this topic, but it does let you make a major difference, even if there’s ambiguity about whether that difference was the right one to make. Cape gets at this a bit — one of the things I really liked about that game — but largely through story, and via a protagonist who does take violent action.

So I’m curious whether there’s a possible game about the citizen power that is so slow and so often unsatisfying that one is tempted to just give up.

This sounds like terrible game design, though, right? I mean, who wants to play a game in which the majority of your actions sink in silence, never yielding any perceivable consequence, and yet the game harangues you for your failings if you don’t keep plugging on? What if the only win is that things don’t get as much worse as they might have otherwise? What if the only win is that the protagonist feels slightly less guilty at the end? Is that even a useful metric?

Last night I missed the PRACTICE party in order to see Hamilton. Two weeks ago I’d heard of Hamilton because I had various friends obsessing about it, but I hadn’t actually listened to it. Then I stayed with friends in Columbus who played me the cast album, and it immediately became a must-see, which was awkward because the show is sold out pretty much through March. Still, too much money later, I had a mezzanine ticket for Saturday night. (It was great, by the way. If you go, though, I recommend you listen to the cast album a few times first: the delivery is so rapid and energetic that you’ll be grateful that you already know the lyrics.)

One of the many themes of Hamilton is the idea that leadership (or good democratic citizenship in general) is slow and hard and murky work; that neither the people in the moment nor those looking back from the perspective of history can really judge the value of those efforts.

Maybe this is something that we can only address narratively. Maybe it’s too hard to express in mechanics. But I’d like to think about how one might try.

15 thoughts on “PRACTICE 2015, Hamilton, and the power fantasy

  1. People often say, “why waste your time playing games when you could be improving the real world?”

    That criticism would be especially potent against a game with mechanics like the ones described here. Why play a game of democracy as slow and low-impact as democracy itself, when you could participate in actual democracy?

  2. Democracy may be broken (it is if populations get so big that individuals have a near-zero chance of making any difference through voting), but we don’t normally give up on life because of that. The reason is that life has other, more rewarding, aspects.
    So a game that had a background quest of the kind you describe could work if the foreground quests were sufficiently attractive (and maybe even attracting you away from the background one, with choices e.g. between pursuing a romantic interest and demonstrating in the rain).

  3. As an IF fan who happens to be an election law attorney, I think this post highlights one of the fundamental frustrations with “pure” or direct democracy. Interestingly (given that you went to see “Hamilton,” the awesome hip-hop musical about the architect of American representative government), I’d say that one of the philosophical issues at the heart of American participatory government is to what extent the will of the people (the millions of tiny raindrops of feeble votes, pushing oh-so-uncertainly and imperfectly in gusts and squalls against the resistant inertia of tragedy-freighted history) should be exercised by slightly totalitarian intermediary officialdom. We accept our groaning, partially unresponsive system with lots of delayed feedback loops and intermediation so as to (hopefully) ensure the protection of the rights and interests of those other than the great mob.

    I agree that a game like “My Vote Barely Matters” could be both realistic and horrible; a sort of existentialist grind towards an unsatisfying future. But … I believe a good IF game can be made based on a simulation of the voter’s experience.

    The trick, I think, would be to allow for shifting scales of perspective – I would propose a novelistic use of changing perspective, narrative focus, and spatial and temporal scales, from the personal (one voter in the waning hours of a national election, standing alone in a voting booth, looking over a slate of choices for candidates for office) to the universal.

    What if, in one game, the player experienced the choices and trade-offs experienced by the voter, the candidate, the officeholder, the government, the great aggregated masses of those who are ruled, both those who can and cannot vote, bound together as the nation, and the human race as a whole – sliding back and forth from one level of perspective to another, from hours to centuries, swooping from the heights of institutional might and the unsanguine indifference of sovereign states, stretching across generations, wars, revolutions, triumphs and terrors, all the way back down to the voter in the booth?

    There’s a little of Ben Robbin’s “Microscope” in that idea, except that the game wouldn’t be a round-robin multiplayer game of narrative collaboration – there would be one player, alone, sliding back and forth from a godlike perspective taking in decades or centuries, through the perspective of groups and institutions at intermediate levels of power, all the way down to the individual voter’s mind as the minutes tick away, and as millions of simulated votes accumulate silently and inexorably in a crude, blunt expression of the public will as modeled by the game.

      • I feel as though idle games (or candy boxes) are a natural home for scale-switching effects. At the beginning you’re doing tiny little things and by the end whatever you might have been doing at the beginning is swamped in these huger effects–but you can remember the little things you started with. And they play out over a long enough scale to give you a sense of the individual raindrops gradually wearing away at the rock. Though in practice they may wind up being power fantasies, and also kind of evil in their gameplay (I took Cookie Clicker to the Grandmapocalypse not long ago, and though it wasn’t asking me for any money I still felt like it was addictive in the evil way.)

        Another kind of puzzle structure that seems like it might have this kind of scale-switching effect is… wait for it… the Tower of Hanoi. At the beginning all you can do is move around the littlest disks, but shift things around enough and eventually you uncover enough to make the Big Moves. Of course to be narratively meaningful you’d have to come up with a way of doing a Tower of Hanoi that didn’t look like one.

      • 2048 fits this category too– every big number you make is a long journey that starts with 2+2=4.

        Or, to get back to IF, Hadean Lands starts you out with grubbing around with the small details of a polishing ritual, but you build on that and eventually you end up doing big things (I presume… I still haven’t gotten very far in it myself).

      • Yes, 2048! I was going to mention specifically the “academia edition,” which seems to be not working right now, but is discussed here–which is not so much about making little change as about the attrition as you move up the academic ladder. Finding out about the progression was actually worth working through the game, so I’m going to rot13 it in case it reappears: fghqrag-tenq fghqrag-arj cuq-cbfgqbp-nqwhapg-yrpghere-nffvfgnag cebs-nffbpvngr cebs-shyy cebs-rzrevghf-qrngu
        (I think I missed one though.)

  4. It’s very hard to link art to the real world at the best of times.

    I throw myself in the other direction, reading and writing stories where it’s easy to gain strength and influence and bring about change. As a reader, an action fantasy novel brings me out of myself (and my depression) and makes me, however briefly, a better person. That sense of hopefulness, no matter how fictional and/or unrealistic, is vital. So I’ll stick with the power fantasy games for now.

    Felicity Banks

  5. Hmm… This does sound like it has potential for some interesting gameplay…

    Another thought, maybe the player could choose between apathy, voting and campaigning, revolution, and smaller scale, local, direct action. That way they could decide what to try, if they felt frustrated by the uneffectiveness of voting, they could try leading a revolution, and see the consequences. If they were averse to that, it might end up as a critique of democracy in that they would end up just working on other things on the game besides the official goal of changing their society.

    Cool things to contemplate. Thanks for sharing the ideas!

  6. There are two great evils in the world that I think can be harnessed for good via IF.

    #1 An overwhelmed apathy at all the things that are wrong and how difficult it is to make a difference.
    #2 In-app purchases.

    A game could be set up very like 80 days, but with sections of writing that are available only after making a donation (of any size) to an appropriate place, eg places that research climate change, charities for orphans, general aid organisations like Oxfam, clever charities like the “Really Useful Gift Shop” (you can choose a specific gift eg a goat for $10 that provides income and milk for a family).

    The unlocked sections give the player greater insight into the effects of their gift, eg an NPC now owns a goat and is therefore able to go to school, which means they have skills useful to the PC (and themselves, of course). Or the PC simply swaps bodies and experiences the charity from the other side – as a scientist with better funding, as that orphan who is fed better and therefore is healthy enough to get better from an illness, etc.

    The artist themselves should definitely be something the reader can donate to, as well.

    And links to all the donate-y places at the end of the game, so people can donate differently/again/more when they’ve “seen” the effects of their choices in a more personal way.

    You could also simply provide links to shops that sell more moral gifts – jewellery made my women who would otherwise be forced into prostitution; fair trade/palm oil free products, etc.

    Or advertising revenue.

    There are lots of flaws to a system like this

  7. Pingback: Problem Attic (Liz Ryerson) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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