Some games want to do more than entertain or even teach—they are designed to change the world, or teach others how to do so. Not every game wants to challenge the status quo, but those that do can change the outlook of their players. The Games for Change Conference is entering its 15th year, annually showcasing notable approaches to games as activism. ResistJam 2017 alone received 214 entries.
But what button can you press to stop a war… or start one? Being inspired by tales of past revolutions is a long way from what participants in a potentially doomed resistance experience. How do you design a game that is both satisfying to play and appropriate for its subject matter?
Thus far, activist game designs follow a variant of one or more of the following six plans of attack:
1: The Story: Most examples so far of games with subversive intent only go so far as to write subversive content, giving the player a way to play-act their resistance rather than exercise it. Perhaps none is more explicit about its themes than Persona 5 (2017) .
Persona 5's strongest theme is "resist the system." Unlike previous entries in the series, you are explicitly not a "good student" who follows the rules. According to your peers and authority figures, you're an unruly terror with a record of assault, one step from a Yakuza series crossover. Pleasantly, the real villains of the piece aren't just "bad apples" or other criminals—they're corrupted souls embedded into every hierarchy and government, often knowingly enabled by supposedly good people around them. It shames everyone who is tempted into complacency and lazy. Despite its many faults, Persona 5 is a strong entry, with mostly good ambitions.
Games generally don't ask players to break their rules. Games teach players a system, and reward them fairly for obeying it.
However, like most "subversive" games, these themes apply to the story and characters and not the game design itself. In order to take down the evils plaguing Tokyo 20XX, you must first earn points by completing objectives set down for you. Complete the checklist obediently and thereby you will save the world. There are a few Important Decisions or "easter egg" surprises pre-scripted to find if the player feels particularly defiant. But in order to even have a chance of completing the game, you'll have to follow the rules of how to play the game. Attack, do damage, dodge, talk to this character, complete this quest, etc. The mechanical rules are meant to be followed, even though explicitly, the in-character rules of the world are not.
To be clear, this isn't a criticism of Persona 5, or any of the other games mentioned here. There's nothing wrong with telling a great story with rewarding gameplay, and in order to tell a great story, the player generally has to co-operate.
Games generally don't ask players to break their rules. Games welcome the player to play them, across all commercially popular game genres, from shooters to match-3s to MMOs. AAA or indie, mobile or console, games teach players a system, and reward them fairly for obeying it, especially if they do so diligently and skillfully.
There are very few exceptions. Otherwise paradigm-shattering Minecraft is still primarily made up of ingenious reward systems, for increasing your character's power, territory, complexity, or your own mastery. Even experiences far from power fantasies or "Skinner boxes", like Firewatch or Hidden Folks or Her Story, reward the player for co-operating with the game's rules. Much like blockbuster films tend to play on fantasies of power or pure love winning the day, most games offer the satisfaction that good work and skill will be justly rewarded. It feels good.
A system that doesn't reward enjoyable "work" is deeply unpleasant. So then… what does a game about resisting systems, from within those systems, actually look like?
2. Rewarded Play: Frog Fractions (2012) is a delightfully subversive educational browser game. For those who have played it, you know what I mean. For those who don't, go play it.
This method of rewarding disobedience is easily spoiled, because it depends on having certain expectations, and then discovering the boundaries are wider than you expected. Once that expectation has been changed, and the eureka moment is passed, there is no lasting system to disrupt; the script has flipped, and it's great fun, but it is still a script.
3. Complicity: Participation in and mastery over a (virtual) corrupt system may be one way to learn how to resist it. Satire is forever in danger of being mistaken for sincerity, but many point to Papers Please (2013) as a clear predecessor to a class of simulationist indie game with real-world dystopian anxieties, including Orwell (2016) and This Is the Police (2016). In this type of exercise, you are an agent of the system, navigating the tension of orders you don't want to obey.
The more mischievously satirical Phone Story (2011) allows the player to create a smartphone, exploring the real-world systems involved, including dangerous child labor and dehumanizing factory conditions. Apple banned it from the App Store after only four days, perhaps in part because ignorance about smartphone production is more convenient for their business model. Whether or not it changed any minds, the creator Molleindustria donated all of the game's profits (at least $6,000) to causes fighting corporate abuse, which could be seen as a meta-game method of improving the world through game design.
But what about systems we don't even realize we're complicit in? Train (2009) is an experimental board game, controversial specifically because it makes the player complicit without their consent. It's ostensibly a resource-allocation game reminiscent of "eurogames" like Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride, about moving people as efficiently as possible to their destination.
However, partway through playing, the players discover that (surprise!) they are actually Nazi train conductors, sending people to concentration camps. How the player conceives of "winning" the game presumably changes, and perhaps the best response is to stop playing altogether.
When I first heard of Train, I resented what I thought of as unfairness to the player—how dare this game designer make the player feel guilty about something they couldn't possibly have known? But even without having played it, the thought experiment of Train highlights, in a way only games can, that the context of our decisions matters. What happens when we discover we are complicit? Do we continue to collaborate with a harmful system, or choose a new victory condition?
4. Punished Obedience: Valkyrie Profile (2000) is a beloved cult classic that punishes the player for "just following orders." The player takes the role of a valkyrie of Norse mythology, sent to collect the souls of fallen heroes by Odin and Freya. Pure obedience to these gods, whom you were created to serve, results in a less-than-happy ending. The scrupulous player might be uncomfortable with some of their orders, and even feel somewhat relieved to be punished by the end. The game doesn't offer a great way to redeem oneself, though; the "best" (happiest) ending depends mostly on visiting the right places at the right time and avoiding certain locations, rather than allowing the player to express their own morality.
The Dark Souls series might have popularized lying NPCs, but The Void (2008) by Ice-Pick Lodge was possibly a world first in active deception, giving you "hints" that make the game much harder to complete. Lying NPCs would later be revisited by Ice-Pick Lodge in Knock-Knock (2013), and on the Steam page, a cheeky hint warns: "Follow the rules of the game! Of course you must first understand the game being played with you."
5. The Microcosm: Where better to learn how to change and improve a government than in a game about making them yourself? E.V.E. Online (2003) allows players to create their own rules and laws, but this infamously results in other players exploiting those rules, for serious financial gain through theft or a good old Ponzi scheme. The developer, CCP, doesn't step in and "fix" these situations unlike in most MMOs, and this emotional distance gives players complete responsibility for incidents of misplaced trust.
If I were keen on teaching people to think like revolutionaries and system-disruptors, a 3-month subscription to deep space would probably be my first homework assignment. But as with most governing systems, my theoretical E.V.E Online pupil might also learn about the tactical benefits of fascism and dogpiling, which are alternative and effective ways for leaders to maintain control in a dangerous frontier, for better and worse.
6. Alternate Ethos: Some would say the best way to resist a system is to present a wholly separate alternative, to step outside it and see it from a new angle. After all, many elements of the systems that govern our lives are invisible, and only by imagining an alternative can we see our own decisions in their fuller context. What if hugging were the only verb, like in HUGPUNX (2013)? What about our world would we find unacceptable, if killing our enemies was not an option? What in our government would we require changing, if other countries' citizens were seen as valuable as our own?
This was one of the reasons I joined the team on The Shrouded Isle (2017), a Wicker Man-esque human sacrifice cult management game. Many are uncomfortable with the topic, but to me, it explores an alternate ethos in which my comfort zones are suspect. It makes me wonder what aspects of my life I tolerate only because I see it as normal, even if I feel it's disgusting or tragic. What cruelties would I accept, or even defend, if the gods literally decreed it necessary for human survival? What injustice would I still, somehow, find the courage to defy? And what injustice do I already tolerate, blindly, as a part of a status-quo I have not sufficiently questioned?
Robert Yang designs games that confront mainstream media's discomfort with male sexuality, and highlights hypocritical censorship. After Twitch banned "downloadable dick pic studio" Cobra Club (2015), he came back with a not-manifesto and recently released an even more provocative experience.
The Tearoom (2017) involves the player in bathroom cruising for anonymous gay oral sex, replacing the penises the player licks with different, flesh-toned guns. The Tearoom resists cultural norms by 1) offering an alternative, non-violent purpose for the ubiquitous gaming weapon, 2) centering a historical experience of marginalized people, and finally 3) playfully bypassing censorship. Its very existence offers brilliant commentary that can only succeed in interactive form. Surely, others will be inspired to follow his lead.
Systems govern our lives. The average citizen must first see society's rules, if we hope to change them. Maybe playing with them is the first step.
Tanya X. Short (@tanyaxshort) is the game designer and Captain of Kitfox Games, co-director of Pixelles, and co-editor of the recently published Procedural Generation in Game Design by CRC Press.