Games, Activism and the Art of Destroying Shit
Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Foresight and Anticipatory Governance at Utrecht University. His work focuses on where imagined futures, games, and politics, policy and action connect. Email: email@example.com
The world needs more than our positive and constructive imaginations. Many of our current systems are fundamentally broken and unjust, and only benefit those few in power. As described so powerfully by our colleagues at Utrecht University, there is a real need for action to ‘unmake’ and dismantle such systems.
So, how does that connect to games? It means that for games to be truly useful as a pathway for change, they need to engage with power struggles and conflicts. And not just as part of their game narratives and worldbuilding. How can games be designed, used and mobilized to inspire real life engagement with the conflict side of change processes?
This is where a key weakness of many sustainability-focused ‘serious’ or ‘ applied’ games emerges. As an on-going analysis by our team member Carien Moossdorff shows, all too often, these games follow the kind of placid didactic tone of classic sustainability education. And in such games, sustainability challenges are largely framed as a rational management problem. This technocratic, educational and managerial tone seems to be a real blind spot for games and sustainability. Part of the issue is who funds, supports and builds these games. Many sustainability games are commissioned by organizations that are part of incumbent systems: governments, universities and other research institutes, and companies. We are finding that bureaucracy matters as well in this regard — when games are built for large organizations, they have to account for organizational politics, as well as for proving why their games would be useful, and, paradoxically they often default to fairly neutral approaches, and to basic awareness raising, despite the limited impact that such approaches might have.
At the same time, many mainstream games engage with conflict, darkness and chaos, and this is a big part of their appeal for players. They can do this in serious ways, but they can also bring in a kind of dark humor and devilish, goblin-like playfulness — another thing that is sorely missing from sustainability games. We often talk about Disco Elysium as an example of a playful and humorous (if melancholy) engagement with political darkness; but I often think about the modern Wolfenstein games and the way they so deftly combine the thoughtful treatment of systemic racism and oppression with absurdist humor and the joy of tearing down systems. So how can we open up the space for exploring games that engage with power and conflict?
First of all, it is valuable to recognize that activist games fit in a rich and storied context of activist art. In the activist manual ‘Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution’, the authors provide many examples of art-based activist tactics, such as invisible theatre, guerrilla light projections, and artistic and ritualistic protests and vigils. The European-funded project CreaTures explores a wide range of challenging and alternative creative projects, often with play elements, aimed at better futures. The Dutch activist group Fossielvrij NL, who have successfully pressured one of the world’s biggest pension funds ABP into divesting 15 billion euros from fossil fuel industries, sees art-based protest as one of the key ways of undermining the social license to operate and the general cultural basis of the fossil fuel industry. Games can fit, and sometimes already do fit, in this wider tradition. The classic games by MolleIndustria offer a suite of perspectives, satire, and critique on unsustainable and unjust aspects of societies — and some of these games gained widespread popularity.
At the Other Futures Festival, held 5 November 2021 in Amsterdam, an anonymous activist presenter coded as ACAB (but standing for the alternative descriptor All Cats Are Beautiful) offered a presentation on the roles games have played in the Hong Kong protest movement.
They described a cyclical process of games and actual protests feeding into each other. Their presentation included the use of existing games like battle royale style shooter PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds as a way to practice with police evasion, and Animal Crossing as a platform for protests. Maps of Pokemon Go events were used as a way to announce protest locations. Games have also been created to offer strategies and training for the protest movement. Liberate Hong Kong simulates what the protests are like as an experience in a digital game. The text-based game Revolution of Our Times focuses more on agency and choice — allowing players to choose what they would do in various situations in a protest. Game spaces such as e-sports events also became sites of protest; and game language and terms were used to cloak conversations from the police. It is clear from these examples that games can be integrated with real life action in a way that supports engagement with conflict. But protests and learning to deal with police oppression and violence is only one aspect of the real world conflicts associated with attempts to unmake current systems. There are many other pathways of unmaking. What would it look like, for instance, for games to be enmeshed into concrete societal processes of unlearning knowledge, habits and ways of working that no longer serve a sustainable society? How might games be combined with political action in the space of ‘exnovation’ — the conscious stopping of financial and institutional support for harmful technologies and practices?
The Anticiplay team and friends are currently working on a game project that seeks to integrate its development and play with real world unmaking. This game has been inspired by the preparation of a lawsuit to force the ABP Pension Fund to divest its fossil fuel investments; which was in turn inspired by earlier, successful lawsuits by the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth (Milieudefensie) against Royal Dutch Shell and the Urgenda activist group against the Dutch government to force them to align with the Paris goals. We are drawing on the success of a highly popular game about court cases, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and its sequels.
But that is just one example, and we would love to explore more possibilities around games and the conflicts and power struggles around attempts to unmake and dismantle destructive societal systems.
So we are organizing the next session in our ‘Games for Better Futures’ community on this topic! If you are interested in this conversation, as a game developer, player, researcher, funder, journalist, or anything else, join us and sign up here! This session will take place August 30 2022 from 7–9PM CEST. See you there!
Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!