What great games and powerful social movements have in common
Aric McBay is an organizer, a narrative designer, and author of seven books.
I’ve been playing video games since my parents bought an Apple IIc in the late 1980s. I’ve been an activist and a climate justice organizer for more than twenty years. And I’ve written a stack of books about social movements and social movement strategy.
A little while back, I started writing games. I love writing books, but as an organizer the interactivity that games can offer is hard to beat. Great games change people — they change how we think, they make us better at recognizing patterns, they encourage us to solve problems in new ways and be more creative.
The more time I spent writing and thinking about games, however, the more it became clear to me that social movements can learn a lot from games — and vice versa. There are problem-solving patterns valuable to both, and there are ways to cross-pollinate ideas from each domain.
What do great games and powerful social movements have in common? Let’s break it down by five areas: attention, rules, escalation, power, and storytelling.
Attention is the lifeblood of social movements. Movements like Black Lives Matter or youth climate justice campaigns (see Greta Thunberg) didn’t start with a lot of money, they didn’t have a lot of resources. But they were able to get attention, both from the broader public and from the thousands of organizers who have worked to make things happen.
For those core activists, that attention was deep and lasting — to succeed, movement organizers need a level of focus that (to outsiders, at least) looks like obsession.
Attention is at the heart of games, too — if a game can’t grab a player’s attention, is it even a game? To seize the player’s attention is essential for a successful game, both to draw the player into the gameplay and to get enough players to be commercially viable.
The crowded nature of gaming — dubbed the “indiepocalypse” — means that plenty of brilliant games never get the audience they deserve. But social movements and even volunteer organizations have faced the same challenges (a problem worsened by the ever-growing labour demands that capitalism and inequality put on our lives). Apps and social media companies in a war for clicks and eyeballs have made it much harder for movements to get the attention they deserve.
There are ways around that, to be sure, and many of them are common to both games and movements:
In games, clarity (or lack thereof) is most evident in the user interface. The World of Warcraft interface was sometimes so unintelligible as to be meme-worthy; a scientist studying pain perception could probably use it to induce migraines in research subjects.
In contrast, the user interface of the narratively-brilliant Firewatch is so gorgeous and unobtrusive that it looks more like a painting than a traditional videogame.
In social movements, though, clarity is evident in how movements frame their own grievances and goals. How do we explain what is wrong with the world, and the kind of world we want to create? It’s easy to make a long list of talking points and things to change, but effective movements are so clear about their purpose that it’s often baked into their name: EarthFirst! Black Lives Matter. Defund the Police.
But many activist groups are not so clear; they bury their goals and beliefs in jargon or specialized terms that can feel unintelligible to outsiders. If something seems excessively overcomplicated, most people will just tune it out.
A bad interface hides key information. Some interfaces are bad by design — economic indicators like the Gross Domestic Product ignore human and ecological well-being, while celebrating destructive activity.
The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster happened in part because critical information damage to the spacecraft was buried at the bottom of a PowerPoint slide. Giving people information for the sake of information can create dangerous distractions.
In contrast, a good interface — like a good social movement — takes the invisible and makes it visible. (We’ll come back to that.)
Clarity is not just important for general communication — it’s important because we need to know what information to act on.
Successful social movements understand urgency, because urgency makes people act.
It takes an emergency to shake people out of their usual routines, to make them question business as usual. Imminent danger is often necessary for people to set aside their differences and their usual routines to take collective action. A question for all movements is: how can we make this issue important and timely enough that people want to come out and participate, instead of just staying home with Netflix?
Game designers also understand urgency as a powerful means to grab a player’s attention. Time-sensitive action is one of the most fundamental aspects of game design. Tetris would never have been so popular as a turn-based game. Space Invaders and Pong, without the need for quick reflexes, would be boring.
The challenge for social movements (especially movements organized around challenging long-term issues like climate change and poverty) is how to best use that sense of urgency when the emergency is so prolonged. But any emotion can lose power if over-used, and urgency is not the only way to motivate people.
Games are supposed to be fun; that’s why we call them games. And social movements can be fun; most movements would get more done, and keep people around longer, if they were a bit more fun.
Fun is important. But fun isn’t everything — engagement is more important. Engagement can be driven by fun and joy, but also by anger, or fear, or empathy amidst tragedy. All these emotions exist for reasons — to get us, as humans, to take necessary action in key moments. One of the games I most adore is Disco Elyisum — but it’s a game that’s often not fun; it’s sad, even miserable at times.
And that’s okay; neither games nor movements need to be fun all the time. It’s more important that they are emotionally honest.
Many of the things that prompt people to engage in movements — like the horrors of police violence, ecological devastation, and grinding poverty — are gut-wrenching. Shying away from those real challenges, or papering them over with cheer-mongering, will not create the deep relationships that movements need to succeed.
Emotional honesty is what lets us connect with others, in movements and games.
Humans crave connection. That’s why social media reels people in, even when the algorithm is unaccountable and the social elements are phony or manipulated. A bait-and-switch for genuine connection can feel better than nothing.
Connection with another person is one of the most important ways to draw people in, to engage their attention, whether in a game or a social movement. Movements are made of people, and groups win or lose based on their ability to forge scattered individuals into powerful movements that can take collective action.
That human connection is what keeps members of a movement engaged when things get challenging. A social movement doesn’t need to be fun; at least, not all the time. But people are much more likely to stick around if they have not only fun, but care and community.
I know that some of my social movement friends would react with horror that I might equate a real-life relationship between comrades and a videogame “friendship” — even one as nuanced as the relationship between Disco Elysium’s Harrier Du Bois and Kim Kitsuragi.
And sure, games are games. But even game relationships can change us for the better. Research has shown that people who read novels have more strongly-developed empathy; no doubt the same applies to people who play well-written narrative video games.
These relationships are especially important early in our game or activist journeys. When we form a strong connection with another person, whether in a movement or game narrative, that person can often serve as a mentor or guide.
Guides, entry points, and tutorials
Complex modern games often need tutorials so that new players can understand and fully engage with them. Great games build that tutorial seamlessly into the story; that the player isn’t even aware that they are being taught. Often the player has a guide who helps them in the early stages.
In contrast, most of the social movements that I’ve been involved with have been terrible at this. We could offer new people guides, buddies, or mentors to help welcome, orient, and support them. We could show people clear ways to participate that go beyond gestures like signing a petition.
But too often, I’ve seen movements that seem to actively to keep new people out, using language or jargon as an excuse for gatekeeping. Or they fail to offer stepping-stones for young and new activists, especially during difficult campaigns.
And, depending on the issue this may very well be the case.
But it’s like starting a game at the final boss without ever giving the player a chance to learn the interface or level up. They’re not going to succeed — they’re going to quit. (This also ties into important pattern of escalation, which we’ll come back to.)
If that happens, we’ve lost not only their attention, but an opportunity to change the world.
We need guides and support, entry points and stepping-stones, especially when the rules of a situation are complicated.
Modern AAA Role-Playing Games can have incredibly sophisticated systems and mechanics. To succeed in the Horizon series requires the player to master elaborate combat and weapons systems, experience-based skill-trees, and crafting mechanics, all while navigating nested side-quests, branching narratives, and social relationships.
But in terms of complexity, they’ve got nothing on social movements. I wrote a two-volume book exploring what makes movements win — I used illustration and case-studies to explore everything from recruitment and intelligence-gathering to strategy and tactics. And after 700 pages, I still felt like it was just an introduction to the vast possibilities and sprawling historical context that social movements allow.
That brings us to our next area of focus, the rules: how to master them, and when to ignore them.
Great games and powerful movements know when to follow the rules — and when to break them.
The Stanley Parable is gripping, hilarious, and difficult to categorize. It’s a rare game that first states its rules, and then encourages us to subvert them. If you haven’t played it, you should! Watch the trailer here.
Regardless of the intent of game designers, though gamers love to break rules, especially the communities of speedrunners who find and exploit glitches. In the most ambitious examples, speedrunners finish games that would normally take days in a matter of minutes. (We’ll come back to speedrunners in a moment, here is an example of someone speedrunning the game Rain World).
Most of the time, though, players of a game follow the rules because they have to. We can’t fly in a game (generally) unless the designers intended us to; we can’t persuade an enemy to lay down their weapon and choose a path of peace (unless this mechanic has been deliberately included). These rules are built into the reality of the game, into the underlying engine. They are as close as games get to having immutable laws of physics.
But in social and political conflict, the “rules” at play are human conventions and human laws.
Human laws are a social construct. The laws of a government — authoritarian or not — are totally different from the laws of physics. Human laws can (and sometimes should) be broken, if we are willing to deal with the consequences.
Social movements have rules, but those rules are different from those of the people in power, in control. And here’s the thing: Successful social movements always break the rules. Human laws are made by the powerful, and mostly with their own interests in mind. Just about every atrocity in history has been completely legal by the laws of the perpetrators.
Not so long ago, it was legal only for property-owning white men to vote. It was legal in some places to force people to live in certain neighbourhoods because of the color of their skin. It was legal for humans to own other humans.
Essentially all the rights we have exist because people were willing to challenge and to break those laws.
This, of course, is civil disobedience, an essential tactic for social change. It’s been used by everyone from the suffragists to the civil rights movement to modern-day climate justice movements.
Civil disobedience can catalyse social change that would otherwise be impossible. But as Extinction Rebellion learned, just getting a lot of people arrested is not enough, by itself, to transform a society.
If we want to make change, we must understand the specific rules of the system we’re dealing with, and devise a strategy to evade, neutralize, or change them.
Grinding and speedrunning
In games, grinding is the process of making slow and incremental progress by performing the same tasks over and over again.
This will be a familiar theme to my activist friends, whether they play video games or not. Knocking on doors, signing petitions, having conversations with strangers over and over and over. Getting incrementally better each time — hopefully.
This is a slow and important way to make change, because it can deepen understanding and relationships.
Not all players enjoy grinding in games. In some games, such as roguelikes, the gameplay is simply so difficult and unforgiving that players must repeat the same actions repeatedly, training their fine motor skills to survive a difficult passage or exploit the weak points of an enemy.
In RPGs, grinding is sometimes criticized by players; it’s a strategy that designers can use to pad out the playtime of a game without having to write new stories or creating new settings or art assets.
When comparing games and social movements, we should think deeply about the idea of grinding, because it goes to the heart of how we think change actually happens.
In games like RPGs, we can perform the same task repeatedly until we get enough experience points to bump up our stats. Then we are finally able to overcome a difficult challenge, or beat a boss.
But in social movements — aside from the types of examples I mentioned — doing the same actions over and over and over again is often a losing strategy.
To win requires innovation, boldness, and a departure from the established norms. Let’s look at an example.
In the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS crisis emerged and began to devastate gay communities in the United States. But because homophobic politicians and doctors saw the disease (incorrectly) as a “gay” disease, there was a shortage of public action and funding to address the problem.
Many of the established LGBT organizations at the time were relatively conservative, even timid. They kept doing the same things over and over — politely asking for action, pointing out the issue in a “respectable” way without causing trouble. Meanwhile, people were dying of HIV/AIDS, without viable treatments. It was a public health emergency.
So grassroots queer activists formed a new group called ACT-UP. Instead of following the social rules that were keeping other organizations ineffective, ACT-UP was committed to breaking the rules whenever necessary.
ACT-UP would take over events where homophobic politicians and doctors were speaking, shouting at them and embarrassing them publicly. They blocked streets in front of federal offices with “die-ins”. They shut down train stations and the New York Stock Exchange.
They were bold, and brave, and it worked. Their dramatic and disruptive action forced government to pay attention to the crisis, and to fund research. The treatments developed as a result have since saved millions of lives around the world.
In game terms, what did they do? ACT-UP decided to speedrun social change. They ignored or bypassed the rules in their way, and they pursued their goal with speed that matched the urgency of the crisis.
History is full of examples like this. In fact, from my perspective as an organizer, author, and student of social movements, these examples are more common than not. The history of social progress is not defined by a slow and constant rate of change. Instead, that history is often marked by short eruptions of upheaval and dramatic change, separated by periods of relative stagnation (or even backsliding).
When movements are winning, they are typically growing. As activists, we might have to start small, but incremental wins and achievements let us take on bigger and bigger targets and goals. Which brings us to part III.
Both games and movements are built on escalation. Every social movement — from civil rights to anti-colonial revolution — starts out with a handful of people sitting down together and saying: “This situation is messed up — what do we do about it?”
The answer is, usually, that they find a set of tactics they can use, and then they escalate. ACT-UP did it. The Civil Rights movement did it, moving from small protests and lunch-counter sit-ins to million-person marches. Suffragists did it, too. No surprise that this is a key element of great games, too.
I absolutely adore the game Osmos. It’s a mostly tranquil game in which you play a tiny bubble navigating a world that feels cosmically large (at least in the beginning). There are other bubbles kinds of bubbles, most of which are enormous.
The rules are simple, and you absorb them mostly by, well, osmosis. But if I were to write them down, what matters is:
1) When you bump into another bubble, mass moves to the bigger bubble. If you collide with a smaller bubble, you absorb it and grow. If you bump into a bigger bubble, it siphons mass from you, and you shrink (or disappear entirely).
2) You can move if you spend mass by expelling little bubbles to thrust you in the right direction. Slow movement is cheap; fast movement is expensive.
It’s a game that rewards patience and careful strategy. And even though it doesn’t have any of the outward trappings of a social movement — there are no chants, no petitions, no protest signs — it’s a game that truly captures for me the feeling of movement growth and escalation.
Of course, this is something we see in many games, and there are entire genres of incremental games (i.e., clickers and idle games) build largely around the idea of numbers going up.
Ideally, though, escalation is about more than simple numerical increases. It involves new possibilities, and new abilities.
Escalation of skills and abilities
Both in games and movements, participants need a sense of progression to sustain their interest and engagement. One way to offer that in games is through skill trees or tech trees.
Sid Meier’s Civilization was probably the first video game to offer a tech tree, allowing players to develop their simulated society by researching technologies which allowed the construction of new buildings and units. Researching Masonry could lead to Construction, which allow Bridge Building, and then Railroads, and so on.
This branching network of technological dependencies has become a staple of city-builder and civ-builder games ever since, with games like Frostpunk splitting the tree into multiple pieces (er, tech shrubs?) to keep it intelligible. (Games like Path of Exile, shown below, abandon the principle of clarity for whatever for a more… maximalist approach.)
A good tech tree takes something that could be abstract and confusing, and makes it clear, organized, and legible to the player. It also offers room for the diversification and specialization of playstyles, providing variety and self-expression.
This is evident in other trees, like Frostpunk’s branching social policy options. The player can make management choices that will encourage solidarity and care in their ice-locked post-apocalyptic settlement, or they can choose a culture based on control and surveillance. But social policy choices in one direction gradually make the alternatives impossible.
RPGs likewise have skill and ability trees, allowing their player to map out their playstyle — do you want to become brawling warrior or a stealthy thief? — while offering opportunities for progression.
I love skill trees. I wish there were skill trees for activists. I would love to be able to show a young activist a skill tree for success, to identify the steps and resources necessary to develop on build on each skill.
Such a skill tree would offer something already noted: entry points for engagement. But we need more than entry points, for both games and movements.
To bring people in and keep them involved, we must give people both an accessible starting point and a vision of the long-term goal or endpoint.
This is something that great games often do, not merely for strategic purposes but to give us a satisfying narrative. In Half-Life 2, the game designers do this constantly — and we know that because they explain as much in their in-game developer commentary.
Sometimes this technique is quite subtle — a light here or there, or a change of colour that draws the player forward.
But the big example, which occurs early in Half-Life 2, features the Citadel — the game’s centre of authoritarian power and the location of the story’s climax. The gamedevs at Valve are telling us: This thing matters. This is our goal. This is where we’re headed.
That’s important. Unlike many games, Half-Life doesn’t seize control of the player camera via cutscenes or scripted sequences. So they must encourage and entice the player to look toward their goal. Just like most movements in real life. (Again, a function of attention.)
Greenpeace organizer Chris Rose argued that organizers should start planning a campaign by thinking of an image of the desired outcome: what would an actual picture of a campaign’s victory look like? The same principle applies to games and movements.
Pacing and variation
Pacing is likewise critical to keeping attention. This is something else that games understand well. A perfect game always keeps you in an ideal window of tolerance — the zone of proximal development — which is neither too easy nor too difficult. A well-paced game lets you master a skill or a tool and then promptly gives you a new one. The difficulty is kept in the sweet spot.
Variation and pacing are essential to keep our attention. Too much of the same and we get bored, look away. Too much high-intensity action is mentally exhausting, and our attention drifts. But a prolonged lack of action is just as tedious.
In movements, this is as much art as science — campaign planning is combined with improvisation while organizers adapt to current events and changing circumstances. In games, of course, this can be algorithmic. Valve’s zombie combat game Left 4 Dead has a built-in “Director”, which procedurally spawns waves of zombies, spaced out between periods of suspenseful quiet.
Achievements and stepping-stones
Game developers understand the importance of achievement in motivating players to continue in a long and sometimes difficult campaign. Indeed, achievements have been formalized as an essential mechanic of games across many different genres.
A sense of accomplishment is also critical for learning, both to develop our skills and grow our knowledge.
Most of the activists I know understand the need for visible achievements in social change campaigns. It’s important not just to motivate and encourage existing participants, but critically to show new people that change can happen.
For this reason, young movements often focus on easier wins and low-hanging fruit that can build up a sense of momentum. Local struggles against racial segregation in the United States often started with relatively small demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience at lunch counters. For example, activists of colour would sit at the “whites-only” section at a restaurant and order a sandwich.
While the risk of racist violence was ever-present, these “small” actions were essential to grow the movement. Compared with gigantic boycotts or marches, they required only a few people, a small amount of planning, and virtually no resources. But they showed that segregation was only a human law, and not an immutable reality. Once these small actions took place and were publicized, they could be copied by organizers in other communities, building the movement’s strength and bringing bigger and more ambitious actions into reach. Small actions serve as stepping-stones for bigger ones[i].
Variation, again, is necessary. Movements do not win simply by growing their numbers. I’ve been part of many movements — anti-war movements, anti-globalization movements, and even climate justice movements — that got bigger and bigger over time, rallying more people at mass actions.
And yet, it wasn’t enough. Just doing the same thing, but bigger, often causes a movement to plateau as those in power learn to adapt.
Just getting bigger won’t do the job. Social movements are engaged in a conflict against a thinking adversary. We must escalate, but we must also be creative, inventive, and reflective in our tactics and our strategy.
Above all — whether we are developing games or cultivating movements — we must think about building power.
Many people play games to act out a power fantasy that’s unattainable in real life, whether that’s shooting authoritarian invaders in Half-Life, or rebuilding a ruined world in Terra Nil.
Because of that fantasy, games are sometimes criticized as escapism. But I think that’s unfair — at least, for many games.
TV and film, I would argue, are more prone to escapism, because they are passive mediums by nature. It is easier to turn off our brains and sink into the role of “media consumer” when we watch a video.
But games are interactive by nature. And while many could be described as shallow diversions, the games that I keep playing offer the player more responsibility, not less.
Consider Frostpunk, a city-builder from 11Bit Studios in which the player must protect a group of Victorian climate refugees after failed 19th Century geo-engineering causes a new ice age. You must constantly make difficult choices to try to keep your people alive. Will you increase your fragile settlement’s workforce through a bit of child labour? Or will you save some kids from frostbite in the knowledge that they might later starve to death? And how will you manage class tensions between the labourers, engineers, and even former aristocrats?
This War of Mine, also from 11Bit Studios, is even bleaker. You must manage a small group of survivors during a lengthy urban conflict that echoes the Siege of Sarajevo. You might be able to scrounge up a rusty firearm, but your people are civilians. You can’t shoot your way out of your problems. You simply do your best to keep them alive, foraging supplies after dark, hiding inside during the day to avoid snipers.
In the best-case scenario, you’re able to keep your characters relative safe and provide them with a few creature comforts: board up the drafty broken windows, play some music, enjoy the occasional cigarette. In the worst case, a character’s morale can get so low that they die by their own hand.
A traditional power fantasy this is not. And yet, I find both Frostpunk and This War of Mine to be utterly gripping. (They’re both good examples of the “great games don’t always have to be fun” thesis.)
Far from being escapism, many of the fantastic games discussed here zero in on real-world issues like inequality, war, or even the crushing bureaucratic violence of Papers, Please.
But why? Why take on more responsibilities in a game?
Speaking for myself, the answer is simple: I’m looking for change that is elusive and difficult to make in the real world.
Power fantasies aren’t all bad (at least, if they are based around the liberation of the subject as opposed to the control of others.) But they’re also, oftentimes, individualist power fantasies.
Individualist power fantasy
Consider the games Control and Horizon Zero Dawn — I enjoy both for their strong female protagonists, great writing, and engaging narratives and quests. Both games escalate the power of the player over the narrative.
At the beginning of Control, protagonist Jesse Faden has the strength of any regular person; in the first five minutes she gets lost and must ask directions from a janitor. By the end, however, she can fly, stop bullets, and telekinetically hurl chunks of buildings at her enemies.
When I played Horizon Zero Dawn, I started as a little girl named Aloy who could barely throw a rock straight. By the end I could hack into the brains of giant robot dinosaurs, and I had leveled up so much that (thanks in part to nanotech armor) I was basically invincible.
This is all extremely fun to play. But it’s not the reality of social change. Social movements don’t happen because of a handful of superpowered individuals, but because many mortal human beings engage in collective action.
In social movement, individuals are usually weak. Collective entities are usually strong.
This is why, in real life, we need movements — and unions, for that matter.
It’s also why we desperately need more games that involve collective action and movement-building.
Of course, there are some games that involve mass action instead over individuals, like strategy games, civilization-builders, and team-based MMOs. But their overall approach leaves much to be desired.
A strategic game like StarCraft may involve a kind of collective action, in that it de-emphasizes individual characters. But these games are still based on top-down command and conquest, not movement-building. Many team-based MMOs are likewise competitive, imperialist, and reactionary in their war or medieval fantasy settings.
It’s a tough balance to construct a collective power fantasy, and it’s something many players shy away from. After all, individual civilian characters in This War of Mine are virtually powerless by videogame standards. In that game, if you do use power to dominate — like threatening an old couple into giving you their medications — it won’t make you feel tough. It will make you feel like a terrible person.
There are understandable reasons that games haven’t demonstrated much collective action in the past. Most of all: it’s hard to do well.
It’s already difficult enough to make a good single-player narrative game, with decent art and user experience, maybe with voice-acting, and without too many bugs.
Making a game in which players have choices — and in which NPCs have their own goals and volition — is much harder. (That said, it’s much easier than going from Super Mario to ray-traced Cyberpunk 2077.)
Doing that well requires that we attend to our final element: storytelling.
Storytelling is, perhaps, where games have the most to learn from movements — at, least, if we want to make games that will help change the world.
Let’s start, though, with a couple of common elements. Because effective movements and games do have narrative tools in common.
World-building and environmental storytelling
Show, don’t tell: great games develop their story not only through dialogue and exposition, but through the world the player explores and interacts with. In Disco Elysium, we can see the scars of class war and failed revolution everywhere we go, from bomb craters to ancient firearms hidden in ruined bunkers.
The player doesn’t need to be told explicitly about the world — they can soak up the tension and history of that place just by wandering around. That kind of storytelling offers more bandwidth than text alone, and it can reach people on a deeper emotional level.
Early peace movements did something similar in campaigns against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the UK, organizers in the 1950s made badges with the peace symbol (their own invention, combining the semaphore for N and D: nuclear disarmament.) Then, instead of making those buttons out of plastic, they made them out of ceramic so that “if nuclear war came and we all went up in nuclear fire, the badges would survive and remain as our memorial, to be found maybe centuries later by whatever [people] managed to survive the holocaust.”[ii]
Now that’s environmental storytelling.
In games, the world-building is typically the product of one team of designers or writers. In social movements, though, many different groups — social movements, governments, marketing companies — are trying to define the context of their struggles.
It’s a form of competitive world-building. That’s not something we see very often in games (with the notable exception, again, of Disco Elysium, which includes explicitly conflicting political factions, from communists to fascists to ultra-liberals, in the narrative). But as activists, we aren’t just advocating for different policies or different actions. We’re also engaged in a struggle over how people see the world that we live in — its history and its possibilities[iii].
One of the most important things we can do as activists is to break people out of the prevailing way of thinking — to shake them out of “business as usual”.
Offering a new perspective
It’s often said that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” The end of the world is an almost cliché setting for videogames at this point.
BioShock Infinite is a game that I loved in many ways. It used its setting — a floating city called Columbia — to dissect themes of racism, American exceptionalism, imperialism, and inequality.
The player encounters a resistance movement, the Vox Populi, led by a Black woman named Daisy Fitzroy. They organize in secret against the white supremacists in power. But when the Vox Populi finally have an opportunity to rise up, they instead go on a pointless and violent rampage, torturing civilians and setting the city aflame. The revolutionaries simply become another set of faceless enemies for the player, and Daisy Fitzroy dies at the hands of the player’s companion.
This kind of nonsense is, of course, what white supremacists in the United States claimed would happen during the civil rights struggle if segregation ended and Black people gained equality: that Black people would simply treat white people how they had been treated.
That attitude is unsupported by history, and the fate of Daisy Fitzroy ruined the game for me. But that wasn’t just disappointing to me as a player — it was lazy story-telling. For the revolutionaries to turn out to be the bad guys is a boring, unimaginative twist.
What would be far more interesting from a narrative and political perspective is to imagine the imperfect and transformative futures that successful movements can bring about. To show that another world is possible.
Let’s pivot. We touched on clarity early on. But games — and movements — can do something more than making things clear. Effective storytelling can take the invisible and make it visible.
One of the most effective social movement posters in history was this abolitionist illustration showing the inhumanity of slave ships:
Most white people never saw the inside of those ships, had never imagined their horrors. This poster from 1787 took a hidden reality and put it in face of anyone who was on the fence about slavery.
Disco Elysium uses paranormal perception to make the invisible visible (and likewise, to expose atrocities). In one scene, the player comes across a wall peppered with ancient bullet-holes. They can conjure a vision of a firing squad from half a century earlier, when the forces of international capital combined to violently crush a communist uprising in the city where the game is set.
This kind of extrasensory perception works well in games. I think of Horizon and protagonist Aloy’s ability to detect footprints through her Focus device. Many games give the player boosted senses of some kind, because it’s fun, and it offers new game mechanics.
I wish that it were so easy, in real life, to make the invisible visible. So many of the global challenges we face are easy to overlook for people of privilege. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane are literally invisible. But for many people in wealthy countries, the mistreatment of workers in sweatshops or on plantations is functionally invisible.
Black Lives Matter, meanwhile, has seen success in part because they’ve helped to bring ubiquitous police violence against people of colour into broader public awareness.
Here’s my hot take: I believe that all games should be beneficial to people and the planet. I believe that, as writers or artists, activists or programmers, we all have a duty to use our skills and talents to make the world a better place.
I believe that doing so actually makes better art, and better games.
And, as an activist, I think that gaming should be more than a guilty pleasure. It is a chance to learn, and to teach. It is a chance to give people new perspectives and new ways of thinking and solving problems.
There are many ideas that we just don’t have space to explore here. Consider the similarities between movement decentralization and the programming practice of “composition”. How recursive “game loops” can resemble and inform iterative practices of strategic planning in grassroots movements. The ways in which intervention in a system can be more important than control.
Or how our identities are constructed — both in movements and especially in role-playing games — by the choices we make, the relationships we cultivate, and the tools and fashion we employ. And so on.
That said, I want to conclude not with a thesis statement, but with a question: how can we learn from each other?
For my gamedev friends: How can we incorporate activist approaches like collective action and collective power into our games? How can we depict social movements and resistance movements with their true liberatory potential? How can we build new worlds that show players new possibilities?
For my activist friends: How can we learn from the ways that games draw in attention and engagement? Can we offer better entry points and tutorials for new people? How can we train people and develop strategy in fun and inventive ways?
We can learn from each other. Indeed, for the future of our world, that’s essential.
Aric McBay is an organizer, a narrative, and author of seven books, including the novels Kraken Calling (2022) and Inversion (2023), and Full Spectrum Resistance (2019), a two-volume guide to building more effective movements. He writes and speaks about effective social movements, and has organized campaigns around prisoner justice, Indigenous solidarity, pipelines, unionization, and other causes. You can find his work at www.aricmcbay.org.
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. In short: we’re all about Games For Better Futures and Futures for Better Games. Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!
[i] For social movements, the use of achievement has two major pitfalls. The first is dilution; it’s easy for a movement to declare insubstantial or hollow victories as though they are great achievements. While the need to have visible wins is real, the purpose of those achievements is to show people that change is possible. Declaring victory after empty achievements sends potential movement participants the opposite message.
The second pitfall, more common among more militant groups, is to ignore stepping-stones and intermediate achievement altogether — to declare that anything short of total revolution is reformism, mere sop for the masses. While a commitment to universal transformation is admirable, real and lasting change comes from building movements that can make change — and that requires stepping-stones.
[ii] Left, left, left: a personal account of six protest campaigns, 1945–65. Peggy Duff. 1971. P. 116.
[iii] Joost Vervoort et al. have dubbed a collaborative approach to this as “worldmaking” and discuss in a fascinating paper how it can be used as a framework to “operationalise discordant pluralism in scenario practice by allowing participants to approach not only the future but also the present in a constructivist and pluralistic fashion; and by extending pluralism to ontological domains.”