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Games and Politics, Stickers and Rules

This game about the politics of cotton is mostly unremarkable but I was struck by how its failure as a game and its weakness as a political statement were related. At the end, the game’s author lists several ways for people to take action, and it seems to me that these suggested actions reflect the same lack of “game thinking” exhibited by the game itself. By game thinking I mean serious attention to the behavior of complex systems, to the sometimes surprising and unpredictable emergent consequences of rules and behavior, incentives, constraints, risks and rewards.

The political action that this game explicitly recommends basically amounts to a labeling system that would “guarantee” that a product was produced under humane and eco-friendly conditions. The game that leads up to this policy has no game thinking in it, no player choice, no system to explore, no interesting consequences, no behavior at all. And it seems to me that the policy itself betrays a similar over-emphasis on surface messages and a lack of interest in underlying systems.

What would happen if such a labeling system were introduced? It might, in fact, lead to better lives for the global poor who make our t-shirts, but this is by no means the obvious result. It is possible that it would make their existing situation worse. I don’t have a strong opinion on the issue of fair trade and similar labeling projects, but I know enough to know it’s complicated.

Such a labeling system is like a rule, a mechanic, and in particular it is a rule whose impact on the system is very hard to predict. But to the political sensibility that made this game it is more like a message, a statement, a gesture. It is obviously good to say you abhor the suffering of children, poor working conditions, the destruction of nature. If political actions are statements in a conversation about values then of course we should take the actions that most loudly proclaim our values. If, however, political actions and the rules they enact are like the gears and switches and logic gates of a complex machine that produces results then the situation is a lot more complicated, and we should be making cautious, good faith efforts to understand the actual effects of our rules and actions and not just their intentions.

I think trying to come to grips with the ethical dimensions of global capitalism is a worthwhile problem. We (I mean everyone who is reading this) all of us are swimming, sometimes drowning, in an ocean of luxury consumer goods. How are they are made? How do they connect us to other people? What are our responsibilities to the people who make, transport, and sell them? The amorality of markets is a hard problem full of counter-intuitive puzzles. See for example Paul Krugman on the living wage or Mike Munger on price gouging. It would be interesting to see how game thinking could contribute to our understanding of this problem.

Ultimately, I suspect that politics is, in fact, almost entirely about signaling, so we don’t need to worry about doing the hard work of figuring out what the actual impact of a cotton labeling system would be. We can simply approve or disapprove of it based on how it affects our personal status.

To many people it probably sounds like I’m advocating a politics of autism, a politics that is intentionally deaf to the stirring slogan, the beaming face, the warm touch of social reinforcement that says “We are together in this struggle, I got your back, you can count on me.” And perhaps I am. I have been thinking about this topic a lot since it was brought up in conversation with Heather Chaplin, Celia Pearce, Mary Flanagan and others at the Games for Change conference two years ago, and my thinking about it is still unresolved.


  1. This is a great post. I hope that you’ll continue to consider this problem publicly, both here and elsewhere. Its resolution seems critical to the viability of games for change–or any game that seeks a meaningful political outcome. I’m a novice at contemplating the problems at the intersection of games, economics, and the law, but their solutions don’t seem to be easy. Nevertheless, the potential benefits of leveraging games against political systems appear to be incredible and–at least for now–worth pursuing.

    It’s difficult for me to doubt the benefits of allowing individuals to interact more directly with the political systems that govern them. The alternative would allow (or continue to allow) small groups that seek to circumscribe the public good to distract from these systems. A stirring slogan or a beaming face are tools. They can galvanize a polity towards a superior social outcome, but they can also deceive.

    In either case, they’re proxies for the legal and political mechanics that actually bear on real outcomes. If I’m stirred to action on a proposed bill by a rousing speech, I may be supporting a passionate advocate for beneficial change or a self-interested charlatan who excels at deception. In either case, this method for interacting with my system of governance requires that I trust the limited information that I receive through a pithy statement or a handsome face. And, like all human beings, my trust is easily misplaced or manipulated by those with more extensive knowledge of a complex system.

    I believe that games have incredible potential for political change in that they allow citizens to circumvent many of our evolutionary crutches. Rather than relying on our biological shortcuts, which are often tuned for a monkeysphere no larger than 200 people, games might allow us to delve more directly into complex systems with incredible influence on our lives. Of course, that interaction is still mediated by the designer’s choices, but designers can afford to be more agile and unbiased than political parties or mainstream media outlets.

    However, as you point out, this sort of design requires a rare marriage of systems thinking on at least two axes. We need individuals or teams capable of not only understanding the real-world effects of meatspace mechanics (like fair trade labeling systems), but who also possess the design expertise to make these systems accessible through gameplay. Given my background in law and economics, I’m far from an unbiased source of opinion on on this subject. However, I believe that it is critical that we attempt to marry systems expertise in our tools (games) with knowledge from the fields that we’re attempting to affect (politics, economics, and law).

    Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  2. Borut wrote:

    While I agree the game is a failure as it is barely interactive, its one success is emotionally communicating a sense of the scale of the effects on cotton farmers caused by the industry (via the last level). If this was the sole purpose of its design it would be a success to me, but obviously it was trying to inform & promote change, which of course makes it abysmal.

    I would even go so far as to state the ideal of an autistic politics is perhaps the only way our society can actually progress beyond its current problems – but that does seem hopelessly idealistic. Even if were possible that games could convince everyone these problems could have better objective solutions designed for them, you couldn’t possibly convince people to experience/play them unless they incorporated some of the same social reinforcement.

    As a designer and someone interested in pursuing those issues, shouldn’t the question then be not just how we can convey those systemic failures (and possibly highlight solutions for them in doing so), but how can we in fact do both? Aren’t we inevitably forced to manipulate that same system system of political signaling in order to actually produce something that can be explored & convey some of those ideas?

    Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 11:52 pm | Permalink
  3. This lack of “game thinking” that you speak of is not just a problem with this game, but one that spans from entirety of our political organization to most individuals. Bastiat’s “That Which is Seen…” is my favorite statement along these lines, though it is certainly a constant theme in economic philosophy.

    It’s hard because so many people (myself included) want games to change the world in some preachy message driven way, but they don’t lend themselves to that very well. No one has even come close and most of the time they fall back on representation, which forces conclusions/messages, coherent or not, at players (representation is like coercion!).

    Though we can’t set the bar too high because a preachy game can never actually be the idea being preached, just as a photo of something will never be what is depicted in the image. In some ways the problem is just a matter of what people mean when they refer to a game. The game (as a morsel of something that a human can experience) does reasonably communicate a message along the lines of “cotton pickers got it bad”. Maybe to the patient person it even communicates the labeling system idea (assuming they like to read). But the game-ness can’t claim much credit for this. Issues start to arise when you treat mechanics (or instantiations of them) as first class representational entities like visuals, text and music. At that point the game is a jumbled incoherent ugly mess that does the awful things you pointed out that it does.

    Thanks for the post Frank!

    Tuesday, September 21, 2010 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  4. Great post Frank… it has me thinking I’d like to see a voting mechanism where the names and parties of the politicians are omitted on the ballot… forcing voters to review a checklist of policy measures each politician supported.

    As for implication to serious games: I think we’re in the infancy of looking to games to explore complex and serious systems. So I try to give such games a break. But I look forward to their maturation when playing a game about the underlying systems of globalization and the amorality of markets is as provocative as a Paul Krugman essay. I think we’ll know when such games have arrived, because after you play you should walk away conflicted and stirred.

    Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  5. Dylan wrote:

    Very interesting post. The topic of serious gaming is very intriguing to me, and I think it is going to get more and more popular as people begin to see video games better, with education, persuasive, and artistic value.

    I love your blog, and I’m kind of new. It’d be great if you could give me any feedback on my game design site. It is at Thanks!

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

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