Free Play

In 1979 kids and their quarters descended on convenience stores and shopping malls to experience the latest in digital entertainment: breaking rocks. The video game Asteroids boasted that its "explosions, laser blasts, [and] fragmentation of space debris" were "realistic," and by the standards of the day they were.

A quarter century later, as you'd expect, game pyrotechnics are much more advanced. But so is something that was harder to predict. Arcade action is being upstaged by social simulation.

Asheron's Call 2, Microsoft's online fantasy game, boasts a new kind of realism: "an economy of, by, and for the players." And it's not alone: Many Internet-based games now facilitate market economies, political factions, and even elections. Player groups, often called clans or guilds, have emerged as popular tools for protection, cooperative adventuring, and simple bloodsport. And while game developers are now doing what they can to support those online clans, their efforts often have been a matter of catching up with what players already were arranging on their own.

Like movies, novels, and plays before them, computer games have discovered politics. Even the pure, plot-driven action that remains often comes attached to heavily politicized back-stories. Take a stroll down the game aisle:

  • Despite its name and tenor, Gore was published by DreamCatcher Interactive, not the former vice president. "In the mid-21st century," DreamCatcher's Web site explains, "massive overpopulation and consumption caused irreversible resource shortages over most of the planet. All supplies of fossil fuels were completely decimated by 2031. The agro-mosaic virus outbreak of 2042 triggered the global food riots of 2043 by causing the extinction of all agricultural plant species. Five billion humans, almost half of the Earth's population, died of starvation." Weighty stuff for an effort one reviewer characterized as a "mindless arcade shooter."
  • Legacy Online (Sega), originally titled Star Peace, is a multiplayer online game in which participants can be elected to political office. It also claims to have an "extremely realistic" economy. Here is PC Gameworld's description of the setting: "Earth is dying. Greed, global warming, nuclear and chemical pollution, ethnic wars, new virulent viruses and super bacteria, overpopulation -- the World's population has doubled again, in just 20 years...." The player's most powerful tool is not the laser gun but the zoning ordinance. Once elected mayor, the designers declare, "you can really direct a town's development...from a disorganized mess to a beautiful urban landscape." Mayors can also "set the minimum wage for [the] entire workforce, thus putting [an] end to the greedy behavior of the local tycoons."
  • In the soundtrack-heavy skating and graffiti-tagging game Jet Set Radio Future (Sega), pirate radio DJ Professor K helps the "cool kids fight off the evildoers that want to take their freedom." The chief evildoer in this case is the CEO of a huge corporation that has bought the police and attempts to dominate Tokyo. In the cel-shaded world of this game, "freedom is a valuable commodity, and freedom of expression is even more so."

Political ideas are infiltrating not just the back-stories of games but their "play mechanics" -- the inner workings that shape game behavior. It may be the scripted parts of the games that explicitly state political notions, but what's ultimately more significant is the way games can communicate doctrine by demonstration, the same way sports communicate physics. As Salon's Wagner James Au once put it, "Socially minded films and television programs can only dramatize their politics, but we now have a medium where you can interact with them, as an engaged participant." If cinematic spectacle grabs eyeballs, then gameplay grabs minds.

The results may not be what the gamemakers intended. Designers are responding to the demand for compelling interaction by providing more logically consistent game worlds and relaxing linear story structure to allow for more player control. As a result, players are freer to explore and experiment without encountering as many contrived game rules. Indeed, discovering the rules becomes a much-discussed game within the game. Built-in political assumptions will be subject to the same distributed criticism.

Game Rules

Meanwhile, as games shift from pre-rendered animation and simple behavior to physical modeling and advanced artificial intelligence, players find that this new realism further relaxes limits and expands gameplay. It takes power from authors -- to break rules, control pace, and manage plots -- and gives to players a more coherent world of places, people, and things. The product is more toy than movie, more sandbox than story. Video games are evolving into a grand anti-authoritarian laboratory.

Writing in The American Prospect a decade ago, the prescient Princeton sociologist Paul Starr recounted his thoughts while playing Maxis' city management game SimCity 2000 with his daughter. The wildly popular Sim-City, which spawned the ongoing franchise, puts players in near-total political control of a city, viewed from above. It then tracks their success at developing the city and keeping the simulated citizens ("Sims") employed and content. "What assumptions were buried in the underlying models?" fretted Starr. "What was their 'hidden curriculum'? Did a conservative or a liberal determine the response to changes in tax rates in SimCity?" Starr concluded that the game contained dubious assumptions but no grander agenda, except perhaps the notion of managing something as complex as a city by monitoring "data streams." The most interesting thing about his essay, though, is that someone would ask such questions about a game at all.

Certain rules are embedded -- sometimes consciously, sometimes not -- in video games. What are these rules? The question may become a refrain, at least for perceptive parents and teachers, because games can communicate ideas not merely through exposition but through the experience of playing them.

Political economy is a natural frontier for gaming. As some PlayStation-savvy Marxists have noted, many games incorporate "simulacra" of work and exchange. (In postmodern jargon, a simulacrum is a copy of an original that never existed -- Disneyland's Main Street, for instance.) We don't slay the dragon or blast the alien just for the fun of it. There's treasure in that thar dungeon or asteroid! Newer games are asking, What do we do with the booty?

Quite a bit. Multiplayer online games routinely feature emergent economies. Programmers, absorbed in the business of turning imagined ogres, grenade launchers, and nebular vistas into stable computer code, now find themselves puzzling over inflation, product shortages, and property disputes. Just how realistic the economic models should be is a topic of continuing debate. But at least one development house, Artifact Entertainment, actually hired an economist to assist with its modeling.

Such drastic measures aside, some offline games -- Capitalism II, Zapitalism, The Corporate Machine -- attend to economic phenomena even more than their Net-based cohorts do. Yet while many online games reserve a role for their thousands of individual players in influencing prices and other outputs, solo titles have tended toward neighborhood-level (or "tile-based") models. The SimCity games, indulgence of planners everywhere, don't "actually compute the reactions of each individual," writes Robert Axtell of the Brookings Institution. "Instead, they use equations to average out how groups behave." Last year's SimCity 4 did add the ability to drop in individual "Sims" from Maxis' other blockbuster series, The Sims, a "virtual dollhouse" which lets players micromanage characters' daily lives. Since these transplants serve mainly as gauges of a neighborhood's prosperity, they are merely a symbolic step toward individual-based simulation.

Other new games, however, suggest a trend away from group-level models. Tropico (Gathering of Developers), in which the player strives to maintain control over a banana republic, tracks the daily lives and emotions of hundreds of unique citizens. In Republic: The Revolution (Eidos Interactive), the objective is to overthrow the oppressive government of fictional Novistrana. How? In part, by recruiting from up to 1 million individually named citizens, each -- to quote the developer's Web site -- with "their own set of beliefs, emotions, skills and loyalties." This isn't an online game. The citizens all come in the box.

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