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.

And while SimCity lags, the company that makes it has planned to join the individualist revolution by other means. Newsweek reported in 2002 that the designers of The Sims Online intend to "hand the economy and the governing structure over to the subscribers, so that each city effectively becomes a SimCity controlled by its players." This has not happened yet, perhaps in part because Maxis has met with unexpected difficulty preventing an explosion of vice, crime, and vigilantism in the new game's environs. But given the chance, would subscribers adopt laws like the strict zoning inherent in the original? And if they don't, will SimCity-loving high school teachers and urban planning professors patronize The Sims Online, or will they stick with its less democratic predecessors?

Environmentalism, technocratic planning, self-organizing systems—every cause and school of thought with a cultural pulse and a few gigs of hard drive space finds promise in this new form. The socialist writer Barbara Garson has said she wants to "explain globalization…through a game." And Ted Friedman, a professor of cultural studies at Georgia State, writes that it's "easy to imagine" a computer game based on Marx's Capital, though he does not elucidate this vision for his readers.

Free the Gamers!

In theory, the easiest way to graft an ideology onto a game is through the story, as with the post-apocalyptic backdrop to Gore. In practice, it's not so simple. Facile analogies to the movies have concealed a deep tension between game play and narrative.

Storytelling has so possessed game design that, with the exception of sports, racing, and a few other genres, it is rare for major titles to forego extensive script and character development. But while stories can supply context and direction, they are told, not played. Full-motion video became reviled by many gamers in the mid-'90s for periodically butting in to tell unevenly produced story-snippets. Though visually striking, such vignettes tend to clash stylistically with game graphics. But the real downside is that they seize control from the player. One moment he is guiding the main character's actions; a moment later that power is frozen while a video clip plays. If the protagonist does something during the scene that the player would rather not have done, that is considered an acceptable cost of telling the story.

Like locked doors and other plot-regulating devices, such "cut scenes" chafe players who are ready for action. In his 2001 book Game Design: Theory & Practice, Richard Rouse III counsels developers to avoid linear design for a deeper reason. "If the player wants to replay the game again, that is fine, but the primary goal of non-linearity is to surrender some degree of authorship to the player." Linear stories are the governors of game worlds. They tell you who you are, what you seek, and how you might succeed. Players go along, some happily, others yawningly—or they take control in the real world by turning the game off.

Yet there is a continual drumbeat for games to be more like movies. The intent is not simply to include more film clips, but to make gameplay itself more cinematic. Pressure comes from journalists reporting on game/movie deals, and from observers and game developers themselves, who for a variety of reasons see cinematic games as the next step in game evolution. One session at last year's Game Developers Conference was titled "Story and Gameplay Are One." Indeed, while many in the industry speak highly of nonlinear approaches, other reviewers and developers stress the importance of a game's story above almost any quality except "fun."

Whatever the shape of the theoretical dispute, today's gamers are finding new freedom from constraining storylines. The Sims, that dishwashing, interior-decorating, hot-tubbing juggernaut, offers no story to unify all the simulated shopping and flirting. (What stories do exist are entirely player-generated: Some people write Sims fan fiction.) The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the latest fantasy role-playing title from the publisher-developer Bethesda, was hyped in part because of the autonomy it grants players. Morrowind does have an epic storyline, but the player has unusual freedom to tackle unrelated challenges and even to ignore the main plot—or to continue playing after the story has wrapped up.

Likewise, Microsoft's Freelancer is "speci-fically structured" to offer both a story and an open-ended universe. At least two games, Vampire: The Masquerade (Activision) and Neverwinter Nights (Atari), allow users to be "game masters" for groups of players, providing them with architectural tools and control of all game events save the players' own actions. This role was originally created by the gaming legend Gary Gygax for the original pen-and-paper role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. For his part, Gygax has said storytelling "has little or no connection" to role-playing games, which differ "in all aspects" from novels, films, and other narrative arts.

Finally, there is the top-selling game of 2001, the infamous crime romp Grand Theft Auto III, by Rockstar Games, which sets players loose in Liberty City ("America's worst city," the publishers say) to tackle the plot-advancing missions only when and if they want to. ABC's Nightline homed in on GTA3's graphic violence in a 2002 program pitting a 17-year-old gamer against a police veteran and a child development academic who was already sure media violence begets the real thing. By focusing on the superficial, they missed what is truly revolutionary about the game.

The players didn't. "The only controversy should have been explaining why it took the industry so long to design such a brilliantly free-form game," PC Gamer asserts. Robert Holt's review for National Public Radio stresses the depth of the simulated city. "Sure, there's a quest in there," he says, "but the larger world is what makes this such a rich experience." Interestingly, players begin both GTA3 and Morrowind in the role of a freed prisoner. Captive audience no longer.

Playing with the Real

Twitchy kids with little patience for stories are not the only kink in the railroad to cinematic game design. Realism has become an ever-present selling point in the gaming press and on game packaging—not merely realistically rendered detail but a deeper sort of reality: a world with more consistent rules, more room for autonomous behavior, and therefore more resemblance to the outside universe. For games, "realism" means not only that graphics have leaped into fluid 3D but also that sound, physics, and character behavior have advanced in kind. Programmers of the 1980s added color to computer games, but they could scarcely anticipate sound reflection, complex friction models, and flocking behavior—all now stock in trade for the industry.

Realism replaces micromanagement with player responsibility. Traditional designs have players guessing what solution the designer had in mind for each obstacle—"a huge buzz-kill when playing a game," says Holt. Some newer games, sporting realistic physics models, simply set victory conditions and let players find solutions through trial and error, logic and innovation. Designers of free-form games cannot assume that all the players will solve problems the same way in the same order. Such a diversity of outcomes makes it hard to impart the cinematic touch.

Writing in Wired about such physics simulations, Mark Frauenfelder notes that most game objects "act as though they've been painted on a theater backdrop. If you try to use them, the facade falls down." But with real-time physics, players can use objects in ways they might try in the real world. Subjecting what was formerly scenery or props to believable interaction draws players in and gives them yet more control. It
can also lead to unexpected results. Frauenfelder cites the technique of "rocket jumping" in the popular 1996 game Quake (id Software): Players shoot a rocket at the ground and ride the shockwave to otherwise inaccessible heights.

Games are not simply another channel through which artists communicate but a means by which individuals take control. That control is brought to bear in a new and dynamic community where no topic, assumption, icon, or milieu is entirely safe from scrutiny.

Because they want fun, not lectures, players have been known to skip scripted scenes—or to wreck them just to see what will happen. Well-designed games get back on track despite such mischief, but they can't force an indifferent player to pay attention to the story. My father has played the war game Red Alert (Virgin) and its sequels for years but has never tackled the scripted missions. Instead, he plays in "skirmish" mode, which delivers strategic challenges without the movie clips or story. He never finds out who ends up ruling the world, nor does he seem too concerned about it.

Or consider State of Emergency (Rockstar Games), a putatively radical riot simulator. In Salon, Wagner James Au quotes a man who searched for some sign of game-inspired political expression on a popular Internet bulletin board. Instead he found "a lot of posters begging for the code that makes people's heads pop off when you punch them." Another critic writes, "State of Emergency is all about rioting and the story just gives you a reason to bust some heads." With the rise of open-ended games, it becomes even less certain that injected story lines will reach their audience.

So implicit politics might be the better way to influence player opinion. But as a political vehicle, games may have an inherent bias. Bridging an ideological chasm, libertarian Iain Smedley and socialist Julian Stallabras agree that computer games possess a native individualism. Writing a decade ago, Smedley noted the "heroic and individualistic philosophy" of video games, in which the player "does not merely cheer on the hero in [his] struggle; the player's actions determine the outcome." Writing contemporaneously in New Left Review, Stallabras concurred: In games, "the passivity of cinema and television is replaced by an environment in which the player's actions have a direct, immediate consequence on the virtual world." For Stallabras, this makes computer games "a capitalist and deeply conservative form of culture."

Game Realism

Stallabras' wide-ranging indictment of computer games is remarkable for its combination of savvy ("in Doom…all the corpses of a particular monster always look exactly the same") and pessimism ("The defining image in all this comes, not from any game, but naturally enough from a blockbuster film, Terminator 2; it is the jarring crunch of human skulls under the bright chrome of a robot foot"). Stallabras contends that many offensive traits of games are concealed by "chrome," by which he means slick user interfaces and graphical eye candy. What would he think of the recent release whose title is Chrome? Probably the same thing he writes about the video game as a medium: that it tricks players into imitating idealized markets and sweatshop labor through repetitive manipulation of game objects and numbers, that it is shaped by "the parameters of the computer industry's links with the military," and that its innate objectification "leads to…an ever greater blurring of the use of people as instruments in the world and the game." But he might appreciate the irony that Chrome developer Techland is located in Poland.

Computer games, as a class, do appear to favor civil and economic liberty—not because they simulate sweatshops (no more so than, say, music lessons do) or capitalist exchange but because of the same human tendencies that free players from domineering storylines and inflexible rules. Games naturally turn players against contrived limits and inconsistencies. And this mind-set necessarily takes on a political aspect as games themselves grow more political.

While storytelling games use film clips and unrealistic physics to control plot and pace, politicized games use simulated laws. But there is little reason to suppose players will enjoy barriers more when they're expressed in legal terms. This is not to deny that players like exercising power over others, as violent 3D action games and civilization-building "God games" attest. But just as gamers do not cotton to cartoon physics in their gritty military simulations, so will they frown on obviously broken market mechanisms, whether hauling goods between planets in Freelancer or, like one reviewer, trying to revive an abandoned industrial sector in SimCity 4. Frustrated by the failure of that game's artificial intelligence to demolish old buildings while he dealt with, among other things, "money-sucking parks and amenities, and ever-more-expensive garbage disposal," Jakub Wojnarowicz asks, "where's the private initiative in the city?"

Georgia State's Ted Friedman has observed that making sense of games' inner workings is central to playing them successfully. In the process, players inevitably notice breaches of realism. Is it too easy to earn first downs in NFL Fever 2003? Why can an archer's arrow destroy a cruise missile in Civilization III? Politically suggestive material will get no free pass. If game characters fail to react to markets or to Sim bureaucrats in a believable fashion, players will step back from the fantasy. Friedman insists that all games are "ideological constructions," implying that they are equal in this respect. But some simulations imitate real people and economies more closely than others, just as some physics models produce more authentic collisions.

"Challenge Everything!"

Realism is delivered in part by means of reductionism—that is, lower-level rules governing game events. Games that allow characters to pick up and carry any small object, or to push large, freestanding ones, are using reductionism. They are thereby becoming laboratories of emergent dynamics. Not only do such games enable experimentation; they reward it with interesting, unscripted behavior. Low-level political simulation methods, such as individual-based models and tracking of supply and demand, extend this new experimentalism into social dynamics. Electronic Arts' commercials whisper conspiratorially, "Challenge everything!" And players just might. Freed from service to narrative and empowered by low-level rules, they can dispassionately test political assumptions without consequences. Their simulated civic tinkering will prompt no real nation to topple, no real person to suffer.

Then there's the extended gaming community, which endlessly critiques, modifies, and debates the limits of games. It equips this accidental laboratory. Its Web sites dissect and disseminate game mechanics. Its members demand the power to customize game software. "Level editors," used to create game maps and content, are now standard game features. But gamers did not wait for slick interfaces before diving into do-it-yourself development. The history of user-modified games—"mods" and their more ambitious cousins, "total conversions"—demonstrates the lengths to which technically facile fans will go to extend favored titles. These modes of customization reinforce games' experimental potential by opening game architecture itself to players.

Comics theoretician Scott McCloud has asked if gaming can "'rewire' us in some way," and journalist Steven Poole has concluded that games are "rewiring our minds." If so, they just might be pushing us toward individualism, encouraging us to resist both authors and authoritarians. Stories do fulfill a distinct need, and computer games are unlikely to break completely from them. For those so inclined, it will always be possible to glue a dramatic collectivist veneer over a rigged simulation. But like Stallabras' chrome, this facade warrants little worry. It may take some ingenuity, but free minds eventually break through fake dungeon walls to explore their potential and live their own stories.