Political Games

National Post GeoPollster ARGDuring this week's Metaviews teleseminar I was informed about the existence of The National Post's GeoPollster, a foursquare style political Alternate Reality Game whose main goal is to increase voter turnout and interest in Canadian politics. I was immediately interested.

This is because for the most part the political parties, civil society groups and mainstream journalists in Canada seem uninterested, or unable, to use new media effectively. Sure each party uses Twitter and Facebook, but they do so badly. Earlier today Luke described how Micheal Ignatieff's Twitter kept pumping out status updates during this week's debate – effectively undermining the personal nature of social media. Iggy's Twitter was effectively a simulacrum of the real Iggy.

So if the political parties can barely understand how to use Twitter effectively, what hope is there for them to use videogames well? Not much.

This is to their detriment however, because videogames are ideally suited to political tasks. This is because they can engage in procedural rhetoric – something I have discussed at length before. Procedural rhetoric uses what computers do best – run procedures – to engage in arguments about how the world works. It helps that politics is all about ideology, which videogames happen to be excellent at expressing.

Ian Bogost in his book Persuasive Games says that “Political videogames use procedural rhetorics to expose how political structures operate, or how they fail to operate, or how they could or should operate.”

Isn't this the express goal of every single televised debate? To show how your opponents operate, and how their ideology fails to reap its supposed rewards? Too often little of any substance is conveyed in these (Nevermind that most televised debates fail rather spectacularly as a means of argumentation already, as Marshall McLuhan was so quick to point out in 1976):

September 12 gameA great example of a videogame that proceduralizes political ideology is Gonzalo Frasca's September 12 (click on the link to play). In it the logic of a “Virtuous War” is deconstructed as you lob “smart” bombs into an unnamed Middle Eastern town. The object is to kill terrorists, but with each missile “collateral damage” is inflicted, destroying buildings and killing civilians on the street. A swarm of other civilians rush over to morn the death of the innocent, and immediately transform into terrorists themselves. Bogost states that “the tool the game provides for combating terrorism is revealed to be a sham – using missiles to root out terrorists only destroys innocent lives.”

This suggests that if, for example, the NDP wanted to illustrate why electoral reform is so badly needed, one must make a well-crafted videogame that argues effectively about the pitfalls of the first-past-the-post system. By illustrating how electioneering is systemically structured to make so many Canadians' votes meaningless, players might see the benefits of moving to proportional representation.

Of course on the other side of the argument the Conservatives and Liberals might build a similar game modelled on the systemic “problems” of Italian democracy.

Yet I'm not too confident about the ability of Canada's political parties to properly use videogames, even if they somehow get sold on gamification or some mutation thereof. The reason? They will likely misunderstand it as a form in the same ways that they misunderstand television or social media.

Which returns me to GeoPollster. The game is described as such:

“It’s a location-based election game and mobile polling experiment that’s kind of like a big, real-world game of political Risk. It allows Foursquare users to anonymously help their favourite political party “seize control” of venues, cities and provinces every time they check-in to a venue anywhere in Canada. Each check-in counts as a “vote” for a party and is cumulatively tallied in real-time on our live updating map at natpo.st/geopollster.”

Does GeoPollster engage in any kind of procedural rhetoric? Not from what I can tell – other than presenting the ideological argument that there aren't any other political parties in Canada then the Conservatives, Liberals, Greens, NDP and Bloc. It's actually not about news or politics and more about gamification. It functions as an abstracted and inaccurate way for the politically-minded to engage in battle for geography and identity politics. If you identify as a green you battle with everybody else who identifies as such while in the process you win stores? Provinces? It's an odd mix of individual subjectivity and group identification that masks the political process more than illuminating it. This doesn't mean that it isn't fun, just that it says nothing substantial at all about politics in Canada, which to be honest, is all too common these days.

This means that in Canada there is a massive void in public discourse carried through videogames - and something that I believe will be a big event when executed properly. The party or NGO that can build an effective political videogame stands to make a big impact. I suppose we will have to wait and see if anybody is up to the challenge.

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I predict Zynga will come out with Newsville as their content farm strategy