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September 06, 2005



Political Games, Walking A Fine Line

At what point does satire become cynicism? The line between them can be extremely fine, one very dependent upon perspective. But it's an important distinction to make, because one point of satire is to reveal the deceptions at work in public performances (whether they be for entertainment or politics); done correctly, satire makes it much harder to accept these continued deceptions. The revelations of satire make us laugh and hurt at the same time. Cynicism, conversely, often takes the deceptions as a given, and admits their existence while denying that we have any choice in the matter. The revelations of cynicism at best make us seek to escape, at worst make us look for ways to get into the game.

Simbabwe, a computer game put together by The Daily Grind (MacOS X only), walks that fine line between grim satire and cynicism; those of you who get a chance to play it can tell us in the comments on which side you feel it falls. After running through a full game, I'm tending towards grim satire, but am willing to entertain counter-arguments.

Simbabwe is, on the surface, a Monopoly-style game of parcel acquisition, chance events and player backstabbing. Players take on the label of one of the various historical strongmen and dictators that have ruled Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), moving around the board seizing and plundering resource industries, major cities, media outlets, and so forth. Random events range from being put on a human rights watch list, rigging elections, sending opponents to jail, and the like, each combining all-too-familiar events with game effects. Each player seeks to increase both political capital and the destruction of assets, while keeping cronies happy through occasional payoffs.

# Features: Challenging AI
# Sophisticated inflation model: watch prices go up and savings erode every time you print money.
# International reputation model: your actions determine whether you get aid, a travel ban or a slam dunk in the slammer on setting foot outside Zimbabwe.
# Splenetic graphics
# Vibrant sound effects
# Over 60 dynamically triggered events, including adopting Marxism in 1988, the Land Reallocation Act 1992 and Operation Drive Out Rubbish
# Detailed in-game help
# Plumes of smoke
ot actually appear in the game.)

Given that brief description, it would be easy to declare that this game is little more than cynicism with colorful graphics. After all, there are no lessons here, no embedded links to real human rights groups. It's a reasonable argument, but I do see some value in this kind of approach. There's the "history comes alive (in a perverse way)" aspect: a reasonably aware individual playing this game can't help but wonder how much of it is based on real events. There's also the "okay, enough" aspect: seeing that the game elements have a twisted basis in reality can sensitize a player, making him or her more likely to recognize similar events in reality and (ultimately) more likely to support efforts to stop them.

There's also an inspirational aspect here, too. After playing Simbabwe, it's easy to see how a similar game model could be applied to other political figures around the world. In places with reasonable protections of free speech, creating and playing a similar game could easily become a way of undercutting the perceived legitimacy of powerful figures. In a way, it could even turn the cynicism argument on its head: these politicians (or business leaders, for that matter) may think they're accumulating power, but we can see that it's just a child's game of bullying and rivalry.

Imagine, for example, a version of this game where the players are various fossil fuel and energy industry figures -- a mix of ExxonMobil, Enron, Unocal, and the like, trying to acquire properties such as politicians (with The White House taking the Boardwalk slot), media outlets, public utilities, mining/drilling rights, and so forth. Chance events could include kickbacks in the new Energy Bill, having to fund a Greenswash Campaign, or "Breakthrough in Solar Power: Pay $20 Million to Buy It and Hide It," and with every turn around the board raising the cost of energy resources (or reducing the number of working oil fields). There's no Go To Jail, because they never do seem to get sent to jail, but there would be Called In Front Of Senate Hearings, which could serve the same purpose.

Cynical? Maybe. But it would likely do a far better job of delegitimizing those groups than a thousand protesters chanting "hey hey! ho ho!" [Posted by Jamais Cascio in WorldChanging Weekend]

Posted by jo at September 6, 2005 01:01 PM