Today we take a slight detour from our series on editorial games to celebrate an editorial machinima of exceptional quality, produced by everyone’s favorite editorial game creator: La Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini. Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games blog.
It isn’t easy writing about thinking, talking, or writing about machinima. One of my professors (Michael Nitsche, who I just found out is heavily cited on the Wikipedia entry on the subject) is hopelessly obsessed with augmented reality and digital performance, so last semester he dragged us through the “serious” machinima canon in an effort to inspire us into creating cinematic experiences within the 3D prototype worlds we were creating. I can honestly say that I don’t remember a single one of them, except perhaps the fact that many featured Half Life 2‘s G-Man. Comedy is there, as evidenced by the broad popularity and honing of craft achieved by Rooster Teeth’s Red vs. Blue, but I’ve yet to see a dramatic or serious piece that worked for me.
I admit that I’m being a snob about this—I can’t quite get past the fact of my film history and video editing education, and I know I’m judging these works unfairly by cinematic standards. Even when they’re made by people who are serious about pushing what’s possible with the form, they’re not made by filmmakers—they’re made by videogame fans with their own goals, standards, conventions, and communities. (Author’s Note: This is me prodding you to write about machinima if you care about gamer-based videogame interpretations, by the way.) Sometimes, they’re made by artists who already have the skills to make mods and games of their own, yet choose to express themselves in machinima form. This work is a vital counterpoint to the fan-based production that drives the bulk of machinima development (we must attack the middle-brow from both above and below, as they say).
Paolo Pedercini, the mind behind the anti-entertainment videogame cooperative La Molleindustria, recently revamped his brawler about religious hatred, Faith Fighter, to accommodate complaints from numerous Islamic organizations and news media companies. The result was Faith Fighter 2, a parodic appropriation of Gonzalo Frasca’s “commemoration mechanic” from Madrid: click on numerous gods from the first game to feed them with love and prevent their memories from fading away. When you fail, you’re treated to the claim that many made against Paolo himself: “Game Over: You failed to respect a religion, and now the world is a total mess!” Contrary to popular belief, it was in fact possible to “win” Madrid by filling up a meter in the bottom of the screen. It may be possible to keep a game of Faith Fighter 2 going indefinitely (I certainly can’t click fast enough to do so), but it doesn’t appear to have an end. At some point the player must slow down or give up, prompting the Game Over. This is clearly a self-deprecating rhetoric of failure from Paolo: when you deal with religion, you’re going to “lose” no matter what you do.
I applaud Pedercini’s ability to swiftly respond to the demands made of him with such intertextual snark, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t eagerly awaiting a legitimate follow-up to his Oiligarchy, which I see as his most significant work to date (largely because of the winning condition he snuck in). Last week I revisited his website to play some of his games that I’d missed (including an Italian-language “propaganda game” called Embrioni in fuga made before a national referendum on embryonic stem cell research… it is a Lemmings-like that I’ll examine in future discussions of the “editorial line” in games), and I was surprised to find out what he’d been working on lately: two videos and an installation!
The first video is an incisive, wistful, and often beautiful look at urban ecology and Craigslist’s “missed connections.” I love everything about it except the robotic voices used for reading the original Craigslistings in voiceover (which, if Paolo stumbles upon this, I’d enjoy reading the explanation for). The installation piece, called The 21st Century Home, appears to be a black-lit tarpolin wigwam zig-zagged with neon tape in order to replicate the aesthetics of Tron. Visitors (or players) stumble around in the “real virtuality” to another roboticized voice spewing pop philosophy about our transhumanist digital future. I think the robot voice works much better in this one, but I can’t really judge it all without experiencing it firsthand. Finally, to the subject of this article, the second video is (as you probably guessed by now) a machinima.
Welcome to the desert of the real isn’t the first politically-charged machinima; however, it is probably the first one to compliment an identically-titled collection of essays by Slavoj Zizek. Zizek named his seminal essay on the mainstream US reaction to September 11th after a quote from Morpheus about the nature of The Matrix, which (of course) further referenced the Simulacres et Simulation of Baudrillard. Here Paolo filters his commentary on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through another two layers of simulacra: a videogame, and the machinima filmed within that game. The subject of the work is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a “counter-propaganda” video, recorded within the America’s Army wargame/military recruiting tool.
I know that I’m assessing a new form with an outmoded vocabulary, but I can conceive of no greater praise than to say that this 6-minute machinima feels like a distillation of Errol Morris’s Fog of War and Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (one of the greatest films of all time). Spoilers follow.
An American soldier crawls forward over a dune with a sniper rifle (in third person perspective). We cut to a first-person point-of-view through the rifle’s sight, following an enemy combatant lazily traversing a ridge. Just when you think the protagonist (who is you, now) isn’t going to fire, a loud crack rings out and the screen fades to black. Returning to third-person, the protagonist leaves his rifle laying in the sand. After this follows a hallucinatory trek through the desert intercut by a series of questions, in text form, from the handbook on self-testing for PTSD in American veterans.
Call-and-response is a popular mechanic in documentary film: the earliest example I can remember of this sort is the 1968 film Inquiring Nuns, in which two nuns walked the streets of Chicago asking people, “Are you happy?” Pedercini replaces the call portion of the call-and-response with those from the PTSD checklist, and he replaces the response with a segment of the aimless trek through the desert. He essentially subverts the rhetorical query (“Are you happy?”)—to a viewer who could either be a gamer or a veteran—with a suggestive one: “You aren’t happy, are you?” I can personally relate to the question pictured below, having suffered for years now from increasingly violent nightmares that force me to wake up suffering from heavy breathing and chest pain (of course, I don’t think that Paolo is saying these questions apply equally to gamers, or that all gamers endure the same dreams that I do). One of the questions “Feeling emotionally numb and incapable of loving feelings?” reminds me of the problem of Everquest Divorces.
Remember that Molleindustria’s stated goal is to subvert the entertainment industry’s influence on the videogame medium. This is a very Zizekian mission in itself—the scabrous philosopher holds that dominant ideology completely structures the subject even in an era when we’re increasingly cynical and aware of its functioning. One could argue that a machinima about PTSD is irrelevant by now, that we’ve all known about it for years now. But Pedercini asks us to recognize an analogous condition: gamers also suffer from a kind of PTSD, a mental dulling following prolonged exposure to videogames that encourage violence without reflection. The America’s Army games, in which the mission is never justified nor questioned and everyone plays “the good guy” (American troops) in various roles, are an obviously egregious contributor to this ludic ideology (as detailed in Bogost’s Persuasive Games and Halter’s From Sun Tzu to XBOX).
Fog of War isn’t an exact match for how the intertitles work in Welcome, but I feel that they are relatively close in spirit and form. Morris’s work is composed of a series of lessons (as opposed to questions) from former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, focusing on what he has learned after a lifetime of studying and waging war. McNamara’s final lesson from his original eleven on the Vietnam War is as follows:
“We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.”
This in fact roughly equates with the message of Zizek’s writing on post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy: America must recognize its cultural imperialism and acknowledge that the choices and solutions we’ve established to the event thus far are completely reactionary, obscuring the reality of the situation and the way out. It’s possible that Paolo is saying something similar about mainstream games and their solutions to the demands to “grow up” from academics and highfalutin critics. On the one hand we get “tactical shooters” that replicate the immediate physical repercussions of gunfighting while still ignoring other consequences and assumptions. On the other, we could argue that something like Bioshock attempts to reflect on the nature of violence through the form of the shooter, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we asserted that the game didn’t end up valorizing it in the end—plasmids don’t provide ways around direct conflict, but different flavors of mutual slaughter. Neither tactical nor pseudo-philosophical violence is the answer to the goal of making games more serious, honest, mature, artful, etc. As the original Faith Fighter argues, violence as a primary mechanic must be subverted instead of “improved.”
Welcome to the desert of the real reminds me of Taste of Cherry mostly because of its minimalism, spare color palette, meandering non-narrative, and extreme take length (which are typical of many of his films). Most machinima adhere to what we would identify as a postmodern editing style of incredibly short takes: taking a look at a random selection of works on Machinima.com, I clocked an average take length of 2 seconds. Red vs. Blue, having been refined and developed over time, has a longer average at around 5 seconds. Welcome features an 11-second average shot length, truly the machinima equivalent of the extremely long take practiced by Kiarostami (at least by current standards). The takes pulse like a cardiogram: they begin at around 8 seconds, reach a crescendo of over 20 seconds just prior to an intertitle, and then drop back down.
Taste of Cherry deals with problem of suicide in the Muslim world. Suicide is incredibly taboo in predominately Muslim countries, especially those with theocracies (Kiarostami is Iranian). Having decided to take his life, the protagonist (Mr. Badii) of Taste of Cherry wanders the dusty landscape for roughly two hours trying to find someone to cover his body after he dies. Badii has crossed a religious Rubicon with his decision, leaving him in a walking Purgatory between life and death. A similar problem confronts the protagonist of Welcome—once a soldier has killed for her country, what is the rest of her life going to be like? Once a gamer decides to put the gun (controller) down, what is there to think, say, or do? Taste of Cherry finishes with a short meta-documentary on the filmmaking process cued to Louis Armstrong’s Saint James Infirmary Blues, while many veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars find themselves dealing with mental and physical health issues by the end of their tours of duty.
I’m not saying the experiences of war and war gaming are the same, only that they are essentially subject to the same dominant ideologies. Once you’ve begun to combat the structuring of your subject, how long will it be before you find a new social frame to latch onto? “What comes next” is the nagging question La Molleindustria continually strives to answer for our medium.
Welcome to the desert of the real ends where David Byrne’s True Stories begins: a frame split like a Rothko painting, the horizon line perfectly dividing ground and sky. Such a shot connotes new beginnings and infinite uncertainty for the future. I’m left with one lingering question: Pedercini uses the PTSD checklist as a cinematic and metaphorical framework, but would we actually want to try to make a videogame that emulated a light form of PTSD in the player? How would we go about doing this? Would it be ethical to do so, simply to make a political point or allow empathic access to the mindset of the mentally damaged veteran? I wonder if these are questions Paolo asked himself before deciding to create a machinima instead.
(upcoming post for http://jag.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/ – please email me if you want to link this, because I need to publish it on the JAG blog and redirect traffic to that site before you do so)
Sitting in McDonald’s on the morning following a night where I stayed up until 2:00am playing Molleindustria’s McDonald’s game instead of sleeping because I’d been too drunk and angry from a bad football game to sleep, I was more angry at McDonald’s for switching out their breakfast menu at 11:00 am than for corrupting my youth. Something that Molleindustria never mentions is the fact that all McDos have free wireless internet. This is perhaps not worth noting if you live in a concrete jungle or have enough money to pay for internet service at Starbucks, but in smaller towns McDo and Dairy Queen are some of the only places people can go to get free web access. I’ll take one more cheap shot here before getting serious: every time I stay in Europe for an extended period of time, I end up eating at McDo at least once a day. Why? Because McDonald’s will give me a free soda and infinite refills if I buy a sandwich and fries. If I went anywhere else, I could be paying upwards of four Euros for each such cup of fizzy goodness. Also, this is what McDonald’s looks like in Europe:
As you will see below, I don’t think Molleindustria’s McDo game is a bad game by any stretch. It does what it sets out to do remarkably well, and I wouldn’t go into such depth to analyze a game if I didn’t love it on some level. What I want to show is how a journalist working under a discipline of verification (getting the facts right) would see this game. My goal is to use the following observations to help teach potential future newsgame developers how to carry a tradition of verification into their ludic work – if being taken seriously by news journalists is even important to them (which it might not be, for understandable reasons).
The game starts out calmly: you have to buy up plots of land in South America in order to grow soy and raise cattle. This quickly infringes on a nearby city and the rainforest, and eventually the player must deforest and despoil in order to maintain a steady profit. At the time of the game’s release this was an actual practice of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Greenpeace and others raised so much fuss about it that in mid-2006 McDonalds agreed to cease Amazon deforestation for soy production. Off to a good start; we can see some change being enacted by the combined cultural influence efforts from Molleindustria and like-minded activist groups.
We can observe some mis-steps in the next section. Molleindustria here allows the player to manage a feed and slaughter factory for cows. The object is to grow the cows quickly and to incinerate them if they develop mad cow or become ill from poor feeding. Molleindustria ignores the fact that McDonald’s was one of the first large corporations to press for humane slaughter from their meat suppliers. Temple Grandin, an autistic savant working for McDonald’s whose passion was easing meat stock into the afterlife,
“designed this system herself. The cows walk into the plant single file, up a curved ramp–she says curves comfort cattle, it makes them think they’re going back home. Then, as they’re moseying along, the animals ease onto a conveyor (they don’t even seem to notice), a moving harness cradles their stomachs and ribs, and lifts them gently off the floor. Suddenly, a man presses a machine between the next cow’s eyes, there’s a pop, and a retractable bolt shoots into the steer’s brain; and the animal slumps, silently. Grandin says when she started these audits a few years ago; the workers who shoot the bolts were missing, a lot. In fact, federal inspectors cited this slaughterhouse for skinning animals that were still alive, although Excel executives disputed the charges. On this day, the slaughterhouse gets a perfect score.”
Anyone who’s read a newspaper during a Mad Cow or Foot & Mouth Disease crisis knows that you kill an infected animal with a bolt gun and then quarantine the entire herd. McDonald’s has never been shown to have violated this procedure, so I don’t know why Molleindustria uses the charged “mad cow” to illustrate dealing with disease in a cattle factory. The problem with adding questionable materials to the animal feed is more complex, and it takes an understanding of meat trade between the EU and the US in the past six years to grasp completely (http://www.organicconsumers.org/Toxic/hormone_beef_europe.cfm).We can discount the “industrial waste” option as humor, I hope, because either it’s hyperbolic comic flair or a misinterpretation of the use of sewage sludge as “organic compost” on some American farms.
The criticism of rBGH use in this game is much more honest. This has been a contentious issue in American food production for awhile now, leading to the aforementioned ban on US beef in the EU. I have firsthand food retail experience on this matter, because only this year did Starbucks stop using milk tainted by rBGH. I had a male roommate who actually claimed that drinking too much milk as a child caused him to develop lactating breasts, but I suspect that his claim is half imagination and half XXY genetics. The problem here isn’t so much McDonald’s use of hormones in their cattle feed, but in the FDA’s staunch approval of its usage despite research done in the EU (remember that Molleindustria is an Italian company). I totally agree that this is adequate enough of a controversy to support its implementation in the game.
I think the McDonald’s store segment suffers simply from a lack of personal experience by the staff of Molleindustria in the workplace of fast food chains. This could even be another instance of the US/EU divide. Many states are “right to work” states. A retail manager can fire an employee for any reason (other than race, creed, etc). Because this has been passed in legislation, without being overturned at the national level, a worker’s rights organization has no recourse to protest this outside of lobbying government officials. For all the states that aren’t “right to work,” there’s the simple fact that if a manager sees an employee spitting in food (which is what they do in the McDo game) there’s no reason to fear rebuttal for firing said employee. The disgruntled employee is the one in trouble here, because he’ll probably never be able to get another corporate retail job (ie, the ones with health benefits for full-time employees) after being fired for food contamination. Also, the game mechanic of either chiding or rewarding an employee to make them more happy or productive, and only being able to do either of these actions once before firing an employee, doesn’t come anywhere close to constructing the actual practices used to influence workplace morale.
The final segment is the most problematic for me, because doing my preliminary Internet research I couldn’t find a single substantiated claim that McDonald’s bribes health, environmental protection, or government officials. One McDonald’s executive did accept bribes from a Chinese cattle supplier in 2007, but this was a year after the game was made and isn’t what Molleindustria is talking about at all. The idea that bribing a health official would even make a dent in the already negative public opinion of McDo products is ludicrous. The same can be said for the effects of bribing a single government environmental protection enforcer (on the issue of deforestation, for instance). Unless one can verify that McDonald’s has bought the entire Environmental Protection Agency of this country or of a South American nation, then a journalistic game developer shouldn’t make game mechanics like this. The ad department that develops marketing strategies based on appealing to children or manipulating packaging to be reminiscent of the food pyramid are apt and effective by contrast. I think more emphasis should’ve been placed here than on the tenuous bribing scenario.
What’s the upshot of all this? Molleindustria’s work here is important, and its a brilliant model for pointed journalistic game criticism of particular companies in their manifold offenses. The problem is the uneven attention to verification and nuance in various game segments. I’m proposing a model based on Alberto Cairo’s abstraction practice in infovisualization work to deal with covering aspects of a game like the McDonald’s game when the verification work simply can’t be done. Let’s take a look at Ian Bogost’s Oil God game. Why can’t I criticize this game on the same grounds? Certainly one can’t verify that a deity is responsible for causing wars and disasters in oil-producing countries and their importers in order to drive up the price of a gallon of crude. But Bogost has abstracted where he can’t point fingers. Certainly this game plays off popular liberal opinion (and substantiated historical evidence) that the United States, through the CIA, has fomented civil war and supplied weapons to antagonistic nations in order to create opportunities for US companies to move into a disordered nation and grab up oil contracts. But Bogost doesn’t even go this far. He allows the player to explore the controversy without necessarily alienating staunch pro-American-business-and-government players.
I think this is important when one desires to persuade a player than there might be a problem with the way, for instance, that the world economy works. The game allows for different levels of interpretive work in the player. Molleindustria’s McDonald’s game doesn’t, and it also stands on the questionable verification grounds that I mentioned throughout the article. So, by all means, form a game development company and do important work like Molleindustria at going after corrupt corporations. Or integrate a unit like this into your media holdings if you’re a news provider. But remember to keep the discipline of verification intact when you construct simulations like this game. And if you can’t verify something that you want to include in the game in order to deepen the controversy and visibility of the problem, practice a method of abstraction (as Bogost does) and allow interpretive depth to do the work for you.
In my post on choice in newsgames I note that I see Oiligarchy as a major step forward for Molleindustria, and I’m sure somebody will eventually write a proper analysis of that game on this blog.
The problem with these games is that there aren’t any moral choices to be made within the games themselves (the decision to stop playing is meta-game). Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t work on an ethical level for me, because simply watching a character’s forced fall from grace through plot progression is about as persuasive today as an Aesop fable. September 12th and Shadow are old games now, and it’s a cop-out at this particular moment in gaming history to create a game without a choice other than: play and be damned, or drop the controller. If only making such a statement got the mainstream game industry out of its slough of despond! (I’ll also be linking this back to choice in newsgames at the end.)
Ethical decision-making and choice are still largely lacking in most video games, even in Western roleplaying games where character development is supposed to be a key element. I saw this written on the whiteboard in our game lab the other day:
a) saintly response
b) noncommittal shrug
c) be a rat bastard
How can we even conceive of a game where someone deals with telling a partner about having AIDS, or an FPS set in Iraq (or Vietnam, if you want to make metaphors instead of open statements) where a soldier must choose to either shoot an innocent woman or disobey a direct order from a superior, when in a fantasy or scifi roleplaying game your choices are as black and white as giving what little money you have to a homeless man or stealing his clothes before shooting him? This is the real first hurdle that we need to leap before we can have “serious issues” gaming in the mainstream (as opposed to infinitely rehashed poetic reflections on the soul).
I’d like to invite input on where you see realistic moral choice in video games, but I’ll give some examples of where I see some glimmer of hope for the future. Despite the utter lack of meaningful choice I found while playing Fable II, I was in fact floored by the decision I got to make after the game’s somewhat disappointing finale (I’m not going to spoil). In Fallout 3, the choices one has are fairly constrained by the good/neutral/evil tree parodied above; however, there are some points in the game where collecting information provides more nuanced choices. While completing “You’ve Gotta Shoot’em in the Head,” one can gain the choice (through dialogue with other NPCs) to change one’s mission from killing three men to persuading them to part with special items they hold. Some work has also been done toward integrating consequences for one’s actions into the game. If one plays as a particularly good or evil character, then roving bands of hitmen or lawmen will pursue you. This is a small step forward from the usual consequence in RPGs of “if you kill or steal in a town then the guards will attack you until you pay a fine.” In general I’d say that Bethesda has integrated more dialogue options, choices, and character development nuances based on alignment in Fallout 3 than in their Elder Scrolls series.
My other favorite mainstream game company, on the other hand, has taken a step backward. BioWare’s Mass Effect has markedly less choice and consequence than their earlier Knights of the Old Republic titles. In the first KotOR, good and evil alignment opened up advanced Jedi or Sith force power; furthermore, the player’s ethics had a major impact on the planets they visited and their party of NPCs. Sure the choices were still largely black and white, but one could sometimes garner particularly benevolent or manipulative results through a proper handling of dialogue trees (one could force two families to slaughter each other or provide a happy ending to a Romeo and Juliet plotline). KotOR II expanded on this, by making good/neutral/evil choices more fuzzy depending on the party members currently following the player. Early in the game, one can choose to give money to a beggar. In the first Knights this would result in instant “good” points; however, if a mysterious Jedi guide character were following you, then she would show you how the beggar would go on to gamble with the money and eventually kill someone else over a debt – netting you “evil” points for not fully examining the moral quality of a man begging for money in the streets. In Mass Effect, one’s choices have little effect on the game world and none on the abilities of the protagonist. If I recall correctly, one can kill Liara and Wrex out of spite. But if one decides to off an entire race of possibly benevolent insectoids the only consequence is an angry teleconference with the Intergalactic Council (a similar action leads to quite an intense judicial proceeding in the first KotOR). There are also far fewer points in the game where dialogue trees make a tangible difference in player action.
So here we’ve got examples of two mainstreamers making steps in either direction, but there’s still probably a long way to go before we’ll see a mainstream game with a more realistic setting providing a more nuanced set of choices. Maybe HAL/Ape will give Bethesda the rights to Mother 4 in the near future and we’ll have a revolution on our hands (har har).
Let’s talk about possible integrations of choice into newsgames. I’ve already stated that while September 12th was effective at its time, it’s “unwinnable” twist has become dated. In our early examinations of games where one plays a journalist, I found Dead Rising disappointing because of its use of photojournalism as an unsubstatiated gimmick: while one does pursue “the truth” to eventually uncover a governmental wrongdoing, we never see the story published. Also, the action of taking pictures for experience points doesn’t have much to do with real photojournalistic practice (or educating the player about it). The only choice one has in the game is either to make it to checkpoints at the proper time or have “the truth” fade from history. If one could choose alternate methods of dealing with the game’s “psycopaths” or terrorists, then it would have been a much richer experience. Being able to forward pictures and stories to Frank’s editor over a cellular device would have added an extra layer: do you ultimately choose to expose the goverment secret or to turn over your evidence and not cause a public stir?
Molleindustria’s Oiligarchy makes an interesting step forward from its previous McDonald’s game. In the McDonald’s game the only lesson one learns is how corrupt you have to be to keep a huge fast food industry profitable – the experience is frustrating and soul crushing. My distaste for the hyperbole the game frequently uses aside, it accomplishes some modicum of persuasive work. On the surface, Oiligarchy would seem to be using the exact same argument with an evisceration of a different industry; however, on viewing the game’s extensive production notes we found that Molleindustria did provide one “winning” condition where the player can cut back oil production to allow green initiatives to safely carry the world out of crisis when peak oil consumption looms. Developments such as this are crucial, in my opinion, to the future of newsgames. It’s not surprise that moralizing is so rampant in the genre, because anyone willing to spend the time and money to create one of these largely (fiscally) unprofitable games must feel very strongly about the issue or problem at hand. Being transparent about one’s bias does do some work toward making newsgames better, but I think the choice to either affect a different outcome or to see an issue from two sides in a newsgame adds to its value immensely.
Happy Thanksgiving, readers. Now go play PETA’s Turkey Cooking Mama: it gives you the ***choice*** to make scrumptious tofurkey at the end of the slaughter!