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state of play: games with an agenda


curatorial statement

Do not fear. This is not a manifesto. But, rather like the show itself, it may raise more questions than it answers.

The politics of the games featured in State of Play might be wide ranging, but they all agree on the potential for games to meaningfully reflect on more serious issues than high scores, firepower and saving Princess Toadstool. These are games that have been produced by the independent sector: they are the work of artists, academics, advergamers, educationalists, enthusiasts and independent developers.

Quite apart from their respective subject matter, these games investigate the possibility of games with an agenda. They demonstrate that games can explore human relations, explain complicated ideas and engage in cultural criticism.
Many of the works function in a way that is similar to political cartooning. Editorial games frequently use caricature, allusion and a familiar context -usually a classic arcade game -to generate meaning. In Newsgaming's September 12, for example, playing the game makes you aware of how your actions implicate you in the outcome. The fact that the game is unwinnable and that your efforts only make the situation worse brings a whole new dimension to the relationship.

Games pioneer Chris Crawford sees a lot of potential in the videogame medium because it can involve people in processes rather than just teaching facts. Using Fahrenheit 9/11 as an example, Crawford writes: 'You don't do a game that says [President] Bush is a dummy. That is a waste. Instead, you would make a game about foreign policy and how foreign policy works.' Players can then see for themselves how the neoconservative approach to world affairs plays out.
Some of the works, such as the advergames created by Persuasive Games and Powerful Robot Games, are produced for political clients and are designed to encourage engagement with campaigns and party messages. Joe Trippi, who commissioned the first ever USA election games for the Howard Dean Campaign, was inspired by his own experience of videogames' ability to offer shared virtual experiences that can build real communities.

The use of games for political groups, public interest organisations, advocacy groups and government agencies continues to grow. Interactive games are increasingly being seen as a novel way to capture the attention of people bombarded with numerous competing messages. Their success lies in the use of the web the communicate and their power to directly connect the player with an experience.

Videogames capacity to create realistic three-dimensional worlds means that as a form of interactive 'documentary', videogames have the ability to provoke a unique sense of engagement with their representation of real places and events wedded to a compelling sense of sensory immersion.

Waco Resurrection, based on the events that occurred in Waco Texas in 1993, literally puts you inside the head of messianic cult-leader David Koresh. Graphic realism meets documentary research inside an interface that includes customized voice-activated Koresh-helmets and enemies that include other players' Koresh simulacra. Waco Resurrection is as much an artwork as it is a game. It addresses itself to the nature of videogames themselves, asking questions about what it means to identify with the protagonist, enact violence and manifest our cultural fears.

If Waco Resurrection can be thought of as a hybrid of documentary polemic and adventure game, Escape from Woomera is a meta-documentary. Based upon meticulous research, its graphic realism is underpinned by fidelity to the actual architectural plans of the Woomera detention centre. Dedicated to the proposition that 'you can't understand another person until you walk a mile in their shoes', Escape from Woomera is grounded in the realities facing asylum seekers incarcerated in detention centres.

The documentary research for the mission-based games produced by Kuma Reality Games is informed by advice from real mission veterans. Believing that the best way to understand something is to experience it first hand, Kuma\War stepped outside their usual focus on conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq to create Mission 24: John Kerry's Silver Star so that American voters could make up their own minds about the presidential candidate's war service.

The persuasive power of videogames has led to the Pentagon being the biggest investor in game development in the USA. One of their most high-profile games, America's Army, is a recruiting tool that seeks to interest teens in a military career through a first-person-shooter perspective. Interestingly, the same technology underpins games from the other end of the political spectrum. Under Ash and its sequel Under Siege, which play out conflicts from a Palestinian point of view, are in many ways uncannily similar to the US Army's offerings.

Whether made as art, documentary, advertising or editorial comment, games with an agenda are an increasingly significant genre. We are just becoming aware of the potential of videogames to explore human relations, explain complicated ideas and engage in cultural criticism.  It may be true that videogames are yet to compete with the achievements of the novel or cinema. But games are not only a young and rapidly evolving genre, their changing forms are tied to rapidly developing technology. Videogames can, and increasingly do, feature the lighting, acting performances, soundtracks, camera angles and edits that rival Hollywood movies. But no matter how lush the aesthetics or convincingly rendered, they are essentially beside the point. Nice to have but not essential. Games do not exist to be consumed and interpreted in the same way as a film or a novel. Embracing interactivity, repetition, process and performance, their experience is a completely different paradigm. Videogames are a dynamic new language for cultural expression.

Helen Stuckey and Shiralee Saul


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