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Opinion: Games And Riots
Opinion: Games And Riots
August 19, 2011 | By Nicholas Lovell




[In this opinion piece, Gamasutra contributor and Games Brief's Nicholas Lovell examines the role that video games play in society, and looks at how "games as propaganda machines" played into last week's riots in London.]

A week ago last Monday, I, like many Londoners, was glued to my computer screen. We watched as, through a sultry summer night, the social order broke down and young people spent an evening, and subsequent nights, existing within an entirely different set of social norms from usual. The overwhelming evidence for people on the streets that night was that breaking stuff, stealing it or setting fire to it was what people like them (i.e. young Londoners) did.

This week, at GDC Europe, Richard Garriott gave a lecture on the three ages of gaming, arguing that we are finally -- now that we have left the constraints of single player and MMO gaming behind us -- entering an era when games can reach a global, mass market audience.

In the questions at the end, a gentleman (his accent sounded Russian) said (I may be paraphrasing a little) "Your games are propaganda machine. Do you accept this fact, and how do you respond to it?"

Garriott agreed with his questioner's assertion -- that games are a part of society, and a key influence in society -- and in these times of austerity and economic uncertainty, the role that games play in society merits a proper debate.

I'm Not Saying The Games Caused The Riots

One of my Facebook friends (a young, female student) said, "This is what happens when you let the 'youths' stay in all day and play COD, they get too good at it so have to bring it out to the real life streets. Again FUCK OFF AND GO HOME." The idea that games were somehow involved in inciting the riots has come from sources both predictable (the London Evening Standard said looters were "inspired by video game Grand Theft Auto") and unpredictable (ex-Oasis man Noel Gallagher blamed "brutal TV and video games").

The causes of the riots are complex: A sense that the rioters were disconnected from their local society. Short-term poverty and long-term despair are breaking out. A culture of consumerism and entitlement. The possible causes are legion, and will doubtless be debated for years. My degree is in medieval history, and my favorite comment on the riots came in a letter from Professor David Parker, Emeritus Professor, University of Leeds to the left-leaning UK broadsheet, The Guardian.

"For many years I taught a final-year undergraduate course on the uprisings of the peasants and artisans that swept across large parts of 17th-century France. Buildings were attacked, their contents pillaged, crops destroyed and occasionally a perceived oppressor was killed. Had my students explained it all by simply invoking feral criminality they would have failed."

Bread And Circuses

What do opportunistic riots in London and games as propaganda machines have in common? They concern an issue that governments have faced since the days of the Romans. How to keep the population entertained and disinclined to rebel, riot or otherwise stir up trouble.

Noam Chomsky has long argued that organized sports fulfills this role: it exists as an adjunct to the state, to distract, entertain and otherwise occupy an electorate who might otherwise become activists, or spend the hours they spend discussing or reading about sports on politics instead. In fact, he says the purpose of those sports are to "dull people's brains." (He also argues that school and college sports encourage us to respect authority, to do what we're told, and to accept the status quo, all of which have enormous advantages for a state.)

Over the past few years, in the UK at least, the political authorities have become more supportive of games. Partially due to the sterling efforts of industry bodies like TIGA and UKIE and partly because politicians are waking up to the fact that the majority of the electorate now play games, they no longer view our industry as a whipping boy that makes an easy target whenever a violent tragedy engulfs the media schedules.

Could there be another reason? Could it be that as the economic downturn continues to bite, politicians are looking for anything that will distract the population from its economic woes, and from turning on the politicians for causing or failing to end these financial difficulties? In the UK, for example, we're already getting Olympics overload, even though we're more than a year away from the event itself.

Are politicians cottoning onto the idea that people who play Call of Duty are at home, playing games, not rioting with their friends? That people playing CityVille or Tiny Tower are getting a sense of satisfaction from being in control of their virtual cities or skyscrapers, a control that is sadly missing from their daily lives?

In short, is the propaganda machine becoming useful to those in authority? And if so what can we, as developers, use this propaganda machine to do?

I hope that you choose to make games that make people think. To question authority and their role in the world.

Or you can just make mindless entertainment, like the Roman gladiatorial combats of old.

Which are you going to choose?

[Nicholas Lovell makes a living helping people make money from games. He is the author of How to Publish a Game and blogs at www.gamesbrief.com.]


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Comments


manou manou
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As long as the basic necessities of life for most people are uncertain, symptoms (like the riots) will appear. Things get even worse when we do a little research and realize that there is far more than enough on earth of what we want in order to live a life with an acceptable degree of certainty but we just can't... because we don't have enough money. Food, electricity, water, shelter and education should be free. The first four can be produced and are being produced in abundance right now. Basic education is free via the internet, whenever you want to know something you can look it up or ask other people free of charge, the only thing you pay for is access to electricity and the internet. It is ridiculous that we are living in the 21st century and are still afraid that we may end up without a home, without food, water or clothes. The worst thing is that these things exist, but the rules of the economic game prevent us from using them when we have no money. This is what most people hate and are afraid of.

Fiore Iantosca
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You probably think money grows on trees as well.

Jody Sol
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When money is made of paper, it literally does.

Jay Bedeau
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Well said Manou Manou, not everyone starts the game of life on Easy mode some people start on Normal others on Hard and others don't get past the first level.

Games are OUR art-form, who else is better to see the game of life is NOT BALANCED?

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Fiore, please read this: http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%
202002.htm#Does_the_world_produce_enough_food_to_feed_everyone. The point is that food is no longer a matter of natural scarcity; it is a matter of systemic inefficiency. And even if you don't care for your fellow human (maybe you clear your conscience by telling yourself all poor people are lazy welfare leeches who somehow deserve it), then surely you don't want to live in a society where riots are a constant concern. And as long as the class divide continues to grow, riots will become more and more common. Also, don't assume you are never going to be poor -- what is going to happen to you when the ruling elite find ways to automate or outsource all of their production tasks and you can no longer find a job; you are willing and able to work, but no one will let you, and suddenly you are a "lazy" welfare leech who just lost their home. Maybe you work in a field where you are confident this won't happen to you. What about your children? Will there be any jobs for them in the future?



And yes, to a large extent, money does grow on trees: http://www.ehow.com/how-does_4613179_what-dollar-bill-made.html "Dollar bills are made of a wood pulp that contains Crane brand of paper..." I hate to be snarky, but I must remind you that money has absolutely _no_ value beyond that which we pretend it has. The intention was, of course, to simplify bartering into a fair and manageable system, but money has long since become perverted into a tool whose complexity allows the rich to continue to enslave us because of our own naivity and lack of organization (for example, while you are struggling to bring in a paycheck every couple of weeks and have to spend all of your time laboring, the already rich are making deals to let their money -- far more than they need -- suck out even more money from the system and into their bank accounts, not to mention the crazy tax loopholes they can go through).

Nicholas Lovell
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I was hoping to focus on the role of games, not the role of money. The challenges of distributing food or the issues around whether bartering is a better system than our monetary system are huge, but this is a site about games.



I would like to focus on the role that games play in our society, not a critique of the capitalist system.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Well, the challenges of distributing food and overcoming political boundaries to do so could be modeled in a game :). It would educate and not be mindless entertainment. Of course I am not an expert on the subject, I just learned not too long ago that natural scarcity is not the main bottleneck that causes starvation. Maybe if more people realized that it is systemic and distributive then it could be more easily solved.



On topic, here is a great site: http://freerice.com/. It is a charity game site where you can educate yourself on various topics by playing quizzes, and for each correct answer you get they will donate rice to starving people. It seems like the gameplay itself isn't educating people about world hunger, but the wrapper the game is in (the website and the cause) can.

R G
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^This.



I believe games can make people think. "BioShock", "Fallout 3", and "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" did this for me. However, they will not change basic human insecurities.

Andrew Richards
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Thanks, Nicholas, really thought-proving article! I doubt politicians in this country are actually that smart, though. I do think games help people to think for themselves, by giving them a safe environment in which to experiment.

Martain Chandler
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...what can we, as developers, use this propaganda machine to do? Well I'd start off by making a game to encourage the view that game designers are highly desirable sexually and socially.

Nicholas Lovell
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+1

Martain Chandler
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All joking aside, I was a big fan of Balance of Power ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balance_of_Power_(video_game) ) and I fervently wish similar games would be more popular.

Leonardo Ferreira
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Spot on. This is the first time I catch an article that does not perceive videogames as a victim, as a typical scapegoat of the society troubles, but rather as an important political force, one that is slowly but surely being assimilated by the powers that be. That attitude of "we're all on the same boat" seems to do more harm than good, as not all games are created equal; why so many good writers waste their time defending militaristic, morally void triple-A crap is beyond me.Maybe it's the responsability of the designers to try harder to infuse some type of reflective, political commentary on their games, or at least have some sort of notion of the importance of games on the society as a whole, or else let this new tool of free thinking be co-opted by the status quo.

Jody Sol
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"Had my students explained it all by simply invoking feral criminality they would have failed."



That really is a brilliant comment.

Jay Bedeau
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Lots of the problems involving the riots were socio-economical and it is quite obvious that the games industry had played its card in advancing consumerism. However it is NOT fair to say the games industry advocates ultra-capitalism, individualism and the breakdown of community.



The rioters believed in their necessity for looting and criminality as a means of bringing attention to their livelihoods and were committed to seeing it through even when the odds were clearly against them. Disenfranchisement and uprising against the state are common in tales of insurrection in media, new and old.

Jonathan Murphy
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When a system is run by bad people. Expect bad results.


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