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  • Towards An Interactive Goebbels: Can Propaganda Videogames Be Made More Effective And Is Resistance Futile?

    [08.31.10]
    - Gamasutra

  • In summary, it seems that there are a number of immediately apparent steps available to be taken that will increase the effectiveness of propaganda games.

    • Propaganda games should appeal to their desired audience in terms they can understand, believe and agree with. Widely known facts should not be ignored and arbitrary conditions should not be forced upon players, for fear that they will reject the work outright.
    • Propaganda games should be made more enjoyable, and perhaps even addictive, so that they receive prolonged and repeated viewings.
    • The potential of players emotional responses should not be ignored.
    • Propaganda should be included subtly and made to appear to be a natural part of a game.
    • Game mechanics, particularly rewards, penalties and ludic goals, should be used to drive players towards specific, desired behaviours.
    • The way in which game mechanics are contextualised should be used to both express a position openly and to enhance any message they are designed to convey.
    • Games should be designed to discourage oppositional readings.
    • Wherever possible, propaganda messages should be encoded as an enthymeme in the gameplay itself, rather than as an additional message tacked on in the form of narrative.
    • All possible elements of the game should be used to increase the likelihood of provoking the desired response in players.

    Videogames are already a mainstream mass media (Appendix 1). If videogames continue to grow in popularity then it seems likely we will see many more propaganda games in future. "As research continues, we should keep our eyes on the horizon for the first video-game propaganda masterpiece. ... Although one has not yet emerged, it is helpful to remember that 34 years lapsed between the invention of the Kinetoscope and Serge Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). When such a game is created, we can only hope that it looks more like Casablanca (1941) than Triumph of the Will (1934)" (Delwiche, 2007:105-106). Given the potential of videogames as powerful pieces of propaganda the arrival of this game seems inevitable. Can anything be done to resist this game, its predecessors, and its potential ancestors? Is any such resistance futile?

    Two strategies appear to be available to those who wish to resist a specific propaganda videogame. The first is to create a counter-propaganda game. This would require them to create a propaganda videogame designed to be more effective than an opponent's game and to then disseminate it more widely than the game it was designed to oppose. The second is to mount denunciation campaigns. This would require a large scale campaign to expose the opponent's game as a piece of propaganda designed to influence the player's actions. This might involve making any number of public appeals targeted individually at "the intelligent citizen [who] does not want propagandists to utilize his emotions, even to the attainment of "good" ends, without knowing what is going on" (Miller, 1939:31), at the sceptic and her sister the cynic, and even at the narcissist receptive to a hysterical approach centred on the desire of others to prevent his free will from being exercised. One option would be to release a document that combined a walkthrough and a critical analysis that detailed the propaganda techniques at work in the opponent's game and explained how symbols had been manipulated in the attempt to influence players' actions.

    It appears that any strategies aimed at opposing specific propaganda videogames may be inherently flawed. "Experiments concerning events in contemporary politics ... show that corrective information ... may fail to reduce misperceptions and can sometimes increase them for the ideological [groups] most likely to hold those misperceptions" (Nyhand and Reifler, 2010). Nyhand and Reifler found that experimental subjects were "less likely to accept contradictory information than information that reinforces their existing beliefs" (ibid). This is perhaps related to the confirmation bias, which comes about as "people tend to seek confirmation of their current hypothesis, whereas they should be trying to disconfirm it" (Sutherland, 2009:100). Research has also shown that, given the choice, " individuals whose confidence in a belief has been shaken by exposure to propaganda opposing their beliefs prefer to hear arguments from their own side in order to bolster their confidence and ... that given opportunity to participate in a free discussion group after the exposure, these individuals tend to listen preferentially to persons who agree with them and to ignore the arguments of their opponents, with the consequence that their confidence in their opinion tends to return toward its initial level" (Brodbeck, 1956:170). "Propaganda is essentially an offensive weapon" (Herz, 1949:475), and, in the case of effective propaganda, a strong first-strike is a massive advantage that is extremely difficult for opponents to nullify. ""Whoever speaks the first word to the world is always right," Goebbels stated flatly"(Doob, 1950:435)."Ineffective enemy claims [require] no reply, since a refutation would either give them more currency or else be a waste of propaganda energy" (Doob, 1950:430) Some go further, claiming that nearly all direct rebuttal is worthless, regardless of the nature of the opponent's work, as "in general, to deny a lie disseminated by the enemy is in most cases merely to give it additional circulation ... every denial of a flagrant lie lends it a certain dignity that it did not possess before" (Herz, 1949:474). Such denials may even act as a trigger to what is commonly called the "Streisand effect", "a primarily online phenomenon in which an attempt to censor or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of causing the information to be publicized widely and to a greater extent than would have occurred if no censorship had been attempted" (Wikipedia, 2010).

    To some extent, it can appear that properly constructed propaganda is unassailable. "A convincing one-sided communication presenting only positive arguments will tend to sway many members of the audience farther in the direction advocated by the communicator. However, when these persons subsequently hear the opposite point of view, also supported by cogent-sounding arguments, their opinions tend to be swayed back in the negative direction ... But if the initial communication is, instead, a two-sided one it will already have taken into account both the positive and negative arguments and still have reached the positive conclusion. [The] listener is then subsequently ... less likely to be influenced by [counterpropaganda]" (Lumsdaine and Janis, 1953).

    Given that resistance to individual propaganda videogames seems to be a difficult, if not impossible, task, perhaps those that wish to resist propaganda games would be well served by resisting all propaganda games, which seems, perversely, an easier task. Of course, many of those who have an interest in resisting specific propaganda games will also have a vested interest in the continual existence of effective propaganda games, so they will no doubt reject such a notion. Perhaps though, for those who intensely dislike propaganda or worry about its potential outcomes, it is possible to prevent the rise of our hypothetical interactive Goebbels by pre-emptively working to make the production of effective propaganda videogames much more difficult. I believe there are a number of ways that this is possible. Whether this is desirable is another matter, as is whether it is ultimately futile.

    In his widely read thesis, Videogames Of The Oppressed, Gonzalo Frasca proposes that by allowing more users to create and modify videogames and by explicitly showing them the workings of games it would be possible to create "a new way of experiencing simulations ... where the goal of the player would be to analyze, contest and revise the model's rules according to his personal ideas and beliefs" (Frasca, 2001:113). It seems reasonable to suggest that Frasca's proposal might act in some ways to make videogames less potent as a medium of propaganda. Historically, "the culture of information was a pyramid, with propaganda originating at the top and flowing down in a widening cascade from a single source. At least since the proliferation of the Internet and all that is associated with it beginning in the early 1990s, the culture of information has been collapsing, the pyramid flattening out. In the future it will increasingly approach the intellectual geometry of a perfect plane ... and in a flat world, propaganda ... will finally become impossible because all information will be available to everyone at all times" (Axelrod, 2009:226). If we consider access to technology and the ability to use it in place of information then we can see that Frasca's proposal might lead videogame development in a similar direction.

    However, such open access does not solve the problem of propaganda videogames. It may even intensify it to some extent. Although the simulation literacy that such a project might imbue participants with would no doubt be useful, it would not immunise them to the effects of propaganda. Almost all adults in Britain are capable of writing, yet virtuoso authors are still rare. Not everyone can write stories well, so why would we expect everyone to be able to design games well when they arguably involve many more potential elements? If we accept the axiomatic truth that some people would be better at designing games than others then an uncomfortable series of conclusions follows. In a meritocratic system, those who were best able to design games would be the most likely to attract an audience. As referred to previously, it is possible to be influenced by a piece of propaganda even though we are aware that it is a piece of propaganda. Therefore, enormous power could be granted to an ideological bloc that was able to influence the best game designers to create games proselytising for it, whether by payment, persuasion or even coercion. Black propaganda would be less conspicuous and all propaganda would be more easily hidden behind the seemingly democratic nature of videogame production. If a self-regarding, self-perpetuating and highly nepotistic elite emerged in games design, as seems likely given the way such an elite already exists in other fields such as journalism (Gogarty, 2008), then they might well use their status to promote the work of the members and associates of their group to the exclusion of other voices. Even if there is open access to the creation of videogames, it seems unlikely that the all important channels of distribution and promotion will become truly open and equal.

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