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

    [08.31.10]
    - Gamasutra

  • Another way in which propaganda videogames could be resisted is in the promotion of critical thinking and rational thought among the target audience of such games. I would propose that instead of following the route Frasca proposes, of creating games and game authoring tools designed to foster critical thinking through discussion, it would be possible to design videogames in which the use of critical thinking was necessary, either to achieve success or to achieve optimal results in terms of both success and enjoyment. This could be coupled with an approach in which it was made clear that while we must rely on and aid others, we can not always trust them, even if they do not seem to prevent a risk.

    In the past I have proposed that future videogames should be designed to require the use of what was previously called 'social intelligence'. More precisely, I wrote that when dealing with non-player characters it should be imperative for the player to have to consider the following: "Is the information I am being given correct at its most basic level? What is the character's motive for giving me this information? Is the character lying to me, equivocating or telling me the truth to the best of their knowledge? Is the character's culture or the position they are in altering what they tell me?" (McClure, 2009b). The error of this piece was its narrow focus on the player's interactions with virtual characters. Instead, the player should have to question every information source in the game, particularly those whose accuracy and authority we blindly take for granted in everyday life. This would hopefully make players more effective at assessing evidence by giving them ample time to practice this skill. It would also hopefully lead them to them questioning the content of games, the veracity of sources of information and the motives of others as a learned response. It is an interesting coincidence that games designed purely around the use of 'social intelligence' seem to also be suited to the work of resisting propaganda. I believe such games might also prevent players lowering their absorption screen during the safe activity of play as they would come to associate videogames with trickery. Further research and the conduction of rigorous experiments related to this hypothesis might prove fruitful.

    A number of academics and designers seem to possess a desire to create videogames that are not just powerfully expressive but that also represent "factual realities by laying bare the logic of a core system" (Bogost and Poremba, 2010:8). In Bogost and Poremba's paper Can Games get Real? A Closer Look at "Documentary" Digital Games they argue that games are as valid a documentary medium as any other. "What you see in a documentary is not the subject itself, but a representation of the way the subject is constituted, the experiences available and foreclosed to the subject. Even if the end product is presented as non-fictional, the subject in a documentary is nevertheless different from the actual referent being documented" (Bogost and Poremba, 2010:8). "Further, we must also examine the implications of such games in relation to the cultural position of games as entertainment media: devoid of serious consideration, and thus inappropriate by their very nature for actual subjects" (Bogost and Poremba, 2010:18). However, if the push to gain popular acceptance of documentary games is successful then it seems likely that the popular conception of the videogame as a non-serious entertainment medium will alter. Bogost and Poremba do recognise the spectre of propaganda explicitly, stating that one issue with documentary games "is the potential for propaganda; an unsurprising effect of the rule-set as a substitute for the narrator qua voice of God: the Under the Siege/Under the Ash series has been criticized for a biased ruleset of the real events it portrays in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, even as it defends its games as taken from media accounts and primary research (Sisler). But all procedural documentary games need not be propagandist. The procedural frame could be used as a tool to expose and question the game's logic as an ideology of the society the game seeks to expose or critique" (Bogost and Poremba, 2010:13). The paper closes with an argument in favour of documentary videogames and what appears to be a call for more of them to be constructed. "Can we substantiate the argument towards the value of these works: that documentary games reveal new knowledge about the world by exposing underlying systems and embedding participants; that they are naturally reflexive and can build media literacy and cultural critique. Digital games are a popular and powerful medium with a potential yet to be fully explored, and one in which actuality and documentary might still find a place. But to enjoy further success, it must move beyond the mere instantiation of "documentary" as a legacy, and work to define the properties endemic to the genre in digital game form." (Bogost and Poremba, 2010:19-20). Of course, if such documentary games do become wide spread and well respected then they will effectively multiply the effectiveness of propaganda videogames several times over, as people will rely on games as a source of information about the world.

    If propaganda videogames become commonplace, it may seem reasonable to presume that game design will benefit. An influx of capital and an increase in the number of games being produced may lead to innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems and rapid advances in the overall design of games. The field of space exploration leapt ahead rapidly when it became the focus of propaganda battles between the USA and the USSR. Only 26 years after the construction of the V2 rocket, men had landed on the moon. Potentially, advances in technique could be uncovered and popularised by propagandists. In film, the montage theory of Eisenstein was partly disseminated and popularised by the international acclaim of Battleship Potemkin. However, should research uncover valuable truths in the service of a distasteful ideology then it may well be discarded out of hand and potentially 'lost' for decades. "Two researchers, Schairer and Schöniger, published their own case-control study in 1943, demonstrating a relationship between smoking and lung cancer almost a decade before any researchers elsewhere. ... Nazi scientific and medical research was bound up with the horrors of cold-blooded mass murder, and the strange puritanical ideologies of Nazism. It was almost universally disregarded" (Goldacre, 2008:218).

    To conclude, we can say that propaganda games have a bright future ahead of them. Consider the following:

    • Videogames are now a mass media, allowing communication with millions
    • Propaganda videogames have had some success already, with the release of America's Army. There is no requirement to be the first to risk capital investment in a test project.
    • Propaganda is particularly difficult to detect in videogames.
    • Videogames have a largely untapped potential to be extremely effective pieces of propaganda that players engage with for long periods and can even become addicted to. They require a limited investment of time and capital for a potentially infinite return of audience attention.
    • Propaganda videogames are just as difficult to resist as other propaganda mediums.
    • Videogames will potentially be legitimised as a factual medium in future, increasing public trust in them.

    If we put ourselves in the shoes of propagandists, there are a good number of reasons to invest in propaganda videogames. Effective propaganda has existed in all fields and in all mediums, including videogames. If videogames can be so powerful in the service of propaganda then it seems likely that they can be equally powerful when used against it. However, the propagandists often work under the aegis of powerful backers who seek to influence the public opinion and are able to arrange the widespread dissemination and promotion of propaganda materials. Even in the face of the power of such groups resistance is possible. Perhaps propagandists can not be stopped, but if their influence can be checked and their advances slowed until the information culture becomes more open then this resistance will not have been futile.

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