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Opinion: McCain's Pork Barrel Game Lacks Message
Opinion: McCain's Pork Barrel Game Lacks Message Exclusive
October 23, 2008 | By Brice Morrison

October 23, 2008 | By Brice Morrison
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More: Console/PC, Columns, Exclusive



[Perhaps it's heartening that Republican presidential candidate John McCain used a video game to demonstrate his position against pork barrel spending -- but designer Brice Morrison explains just why McCain's Pork Invaders "fails miserably" -- and what the candidate should've done instead.]

The 2008 Presidential race is at the top of the news headlines, with all eyes on Obama and McCain, all ears to the issues. In this particular election, I've been pleased to see the willingness of both campaigns and the nation as a whole to embrace technology, from the YouTube debates to Obama's extensive website which debunks myths and rumors generated by bloggers.

Both candidates' teams have done exceptionally well in coping with new technology in an effort to woo a population that is more connected than ever before.

One of the efforts by McCain's team to reach voters was a game for voters to play called Pork Invaders. It is a classic Space Invaders-style arcade game, where the player moves around on the bottom of the screen while enemies float up above.

The player can fire bullets at the enemies and destroy them, earning points. In this particular version of the game, the enemies are pigs (representing porkbarrel bills that spend taxpayer's money needlessly), and the bullets that the player can fire are vetos (representing John McCain, in office, vetoing the bills).

Unfortunately for both the McCain campaign and game developers interested in social change, the game is nothing short of an embarrassment to games as a medium. It does nothing to expand on its blindingly clear initial message: McCain hates pork barrel politics, and he intends to fight against them when elected to office.

Okay, so we get it. Thanks for sinking a good chunk of change into developing this game, since the message "John McCain thinks porkbarreling is bad" is clearly beyond the scope of written text. The game was likely an attempt to reach younger voters, but that logic goes nowhere if the game does nothing to convey its message.

Backing Up Social Messages With Gameplay

Games like this upset me, because they both reflect and perpetuate a lack of understanding of the capabilities that games have to convey experiences, teach players, and change minds. These are the kinds of games people think of when developers try to talk about games for social change, games for education, or games as art. No wonder no one takes them seriously.

Pork Invaders is a terrible game in that it fails to present a coherent system. The game attempts to use arguably the least-important aspect of games -- the graphics -- to make its point. The Space Invaders controls, enemies, and movement are left intact -- in essence, standing silent -- when they could be used to share an experience with the user about John McCain.

Imagine if what was done in Pork Invaders was done in another, better-understood medium. Take the recent Batman film, The Dark Knight, exactly as is, except replace Batman with John McCain. Then replace the antagonist, the Joker, with a pig-man named "Porkbarrel". And the movie unfolds in the City of Taxpayer's Dollars.

Obviously, this is completely ridiculous.

But this is exactly what Pork Invaders does. The developers took another game, whose mechanics had nothing to do with government spending, and painted over the graphics in a sad attempt to convey a political message.

In attempting to express through a game what could have been expressed through an ad slogan, they wasted both time and money while failing to take advantage of the interactive medium they chose. It would have been better for everyone to cut out the middle man and simply write the message that the game is circuitously trying to convey.

Looking at the game's main menu, you see evidence that not even the developers think the game is worthwhile. Before starting, the player has the option to select between "Play" and "Get the facts".

Clicking the latter link will take you to another page, where you can read about McCain's plans for reform. Giving the player this choice essentially positions the game as a waste of time, something that you do for a few minutes until you decide to become an adult and read some actual information.

The Kind Of Game McCain Should Have Made

Games are the best medium for conveying real life experiences, because they have the option of choice. The player can choose what to do, and the system will respond. Any life experience can be described by this model, and so there's no reason why such a medium couldn't be used to convey a message much more powerfully than text.

"Experience is the best teacher", says the proverb. Truly, most people's opinions and beliefs are shaped by their experiences, McCain and Obama included. What if you could experience the same life events that lead the candidates to hold the views they currently do?

Instead of hearing the candidates spout their views, why not go back to the events that caused them to develop the views?

Imagine this: A game where you are playing as a United States Senator. In the first stage, you visit your home state and speak to constituents. You learn of their hardships and their struggles, and you agree to do everything you can to help them. In the second stage you return to Washington to vote on several bills. You refer back to the requests of your constituents and make your decisions, and bills are passed.

However, as the game goes on, the budget begins to run low. You go back to your constituents, who are still eager for change, and unfortunately need to tell them that the money simply is not there to help them. Your constituents are irate. You head back to Capitol hill to review the bills that have been passed, only to discover that while they may have had good intentions, many of the funds were spent unnecessarily.

In short, through playing the game, you have an experience that awakens you to the real life dangers of porkbarrel spending.

This is just a quick example, but it's still more compelling than Pork Invaders. I'm not privy to the exact experiences that McCain would say caused him to develop the views of his platform, but those experiences would provide a starting point for building a game that does more than spout a slogan. It could actually change people's minds.

Games That Already Do This

The ReDistricting Game, a browser-based game developed by a joint effort of University of Southern California's game design and political science departments, is a game about the effects of altering lines that define voting regions in order to manipulate the results of elections. It is a magnificent game that has thankfully garnered much media coverage in a short period of time.

Why does The Redistricting Game get a stamp of approval while Pork Invaders fails miserably? The former is designed from the ground up for one purpose: to have the player understand the effects of gerrymandering.

It uses the rules that govern the game's system to convey a difficult concept, one that few people would understand after simply reading about it, and helps the player understand by giving them the experience of having it unfold before their very eyes.

While everyone has learned about gerrymandering in school, few people would claim to actually understand how it makes a difference. Thus, the game goes above and beyond written text and teaches through experience.

Pork Invaders, on the other hand, presents no semblance of porkbarrel politics in its gameplay. The attempted message and the game itself are completely unrelated.

Games For Real Change

I hope that we see more and more games for political issues, and I hope that those funding them become more and more aware of their ability to influence voters.

If games can be used to convey experiences, a world where the average voter can tackle even the most complex issues may not be far away. But to get there, game developers need to understand exactly where the compelling powers of games lie: in their gameplay.

[Brice Morrison is a game designer who has been developing quirky titles since he was in middle school. Before taking a job at EA, he developed several successful independent games such as Jelly Wars, an action-adventure franchise, and QuickQuests, a casual MMORPG.

While at the University of Virginia, Brice founded Student Game Developers, an organization which continues to produce games every semester and
open the doors to the games industry for students. His blog at BriceMorrison.com discusses games in a broader context and how
they can be more than simply entertainment.]


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Comments


Tom Newman
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Completely agree. Can anyone say "out of touch"? This seems like a lame attempt to attract those young voters with their "new-fangled videogames and pagers".

Ryan Barrett
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Games for Change: http://www.gamesforchange.org/

Craig Stern
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The game has a very simple message: that McCain is a champion who will stand alone against waves of pork barrel legislation. I agree that this game does not do a good job of giving the player an actual understanding of the issue of pork barrel spending. But I rather doubt that that is what the makers of this game were shooting for to begin with.


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