The history of video games is a long and complex one. Originally labeled as children's playthings, games have “grown-up” to a large degree, reaching into older markets and gingerly creeping into female and minority demographics.
In the past five years, however, a burgeoning international community of designers has sprung up across the Internet. Amid the bite-sized, casual time-wasters and flashy Flash games, a brave experimental fringe has simmered to surface, bringing us a host of free games that throw away the umbrella, seeking to make a political or social message.
The latest of these games is la Molleindustria's The McDonald's Video Game, which gives the player "the opportunity to discover all the secrets behind the fast food restaurant that is one of the biggest companies in the world." In this interview, Gamasutra chats with Paolo Pedercini of la Mollindustria to grill him about the game so to speak.
How did you get your start in the game industry?
Wrong question - in Italy there's no game industry. But in compensation, we have a lively game criticism scene.
What is the history behind la Molleindustria?
We are essentially media-activists and artists, people who try to transform media in a creative way to stimulate critical thought. You know, we have a big problem with media control here: our prime minister who controls all the three public TV channels is also the owner of the other three commercial channels. So during the last years many grassroots movements started to focus their energies into alternative communication means like independent news websites, small pirate TV broadcasts or various communicative performances in public spaces. We simply try to use video games and viral content in the same way.
What is your experience as a European developer and what differences do you see between the European and American game development cultures?
Well as I told you before there isn't a game development culture here and I suppose we could say the same about the rest of Europe (France and the UK excluded). Anyway, the lack of means and a real industry can in some way be an opportunity. Since the game industry is quite similar to the movie industry we could make a comparison.
Before World War II, there was a big movie production industry in Italy. After the war, the industry was destroyed but a new wave of directors took the lack of means as stimulus to shoot film strictly related to the everyday life. It was the most important season of Italian cinema, the so-called "neo-realism" that deeply influenced the French "Nouvelle Vague" or the English "free cinema".
I think Hollywood-style budgets are not necessary to develop clever and successful video games and with the Internet we no longer need big distribution channels. So why do people always assume that a market dominated by big companies is the only possible way? It's just a cultural limit.
What is your company's production model?
Cooperativism? Well, we often do commercial works (not credited as Molleindustria) but for projects like the McDonald's game, our team works like a small political collective or simply a group of friends.
Your design philosophy seems to aim at freeing games from "the dictatorship of entertainment." It's a keen phrase, how and when did it come to you?
I can't remember, it probably came to me when I read a Will Wright's quote. He said that Sim City's gameplay was conceived only to maximize the entertainment factor and hadn't any political statements. I strongly disagreed, because all games (and the Sim series in a special way) are subjective visions of our world, are reflections of author's ideas and beliefs. So the claim is not about making games that are not entertaining but about demystifying the political neutrality of the entertainment products ("it's only a game") by making games whose main point is not to keep the player hours and hours in front of a screen.
It seems like the satire of your titles and your status as an independent developer converge nicely, both are aiming to be free of market pressures. What's your take on the mainstream industry? Do you see market pressures dominating the medium?
Of course, but I don't think it's just a matter of sales. The mainstream video game industry is deeply integrated with the other industries: J.C. Herz brightly described it as the military-entertainment complex, but also consider how the hyper realistic 3D games drive the market of hardware or how licensed game titles increase the value of brands like Star Wars. All these factors limit the freedom of game developers.
|The McDonald's Video Game|
Why did you single out McDonald's as your subject, why not another fast food brand?
Simply because it's the biggest and the most well-known brand. We could also use a generic fictional brand but we thought this would weaken the relation with everyday life.
In recent years there's been a growing awareness of the problems with the fast food industry, from 2001's non-fiction book, Fast Food Nation, to 2004's Super Size Me. Was your procedural critique of McDonald's inspired by these works in any way? Do you see a growing awareness of the downsides to major corporate brands in consumers at large?
Yes, we were strongly inspired by essays like J. Rifkin's "Beyond meat" or N. Klein's "No logo". And this is a very important point because when you create a simulation you have to start from well-founded information. A procedural critique can only show an interpretation of how some processes are linked to some others. And, to tell the truth, this is more than an inspiration, we tried to turn these studies into a playable form.
There is a growing awareness in consumers, because intellectuals, artists and social movements started to critique corporations and not only governments or political formations. People are quickly becoming aware that big companies' interests define the western governments' political agenda.
What advantages and disadvantages do you think a satirical video game holds in comparison to other mediums seeking to explore these issues?
Games can reach people who might not normally be receptive to political messages. Games and non-linear texts in general can easily describe very complex systems such as the economic and social ones. Ted Friedman once said that it's easier to imagine a video game based on Marx's Capital than a movie. Anyway games have many rhetorical potentials that are almost unexplored, we are still at the beginning.
The disadvantages are many. For instance, it's very difficult to embed a good narration in good gameplay and there are no good examples of games which describe human psychology and emotions. Moreover, you always perceive the limitations implied by a computational medium: everything is described by numbers and algorithms, the quantity is more important than quality.
What was the development timeframe for The McDonald's Video Game?
It's hard to say, we develop our non-commercial games in our off-work periods. We had to stop working on the game in favor to other games and projects. We started working on it one year ago but it's not very indicative.
I've tried to play The McDonald's Video Game straight, no GMOs, no hormones, no industrial solvent, yet I would often have beef shortages when following this strategy. Did you balance the game to demonstrate that these corruptions are inherent in the fast food business?
Yes, you got it.
On the other hand, using animal flour in the cow feed seemed to cause more trouble than it was worth, leading to mad cow disease and generally requiring more micromanagement. From what I understand about your design, you have constraints simulating necessary evils on one hand, and on the other hand you have business practices that are self-defeating and, really just stupid. It's like you gave the option as bait for the player's in-game greed.
That's a good portrayal of the gameplay. Playing fair is not sufficient to satisfy the board of directors but on the other hand using dirty (but unfortunately very similar) tricks, you produce medium and long-term effects and consumer dissent that equally threaten your company. We wanted to explain why we think that fast-food economy is unsustainable and a fair meat industry can only be a marketing claim.
In most games constraints are balanced to provide a challenge against the user in approaching a specific goal. You're game is different, how would you describe the challenge you sought to create, and how would you describe the game's goal?
Specific goals are not always necessary, especially in simulation and tycoon games. It is implied that the player's goal is to make the system work, but as it happens, in SimCity, you have many degrees of freedom. There are many ways to succeed in the McDonald's game. There's a forum on the official site where players share tips and strategies. Anyway many users were disappointed about the lack of a final goal. We can only answer that in the reality of capitalism, there are no final goals, we're all stuck in a system where the few live to make more and more money and most of the people are always trying to live better or simply survive. In the game, you take the part of the few.
You seemed to put a lot of satirical craft into the writing and representational graphics in the game. I remember clicking on the Executive Vice President, reading his complaint that growth was not sufficient, and feeling a sort of loathing that this balding compost heap is complaining that they're not making profits quickly enough. The marketer with the perpetually lit joint hanging out of her mouth was also a nice touch. Do you think simplified, representational graphics are more complimentary to a game's design than hyper realistic 3D models? What role do you think written text has in game design?
The use of simplified but meaningful graphics is one of the most disregarded chances in game designs of the 3D-dominated era. After decades of symbolic representations, the new technologies which emerged in the mid-'90s gave the possibility to make photorealistic representations of reality. You can find many analogies in the history of art.
But the hyperrealism is not the only way, and maybe now is the time to reflect on the opportunities we lost. Fortunately there's a new wave of stylish game designers, especially in the online games scene.
We usually give a lot of importance to written texts, without texts you probably wouldn't understand the irony of our games.
Who's designed better persuasive/political games in your opinion, Gonzalo Frasca or Ian Bogost?
This is an unfair question; I love both Gonzalo's and Ian's works! September 12th is very elegant but games like Take Back Illinois and Activism are more ambitious and wide ranging. But we mustn't forget games like Futurefarmers' Antiwargame or the almost unknown Vigilance 1.0 by the French artist Martin Le Chevallier.
Game as essay; is this a natural fit for the computer medium? What future do you see for persuasive/political games?
There's nothing natural in computers. Using games as essays is just one of the many approach. In the future I'd like to see more social movements and associations betting on games as a means of communication. It also would be great to investigate the possibilities of multiplayer online games.
After playing the game for over an hour, I began to have a sharp craving for a fast food burger. Would you consider this an example of emergent behavior?
Really? Many players had the opposite feeling. Playing with an empty stomach is unhealthy.