Continuing with the protest game theme (something that I’ve found increasingly interesting of late), recently I played a few rounds of the McDonalds videogame.
The premise is that you’re running McDonalds (no coy alternative parody names here — they frankly use the brand and icons throughout) and must make decisions about how to raise and feed cattle, run your employment lines, and set up advertising systems. Some of your options are pretty disturbing: there are a range of hormones and animal-byproduct-based feeds that you can use to bulk up the cows, for instance. You can bulldoze rainforest and steal land used to feed the local population in third-world countries. And if you overgraze pasture for too many years in a row, it will lose fertility and eventually become an unrecoverable wasteland. There are plenty of opportunities for villainy.
The press I’ve read on the game generally suggests that it is meant to make us all question McDonalds and similar corporations. Personally, I found myself feeling unexpectedly sympathetic for the corporation.
Partly this is because the system can be quite hard and not always apparently fair. If you don’t get the business off the ground quickly and stably, you can go bankrupt very fast. Meanwhile, your opponents and critics — everyone from the employees to the disgruntled upper management to environmentalist student groups — are demanding and uncooperative and rarely seem to appreciate your achievements. Employees eventually grow sullen and angry, more or less regardless of how you treat them. (The range of treatment options is not broad, I grant.) Similarly, environmentalist groups seemed to get angry at me even if I faithfully abstained from mowing down rainforest, rotated my use of land to avoid depleting pastures, and steered clear of genetically modified soy. The (apparent) unresponsiveness of these groups made them seem unreasonable, and I quickly came to regard them as an irritating force of nature that would periodically lodge protests no matter what I did, rather than as a reasonable set of people representing attitudes I might agree with.
The other thing that emerged as I played is that it’s not actually advantageous to the company in the long run to make use of some of the more diabolical actions. Having a feed lot full of sick cows — or worse, cows with Mad Cow disease — raised all kinds of expenses and liabilities. It was much cheaper and safer to run a clean, efficient business. Similarly, my pasture land was easier to maintain if I didn’t overgraze it; less intensive pasture use extended the life of the territory and reduced the amount of time I had to spend overseeing my land use rotations (and the cost of doing so, since whenever I changed the usage of land, I had to spend money).
With a bit of practice, I was able to achieve a comparatively stable, long-earning company that wasn’t turning all my territory into desert-land and only rarely poisoned consumers. (And not intentionally! If there had been some way to make the feedlot automatically kill diseased cows, I would have set it to do so.)
Where I think the game is most incisive is in the treatment of the employees, though in game-play terms I got quite tired of having to manage their motivational issues. Still, from the point of view of the player, it is tempting to rapidly fire and replace anyone who has gotten burnt out, and only the protests of labor organizations curb this behavior. It did make me think: if you have completely unskilled labor, the temptation to treat your employees as expendable is (economically) high, and if you have a very large corporation, there may be no overriding links of friendship or collegiality to counteract this tendency.
I wasn’t ever able to make the anti-obesity lobby entirely happy, but the structure of the game prevented me from doing some of the things that fast food restaurants try in real life: presenting nutritional information explicitly, diversifying the product line to include healthier options, and so on.
Ultimately I concluded that it was possible to play the McDonalds corporation in a relatively friendly way, and that beyond that the game was rigged to preclude options that exist in real life (such as making deeper changes in where and how animals are raised for meat, changing the product line or the employee relations in some fundamental way, etc.). This conclusion fits the game’s parodic framing. It presents itself (though with some disclaimers if you look in the right places) as an advergame for McDonalds, one intended to demonstrate how running the kind of fast food restaurant that consumers and stockholders want just isn’t always compatible with perfect environmental virtue, but that they really do the best they can. In other words, the point of the game is turned back to point at the consumer: are you complicit in this system by eating here? (In my case, no — I eat at fast food restaurants extremely rarely and only under duress; this is less due to a moral stance than it is to the fact that I don’t like the food. Half the time, it gives me a stomach-ache.)
I’m not sure that the game is equally good at investigating whether all the dysfunctional aspects of the current system are necessary, or whether there could be a fast food company that was successful but dramatically more responsible about its food sourcing and management practices.