PRACTICE 2015, Hamilton, and the power fantasy

So I’m at PRACTICE, one of my favorite game design conferences.

This year it has featured a lot of people talking in various ways about narrative design and the power fantasy: Meg Jayanth on the unfairness and hidden statistics in 80 Days; Erik Svedäng talking about fragile game design in the intentionally breakable else Heart.Break(), where it’s very possible (or even easy) for the player to wander the game world at length without making any progress; Anna Kipnis on the narrative power of simulation as exemplified in Dear Leader; people on Twitter discussing the fantasy of violence demonstrated in Ben Ruis’ talk about Aztez. There’s been lots of discussion about the appeal of reducing the power of the player character in order to express the experiences of marginalized people, to allow the NPCs to speak (such as the side characters in 80 Days), and to demonstrate problematic systems.

The constraint-and-powerlessness theme comes up a lot in interactive fiction. And often to good effect! Squinky’s mechanics exploring social awkwardness, IF works about mental illness and slanted systems; my own experiments in Bee with getting the player to accept that they can’t win the spelling bee and that pursuing that goal isn’t necessarily rewarding.

Sometimes, though, I feel like this is still too easy. It’s challenging to accept that there are situations where you can’t do anything useful, but once you have accepted that fact, you’re off the hook. I don’t feel responsible for the misfortunes of the side characters I met in 80 Days, since it is impossible to alter them. I don’t really feel complicit in the system that makes their oppression possible. In real life, recognizing that the system around me is broken can become a reason to withdraw and disengage from politics and activism of any kind.

So I’ve realized from this discussion that there’s another kind of player agency experience that I also want to explore. I mentioned this during the Feedback Loop session yesterday, but it was a new enough set of thoughts that I’m not sure I articulated it very well. Specifically: the situation where you have limited but not zero power.

This is, I think, the reality of democracy. I am morally responsible for the actions of my government and for the oppressive social systems I belong to. I did not design them, but I have not dismantled them. It is, of course, impossible that I could dismantle them singlehandedly. In fact, it’s unlikely that I will ever make any visible difference. To the extent that that there are obviously effective ways for one person to change a large system, most involve extremely violent or disruptive actions that would be a net negative. Nonetheless, the difficulty of making a difference does not remove the responsibility to try to improve both the immediate situation of the marginalized and the system itself.

Counterfeit Monkey is about this topic, but it does let you make a major difference, even if there’s ambiguity about whether that difference was the right one to make. Cape gets at this a bit — one of the things I really liked about that game — but largely through story, and via a protagonist who does take violent action.

So I’m curious whether there’s a possible game about the citizen power that is so slow and so often unsatisfying that one is tempted to just give up.

This sounds like terrible game design, though, right? I mean, who wants to play a game in which the majority of your actions sink in silence, never yielding any perceivable consequence, and yet the game harangues you for your failings if you don’t keep plugging on? What if the only win is that things don’t get as much worse as they might have otherwise? What if the only win is that the protagonist feels slightly less guilty at the end? Is that even a useful metric?

Last night I missed the PRACTICE party in order to see Hamilton. Two weeks ago I’d heard of Hamilton because I had various friends obsessing about it, but I hadn’t actually listened to it. Then I stayed with friends in Columbus who played me the cast album, and it immediately became a must-see, which was awkward because the show is sold out pretty much through March. Still, too much money later, I had a mezzanine ticket for Saturday night. (It was great, by the way. If you go, though, I recommend you listen to the cast album a few times first: the delivery is so rapid and energetic that you’ll be grateful that you already know the lyrics.)

One of the many themes of Hamilton is the idea that leadership (or good democratic citizenship in general) is slow and hard and murky work; that neither the people in the moment nor those looking back from the perspective of history can really judge the value of those efforts.

Maybe this is something that we can only address narratively. Maybe it’s too hard to express in mechanics. But I’d like to think about how one might try.