I'm playing a video game about Kinko's, and I hate it. Not hate as in "This game is boring and lame," but more in the sense of "This is flashbacking me to my retail days."
In Disaffected!, a free online game, I'm controlling a Kinko's employee who has to deal with a horde of customers demanding instant service. If I don't get their crappy orders quick enough, I lose points.
So what's the point? Disaffected! blends culture jamming and game design to spawn a new breed of activist gaming whose purpose is not merely to entertain but also to educate.
Puppeteering the Kinko's slaves, I'm learning about the sterility of working retail, the chaos of a 10-customer lineup and the painstaking process of finding files that have been rearranged by other employees. I may not be enjoying this game the way I do NBA2K6, but I'm quietly smirking when customers leave in a huff cuz I can't comply with their orders.
Persuasive Games, the maker of Disaffected!, calls this type of gamescape anti-advergaming.
"That's the name we've given to games that speak against companies rather than in their favour," says Ian Bogost, founder of Atlanta-based Persuasive. "The goal of the game is to raise questions about Kinko's service, not just to make fun of the workers."
It looks like gamers enjoy bashing business. Disaffected! has been downloaded more than 350,000 times, and that number also includes a most unlikely faction: Kinko's employees. Bogost says he's collected dozens of stories from Kinko's staff who use the game as a part of their ongoing struggle against the company's corporate culture. What's this, video games as human resources tools?
Bogost views Disaffected! as an ideal way to depict how things work or don't work.
"The player experiences first-hand how customer service at Kinko's is broken," he says. "This sort of experience produces empathy by allowing players to occupy a role they don't normally play."
Something else that emerges from activist gaming is the notion that video games don't necessarily have to be capital-F fun. Bogost says they can be meaningful in other ways, like speaking to social ills.
Joining the games-for-change movement is the MTV-sponsored Darfur Is Dying, which puts a player either inside a refugee camp shelter or outside foraging for water.
Halo it is not, and rightly so: one of the game's designers told reporters at the launch that "it's about very serious subjects that are meant to be taken seriously."
Button-mashing do-gooders can also get grassroots by trying The Organizing Game, where players become "door knockers" seeking to strengthen their community. Already, the game has been used to train activists from more than 20 organizations in California.
But the most scathing critique wrapped in a video game belongs to the Italian-based McDonald's Videogame. As the multinational corporation, you'll pump cattle with additives, bulldoze villages to grow grain, coerce government interests and scientific evidence and manipulate employees, all to hoard the highest profit. It's deceptively simple and, like McDonald's food, strangely addictive.
Technology as an accessory for activism is nothing new, but Bogost would like see video games treated with respect. It's an art form, he argues, much like literature and film.
"And activist gaming is one way we are expanding the possibilities of video games," he says. "One day we'll look back on the vast majority of current games and laugh at how unsophisticated our understanding was of the medium's capabilities."