The Power of Video Games in the Age of Trump
By building games to critique Republican rhetoric, the designers behind GOP Arcade stumbled upon a new way to make a point.
Illustration by Gavin Spence.
In Bomb the Right Place, players are told "the world thinks America is weak," which mean it's time to start bombing the shit out of some foreign countries and get some respect! If you choose to enact diplomacy, it's game over because "you made America look weak." If you don't bomb anyone, same deal. But when tasked with actually bombing someone—like, say, Kabul—players are presented with a largely unlabeled map and a cursor. If you bomb the wrong country, you still win. "I think the got they still got the message," the game reads, and asks you to try again.
Bomb the Right Place is part of a larger series of pointed games in the GOP Arcade, which spent the better part of 2016 skewering the political rhetoric of the Grand Old Party and, quite often, Donald Trump. Some of their games, like Bomb the Right Place, manage to relay an uncomfortable, powerful message through game design, regardless of political persuasion. (Though I'm a progressive who often disagrees with American foreign policy in the Middle East, I couldn't find Kabul on a map, and I shut the game off with a sense of shame. It worked.)
Thoughts & Prayers, made in response to last year's hate-driven mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando that took the lives of 49 people and wounded 53 others, is similarly agonizing. "America faces an epidemic of mass shootings," reads the game's opening text, as Contra-style 16-bit music blares loudly. "It's up to you to stop them." Your only options, though, are to "think" and "pray," riffing on the Republican Party's penchant for empty messages on social media after outbreaks of violence, rather than working towards gun control legislation.
If you try the one other option, banning assault weapons sales, "WEAK!" shrieks across the screen. And at the end, after dozens of shooters have occurred, it tallies up your high score:
Not all of them are as impactful. Some, like, Trump's Pussy Grabber or Get Trump's Taxes, are little more than goofy distractions.
The games driving GOP Arcade are largely built by Chris Baker, Brian Moore, and Mike Lacher, three individuals with little-to-no game design experience prior to this. I recently had a chance to speak with Baker and Moore about their experiences with GOP Arcade, whether their games are more than just echo chambers for people who already believe in the message it's making, and how games are strikingly capable of cutting through today's media noise.
(This interview has been lightly edited for readability purposes and length.)
Waypoint: Had either of you experimented with game design before?
Chris Baker: No history in video gaming.
Brian Moore: Longtime player, first-time designer.
Chris Baker: If you look at our portfolios, they include a pretty wide range of interesting areas, everything from apps to videos and bots and different things. We're always bouncing around between wanting to do new things. The platform that we build all of these on is called Construct2, and I had a friend that got into it for some reason, and it just seemed like something we could do pretty easily. We had never made games before, so we said "Well, we're try our hand at it!"
Mike Lacher [another collaborator on GOP Arcade] and I had always joked about turning news into games. We worked at BuzzFeed a couple of years ago, and seemed like an interesting area to get into, but nothing came of that at BuzzFeed. We thought it'd be fun to do things around the election because these things take time and we knew certain events would come down the pipeline. It was the perfect way to focus it.
Through interactivity, games have a particular power, and they're able to convey a message in ways other media can't. By building games, have you been able to better understand why that is?
Moore: We probably have different interpretations between the two of us. My take is that it immerses [the player] a bit more, especially for someone who doesn't really read as much, or it takes too long to read as much. A person like that would probably be able to get more out of a game in a short amount of time and feel more immersed in the situation, rather than reading text. That's one thing, for sure.
And, obviously, there's the nostalgia aspect to our games; all of them are 8-bit style, so there's this draw to them automatically. But if you looked at games that are deeper—the example I always use is Papers, Please—it really does fully immerse you, and makes you experience something in narrative that leads you along and drops a hammer on you. It's just another way of creative storytelling. It makes you feel like you're immersed in it, which gives you that much more of a strong reaction.
Moore: That's all wrong! [laughs]
There's so much shit going on these days. You could pick a dozen news topics about Trump and the GOP. How do you figure out what makes sense to build around?
Baker: That's a good question. It's very haphazard.
Moore: It's almost too many. [laughs] We're all in a Slack channel. They start in all different ways. Sometimes it's just the name of the game that starts it; that's a common thing that starts it. You'll think of a game that fits it perfectly— a concept. You'll literally type out the name of the game and you'll know what it's about and sometimes that's enough to spur the beginning of making one of these games.
EpiPen Tycoon is a perfect example. That was something said by Mike, I think, in Slack—" EpiPen Tycoon"! We were immediately all laughing and immediately working on what that could be and how it would work out. We've all played the tycoon games and we knew what the EpiPen deal was at the time, when it was a bigger news story. We just fill in the blanks as we go, but sometimes we talk about current events. We're always talking about current events. Basically, if an idea makes all of us laugh all the time, we'll sometimes go for it.
Baker: The Voter Suppression Trial one, that's a case where we always knew we wanted to do something around voter suppression. We also knew we couldn't let an Oregon Trail reference escape us—Brian, especially was really hot for it.
Moore: Big dysentery fan. [laughs]
For a long time, video games were synonymous with "fun." That's less true these days, but "fun" is one way to hook people in. How do you balance between the message you're trying to convey and this nebulous idea of "fun" that some people expect when loading a game?
Moore: Some of our games are anti-games—they're not fun. That's part of the idea. If you look at Thoughts & Prayers, it's barely a game. It just ekes by because it looks like a game. You can't win it, there's no way to win it—that's the idea. If we looked solely at impact, if we looked at how many people see it, how many people talk about it— I think that's probably our focus, at the end of the game, is get people thinking about these things.
The games that actually had the least amount of real "gameplay" do the best in that regard, starting those conversations. EpiPen Tycoon is, I guess, a little bit more of a structured game than Thoughts & Prayers, but it's still— you play for, what a minute? And that's what we're doing, this really short term gameplay.
I think the idea, the concept that we're working in, takes precedence over fun gameplay, depending on what it is. Science Fighter's got more real gameplay, feels more like an actual side-scrolling shooter. What would you say is the most fun game we've made? I'd say Bomb The Right Place. [laughs]
Baker: People really respond to that one.
That one made me the most uncomfortable. It exposed a lot of my own ignorance about Middle East geography, even if I was on-board with the anti-war message.
Moore: There's only a couple of games like that in our assortment, which give you an "a-ha" moment while you're playing. Those are usually the most powerful, I think. It takes them a couple of playthroughs to realize they're doing nothing, and that works out well for that.
I kept bombing the wrong place, feeling shitty, and had to walk away.
Baker: I thought it would be interesting that would be an underhanded educational piece. [laughs] After playing that a couple times, the next time you look at a map, you actually become more familiar with those countries and city locations. That's a broad skewering of hawkish Republican mentality, not even necessarily talking about a specific person's stance or lack of knowledge. Again, that was one of the ones that we had to keep vague enough to not feel old, by the time we launched it. I was fascinated by this thing being ridiculously funny, stupid, and educational.
Thoughts & Prayers works because it underscores the hypocrisy of empty rhetoric; thoughts and prayers don't save anyone from a gunshot. But at the same time, playing that game and feeling smug about myself underscored some of the problems during the Obama age; it was easy to sign a petition or tweet as part of a hash tag and feel like you were making a difference. But that's not actually how change works.
Moore: We could just swap it for posts and tweets and have a new game. [laughs]
Or make it Change.org: The Game.
More: That's pretty funny. [laughs] Write a bunch of signatures!
And look, I get it: you don't like Republicans and their message. But the Democratic party is hardly without sin. Have you thought about broadening the message?
Baker: Initially, the idea that we were playing around with—news as games—was very broad. We actually went down the road of focusing on the GOP. Certainly, it was born out of the idea of us being Democrats.
Moore: No, you've given it away! [laughs]
Baker: We thought by really focusing on that, we could increase some of the press awareness of the whole endeavor. We thought both sides of the crowd would get riled up by the idea of someone pumping out these games, specifically about one party.
Moving forward, we want to move away from that and get into doing games about everything in life, not necessarily political stuff. We might still make political games if something really interesting happens or the right idea presents itself, but we've been loosely talking about this as a John Oliver-type commentary on all things societal, where maybe twice a month you see how we interpret some issue. It might be how awful the L train is [in New York] or Gluten Free Monsters. [laughs] We want to shift into broader themes.
Moore: We touched on that with EpiPen because EpiPen Tycoon was not geared at any specific political party. In fact, the CEO's father is a Democrat! That was dipping our toes in that territory, doing something more general. We've got stuff that we're working on now that is less politically charged, more about current events that are not actually related to politics. I think this was a great way to test it out, to see if there was an opportunity to make this kind of content, if people found it interesting, if it got people thinking and talking. We feel lucky that it actually did do that. The question now is whether we can broaden our targets and to a larger group of people and more than just politics.
"It's depressing when you think about a lot of people who are well off or don't have the privilege [that I do]—being a white straight dude—are going to be totally fucked. The more that we can make people laugh and think about this or anything more deeply...maybe that's a coping mechanism, too."
Though it's the "GOP Arcade," it's clearly targeted at Democrats and progressives. Have you had any experience breaking through to the other side? Republicans play games, too! Have you heard from anyone who said "hey, you've got a point."
Moore: That's a good question. We're in these bubbles and it's a little difficult to get there. I remember when we did Thoughts & Prayers and I was checking to see where our traffic was coming from, and one of them was coming from this message board—an AR-15 message board! [laughs] I went and they were saying "idiot liberals at it again" or something and linked to the URL and there were a bunch of rolling eye emojis in side of it. I registered an account and started conversing with them. I don't remember the details of the conversation, but that would be amazing if we could actually get a conversation going between the sides.
If there's anything that feels worrisome about what's going on is that it has the potential to widen the gap even further between people in this country, which is in and of itself one of the biggest crisis we have on our hands. That's probably the closest experience I've had, a conversation with someone on an AR-15 website. [laughs]
Baker: I usually spend a fair amount of time watching how people share. Not just this project, but all of my projects. It's interesting to do because it lends interesting insight into how I should be coming up with with new ideas. Facebook is probably where the cleanest conversations, in terms of someone posting a piece of content and then their friends chime in. It's hard to gain access to those conversations. I'm really curious to see the 50-long comment threads that took place among people who shared our games.
I think these things are still important, even if we are stuck in the algorithmic bubble, where only people who already agree with the message are seeing it. I think we're having to formulate arguments that, perhaps, people can't make themselves, and reinforcing that is always a good thing, even if it never escapes that bubble. I still think there's a use value there. It's such an interesting question that I don't know if we'd ever really have an answer.
It might be possible to break through with less immediately polarizing topics, too. Everyone was pissed off about the EpiPen stuff.
Baker: The political stuff...there's just too much noise right now.
More: Just my New York Times push alerts alone— that's a game, just dismissing those alerts! I'm playing that 24/7 and it's hard. I still haven't beaten it.
You've got this outlet to get your views out there, but how do you feel about the next four years?
Baker: My views have really sharpened over the last few weeks. I'm excited, man. I don't know. I think this is going to be incredible.
Moore: And when he decided it's going to be incredible, my interpretation is that Chris, at the end of the day, likes to watch something burn. Like a fire pit, there's something awe inspiring about fire burning.
Baker: I'm a born-again anarchist. I'm ready to venture into the wilderness and set up a camp or something. [laughs] [pause] I don't know. It's going to be fun to watch.
Moore: I could not have a more opposite response. I'm terrified and nauseous on a very regular basis worrying about what's going on. One could argue this is Chris' way of coping with it all, by laughing at it from afar. [laughs] Which I don't blame at all, and in some ways, it's a smart way to deal with it.
It'll be...interesting. There will definitely be a lot to talk about. If we're talking about solely content we can create, it'll be the most fertile ground possible. You could see how every alert I get from the New York Times could be a game in and of itself.
But it's depressing when you think about a lot of people who are well off or don't have the privilege [that I do]—being a white, straight dude—are going to be totally fucked. The more that we can make people laugh and think about this or anything more deeply...maybe that's a coping mechanism, too.