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These Designers Want to Keep Protest Alive via Games

The creators of 'Casual Games for Protestors' hope to prevent fatigue and encourage political engagement.

All images courtesy of Molleindustria and Harry Josephine Giles.

Only a month following Trump's inauguration, millions of people have filled city streets to contribute to the Women's March, airports have been filled to protest his immigration ban, there has even emerged a #ResistTrumpTuesdays campaign to encourage weekly demonstrations and rallies. For now, there is no sign of this stopping, with a strike planned on today's International Women's Day, plus the Tax Day March and March For Science protests upcoming in April. But how long will it be before protest fatigue sets in? 

This concern has weighed on the minds of game designer Paolo Pedercini (known for his work as Molleindustria) and multi-disciplinary artist Harry Giles

They note that the idea of protest only spoke to a small part of the U.S. population before Trump's presidential win back in November, and then overnight it became an urgent behavior for a lot more people. People who had never protested before were suddenly taking to the streets with angry placards. Not just once, but several times; their fuses have been lit and they're making it known.

"[There has] literally been one event every day this week in Pittsburgh," says Pedercini during our conversation. "I'm concerned that if at the moment of protest, if the event isn't stimulating enough, people who are not embedded in organizations and in structures might not have much to do, and get bored or tired of screaming at buildings over and over."

The solution? Protest games.

Pedercini and Giles launched an initiative called "Casual Games for Protesters" (based on Giles's Casual Games "for Casual Walkers" and "for City Walkers") in February, in the hope that it would help the spirit of protest endure. Simple enough, they are games meant to be played in pairs or groups during marches, rallies, and occupations, games that don't need much preparation. One of them is a variant on Rock, Paper, Scissors called "Peace, War, Revolution." Another, called "Mind Reading," has one person improvise a monologue for a cop, while the rest of the group has to guess which cop they've picked. There's also a variation of Bingo to be played during a speech, a game that involves guessing which country the U.S. will bomb next, and also a competitive clapping game.

Many of them come from folk games, Victorian parlor games, language games, and acting exercises. Due to that, they're not context specific, and many of them can even be played at home, which is how some of them are tested before they're published on the website. "There's a number of them that I've done at previous mobilizations, previous protests, previous trainings," Giles says. "And there's a few, I think only one or two of which have been published so far, that are explicitly training games for dealing with police tactics and police movements."

Both Pedercini and Giles have been able to draw on their experience as activists involved in organizing protests and marches over the years. Pedercini's activist history goes back more than 15 years, when he was embedded in the anti-globalization and anti-precarity movements in Milan, Italy. "There was a strong emphasis on street protests that are creative and playful, and somewhat more meaningful than the standard militant leftist approach," Pedercini says. He hopes that Casual Games for Protesters introduces more of that type of play to the current resistance movements.

Giles has been involved in environmental activism around the UK and organizing Climate Camp. Their hope is to take hold of the momentum in the protest space right now and feed it with games and playfulness that attracts more people to it. Giles is also especially conscious of how easily resistance fatigue can set in if the social forms of protest aren't subject to conversation and experimentation.

"People who have been involved in activism for a really long time might have a critique of the A-to-B march protest form, or they might have a critique of collaboration with the police," Giles says. They argue that what's needed is a way to educate people on the limitations of popular forms of protests and resistance methods. "Rather than linking people to a 3000 word essay on Jacobin, if you can get them to play a five minute game that illustrates some aspect of how protest functions and how the state functions, I think that's a much more effective learning tool," Giles says.

Browsing through the list of protest games, it's easy to see that many of them aren't simply play for the sake of it, they go further to provoke political thought or encourage certain types of actions. One of the games in particular, "Save or Smash," which has players decide whether to spare or destroy public monuments, begs the question of where Pedercini and Giles draw the line when it comes to encouraging vandalism and violence through protest games.

"My political position is that I'll endorse a diversity of tactics and never condemn the expression of somebody else's movement," says Giles. "I think often for activist organizations, getting into the meat of who supports what, and who says what about what tactic, and where the boundaries are of given movements and organizations, tends to be self-defeating for everyone involved."

Pedercini then chimes in with: "The smashing part is kinda optional, really."

"Yeah!" says Giles. "I mean it's up to the individual. But what I definitely want is for people to at least think about smashing things and decide for themselves what that means and why you would do that. But I fully endorse the act of smashing things up and then deciding what to do."

All of the protest games, and especially any that carry a degree of risk, like "Save or Smash," aren't published on the website without deliberation. Pedercini and Giles make sure to test the games and take turns making edits and changes in the Google Doc they use to write the rules of each one down. "There is a desire to put some things in there that push at boundaries that aren't entirely safe," Giles says. "I mean there is no such thing as a safe protest, there's always risks, it's just a question of managing risk. I think it's important to get people to think through risk and how they want to deal with it personally, and games can be part of that."

None of this is to say that the pair don't take some responsibility for the safety and actions of their players. In fact, they've taken the time to write a paragraph on the website to encourage players to consider the context in which they play the protest games. They note that events like the Ferguson Uprisings and the blockade of the Dakota Access Pipeline may not leave room for playfulness, but "may call for a different kind of play."

Expanding on this idea, Pedercini looks to the history of rituals, which have rules like games but aren't necessary playful—hence, a different kind of play. "It doesn't really make sense to play games when some kid gets shot by the police and you have a vigil," Pedercini says. "The Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock protest was led by Native Americans and involved actual tribal rituals, like water purification and things like that. It was apparently a big teaching moment for the allies that showed up there as they had very white, middle class ideas of what a protest or an occupation is."

So far, Pedercini and Giles have only edited out one game, and that was because they found it too conservative—"punching in the wrong direction," Giles says. But they don't see their protest games as being deeply political. While the attitudes that inform some of them come from a Marxist analysis of economics and post-structuralist understanding of power, they pale when compared to Pedercini's game To Build A Better Mousetrap, which teaches Marxist theory and the role of technology in automation, or Giles's theater game Class Act, which demonstrates the labor theory of value by implementing a factory. "Those were much more didactic games than any of these are," Giles says. "Apart from the ones that are training for particular forms of movement or behavior on a protest, very few of these are at all didactic. They're more playful and explorative than didactic, I think."

At the end our conversation Giles took the time to come up with a few tips for anyone looking to come up with their own protest game. "The world is made up of rules, of social conventions, patterns of behavior, of written and unwritten expectations," says Giles. "A starting point is looking at the rules that are already governing that content, which are already a kind of play, and then deciding how can you implement those as a game mechanic, how you can question the game mechanic. Look at the rules that exist and then use those as the grounds for writing a rule set for play."

Casual Games for Protesters is an ongoing project that Pedercini and Giles will continue to expand. They're committed to making games that are accessible no matter the protest but are also open to the idea of designing games for specific events. In fact, they say it might be necessary to move protest games in that direction after the first 100 days of Trump's presidency, once the resistance slows down, and a greater strategy towards endurance is needed.

[Disclosure: VICE Magazine will be publishing a selection of 'Casual Games for Protesters' in an upcoming edition.)