Bowling for Dictators, and the False Promise of Games

On a very basic level, games encourage players to learn and develop mastery through a process of practice and failure. Playing a game like Super Mario Bros. for the first time is an exercise in learning what each button does (run, jump, etc.) and how to move through a level without dying. Much like the movie Groundhog Day, through failure and repetition, one starts to gain more agency and mastery.

Within a game, a player typically learns better ways to play and develops greater agency and ability to get their desired outcome. They learn techniques and strategies. In other words, you learn how to play the game and to win – if only in the world of the game.

Games can often give a false sense of power.

I came across an experimental game called Fascist Falldown that made me think about this contraction between in-game action and real-world inaction. Fascist Falldown is a bowling game where mobile devices are placed on small stands as pins, each showing a dictator. Players take turns throwing “the ball of democracy” to bowl down the dictators.

By applying the logic of video games to real life, it exposes central problems with central assumptions of video games.  

Nevermind the fact that some of the worst dictators were voted in, “Democracy” being the magic bullet to remove dictators is the sort of logic that essentially installed American-approved dictators across the world in what’s become known as “democratic imperialism”.

Similarly, the solution of killing dictators does very little to address the actual circumstances that led to their rise to power, nor does killing world leaders seem in-line with democratic values.

The sense of power and superiority that some games give us lie in the face of our powerlessness that continues when we just treat global issues as a game.

Some people might say there are some things that are too serious for games. But it might be better to say that complexity and nuanced issues demand games with a similar level of sophistication.

Games are very important to our development, and they’re an opportunity to deal with situations that we may experience in real life. For instance, oral debates or sports help us hone our abilities to grapple with arguments and stay level-headed in physically stressful situations. The abstract skills we learn in these games help us deal with the real world. They actually enable action by preparing us to engage in real world situations that could have greater consequences than in the play world of games.

Games could certainly be used as a way to elicit real change, but they should prepare someone for real action rather than just placate games with symbolic victories.

We might have to take games a lot more seriously.

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