If Ian Bogost has his way, playing video games will soon become a popular way of sticking it to the man.
Or, for starters, sticking it to Kinko's.
An assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a commentator and developer of politically minded video games, Bogost's latest project is "Disaffected!," a free downloadable computer game that puts players in the role of a FedEx Kinko's employee.
From an overhead view, a "Disaffected!" gamer plays by steering an employee of the famous copy store around furniture islands behind the Kinko's counter, taking and fulfilling orders as fast as they can. Customers line up, and their impatience swells in a circle above their head until they storm out, meaning an opportunity to score points is lost. Without warning, the player-controlled employee will get confused (controls suddenly invert: right means left, front means back). Worse, they sometimes simply stop working.
"We had two goals with this game," Bogost told MTV News. "One was to parody this experience that I think is universal enough to customers of that store that I think it will be well-received and we can have a laugh. But also to dig under that and say, 'What's going on here? What's happening? Is there some sort of labor issue at work? Is it just a bunch of seditious kids who couldn't care less about their jobs? Are they getting paid crappy wages and are disinclined to get their job done well?' "
Bogost doesn't think the game provides the answers. "The point is not necessarily to criticize the frontline workers in these stores but rather to open up a set of problems that the player may then think about," he said. "We're hoping this experience is a gateway drug to more sophisticated critique."
In recent years, game makers disinterested in simply making games for fun and profit have rallied around the cause of "serious games." Such games are message-driven interactive experiences designed to teach and sometimes make players think. Popular examples include "Food Force," a United Nations World Food Programme strategy game, and "America's Army," a first-person shooter from the United States Army. In October, mtvU opened a $50,000 contest for viewers to create a serious game to raise awareness of the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan.
What Bogost hopes to inspire now is a subcategory that he calls "anti-advergaming." Such games, like "Disaffected!" would stand apart from the many Internet pop-up and Web site games that are actually designed to sell everything from airline tickets and iPods to movies and beer.
Messages against consumer culture do crop up in mainstream gaming from time to time. Expressed via satirical radio stations and scenery like the patriotic gun-store franchise Ammu-Nation, "Grand Theft Auto" titles contain numerous satirical jabs against how Americans live and shop. Even a bonus mode in Nintendo's "Wario Ware Twisted" that allows gamers to atomize an SUV with a cheese grater suggests that the designers at even the biggest game makers see their medium as a way to make a point. But neither game, unlike "Disaffected!," makes it its point to simply make a point.
"Disaffected!" was developed over the course of three months with a team of five at Bogost's development company, Persuasive Games. The designers toyed with the idea of letting players control the customers but decided against it. "Giving the player the experience that A, is frustrating, and B, they already know everything about, doesn't sound like a very compelling experience," he explained.
Serious games are supposed to have a message, but they're not supposed to be so serious that they're no fun to play. Work-based games have been fun before: "Paperboy" and the bartending "Root Beer Tapper," for example, are considered gaming classics. But designing a game based on a job that isn't supposed to be fun presented a challenge. That's where multiplayer gaming came in, allowing player one to undermine the service of player two. Two players sitting side-by-side can gain new insight into what it's like to work with other members of the Kinko's team, and get a kick out of tripping each other up or hiding each other's work orders in the process.
Despite the ample "FedEx Kinko's" signage decorating the game's environment, the game is clearly not designed to sell people on the store. It opens with a disclaimer denying any affiliation with the company and proclaims that it is a "digital parody" of the chain. Bogost declined to say if or how he vetted the content of his game with FedEx Kinko's. But he said he didn't want to mask the parody behind a Brand X façade. He'd been bothered by an episode of a crime show he recently saw that clearly centered on Wal-Mart but avoided naming the store. "I was very disturbed at how leery we are about talking about the real world," he said. So he decided to name names.
Stand-up comedians and editorial cartoonists are paid to skewer society, but it's not clear who will pay people to do so with video games. Given that "Disaffected!" is free, Bogost won't be making money from anti-advergaming anytime soon. Still, he hopes it will catch on possibly among aspiring game developers who are eager enough to work for free. "A lot of the most interesting social-statement games are being produced by young people with a lot of spare time," he said, likening the phenomenon to the folk music of decades ago.
Bogost is now girding himself from criticism, including charges that making a game just to make a statement about Kinko's is more trouble than its worth. "Is this the most socially sharp example of this kind of critique?" he asked, adding that he didn't think it was. "This is not about Wal-Mart or McDonald's, which have a whole mess of social issues that we could very easily address, but it's a start down that road."
To find out how to download "Disaffected!," visit PersuasiveGames.com.