For anyone anxious about global warming or just angry with the creators of the Big Mac, the new McDonald's video game presented at a conference in England on June 5 seemed almost too good to be true.
Andrew Shimmery-Wolf, an executive at a little-known interactive division of the burger giant, took his turn in a keynote address to kick off the International Serious Games Event, alongside developers and companies like Nokia and British Petroleum, showcasing "serious games" designed to express political and social views.
What Shimmery-Wolf showed was a game that indicted McDonald's' business practices.
Shimmery-Wolf and a colleague told the ISGE audience that a team of developers had cooked up a training tool for McDonald's managers and executives that took the form of a video game simulation of business, agriculture and the global climate. And what they found, he said, is that earnest McDonald's employees kept striving for virtual success in ways that wound up destroying the world.
"We tried to tell the players to do fewer of the things that were leading to calamity," he said, "to reduce emissions, stop cutting forests, etc. But they didn't. ... They might hold out for a while, but as soon as one took off towards greater profits, the rest did as well."
The game was an alarm from within, Shimmery-Wolf announced, alerting the company of the dangers of McDonald's' practices. "Although top management didn't react, many of the new hires who played it did and took the results to heart." And with that, he said, McDonald's Interactive intended to break away from the parent company to try and make things right.
Attendees were shocked and enthused. "I fully expected the guy to be sacked upon his return to work," said ISGE attendee Kevin Corti, the managing director of serious games company PIXELearning. "I can certainly confirm that the presentation had the halls alive with discussion afterwards."
Reached by phone on Thursday, a McDonald's Interactive representative told MTV News that the audience was clearly energized by the speech. "These are not revolutionaries in the audience," he said. "And yet as soon as McDonald's was saying to the audience, 'We are ready for revolution,' they were saying, 'OK. Let's go.' "
There was just one problem: The presentation was a hoax.
McDonald's Interactive isn't part of McDonald's. There never was a McDonald's Interactive video game.
Reached for comment Friday (June 9), McDonald's spokesperson Julie Pottebaum said, "This is an outright hoax and a complete misrepresentation of our people and our values. Anyone who knows the facts about McDonald's' social responsibility track record knows that we're a recognized leader on the environment."
The man who spoke to MTV News representing "Andrew Shimmery-Wolf" is a 37-year-old Parisian whose first name is Jean-Michel. His last name is as secret as the roster of five current and former McDonald's employees who joined him at the ISGE to pull one over on the estimated 100 game developers and corporate citizens in attendance.
"We did feel a little guilty," said Jean-Michel, who played a nonspeaking role in the hoax. But he felt fooling the well-meaning conference attendees had great merit. "We wanted people to imagine a real popular uprising as a possible and necessary thing. We wanted people to imagine that change. We wanted them to imagine it is coming from McDonald's."
ISGE's chief organizer, Dan Licari, did not respond to requests from MTV News for comment. "He can't be blamed, because nobody checks credentials for these conferences," said attendee Lisa Galarneau.
According to people involved in the hoax, the McDonald's Interactive charade began accidentally in early April, when an ISGE organizer reached out to the developers of a computer game called "McVideoGame" and mistook the satirical program for a product of the real McDonald's. In an e-mail, an anonymous member of the Italian consortium Molleindustria, which created "McVideoGame," said conference organizers wrote them a note that stated: "It would be a fantastic PR opportunity, let alone a chance for you to see what other organizations have achieved with Serious Games."
Sensing an opportunity, the Molleindustria team reached out to the loosely organized group to which Jean-Michel belongs. That group had called itself the McDonald's Resistance Collective and drew inspiration from a six-month 2003 occupation of a McDo restaurant — as they are called in France — to resist what members saw as unjust treatment of store employees and the environment. Jean-Michel said he and another McDonald's Interactive planner were among the strikers at the occupied restaurant in 2003.
They hatched a plan to exploit the ISGE's assumption that the conference was dealing with the real McDonald's. " 'Do we want to make it completely believable?' " Jean-Michel remembered the team asking. " 'Or do we want to do something very crazy and funny that will shock them and make them laugh?' We decided to do something serious because it is a serious issue."
They concocted screenshots for their nonexistent game, designed a professional-looking McDonaldsInteractive.com Web site and crafted their cover story about a breakaway division of the burger giant.
They reached out to the YesMen, a group of activists who managed to pull off a hoax presentation at a World Trade Organization meeting in 1999 and were advised to practice their story. They covered most bases, and according to attendees, there was little skepticism during the actual presentation.
By Monday evening, gaming blogs began to report about a stunning speech that had been made by McDonald's employees at a serious-game conference. Shortly thereafter, they began to sniff out the ruse. The McDonald's Interactive site had only been registered for a couple of months. Photos of the event seemed to peg the YesMen as the hoax's presenters.
Galarneau, who runs SocialStudyGames.com and gave a presentation at the conference, said she is 95 percent sure the YesMen were there. Jean-Michel would not deny their presence at the conference and admitted that the YesMen had, at the very least, advised his group to go ahead with the hoax and "not to worry about legal problems."
Since the big reveal, some ISGE attendees have expressed bemusement. Jean-Michel claimed that conference organizer Dan Licari called a colleague and said it was "very funny." But PIXELearning's Corti had a different reaction.
"I can't help but think that the perpetrators have used an event, a group of people and an industry that I would have thought they should be engaging with in a more constructive manner," he said in an e-mail. "They have damaged a fledgling event that was organized by a university, not an 'evil' [corporation], personally embarrassed the organizers, potentially annoyed other keynote presenters and, when small companies like mine are struggling to gain contracts to pay our staff, hurt those that could perhaps help them the most. To that extent, I have to say that I think it was ill-judged."
Now "McDonald's Interactive" is considering making a documentary about their presentation. "We will spend some time putting together a film about the event and seeing what distribution channels will like it," Jean-Michel said. "We want it to give hope and show that we are a mouse's width away from rebellion."