What can games teach us about democracy?

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“Are you happy with the amount of power that you have in your life?” the curator asks us. Oh God, I think, chugging my coffee, isn’t it a bit early for these kinds of questions? I’m meant to indicate my answer by walking either to an area marked “yes” or another marked “no” on the terrace of Somerset House, overlooking the Thames, shimmering in the spring sunlight. The question makes me feel strangely exposed. I need clarification, follow-up questions. But the small group that I’m part of is already shuffling around to answer, and I end up, somewhat pathetically, equivocating in the middle. The next question is even tougher: “Do you think democracy should be more playful?”

You might be forgiven for asking what games and democracy have in common. Yet Now Play This, a festival of experimental game design that took place last weekend as part of London Games Festival, offered a surprisingly robust exploration of the rich overlap between the two. “Games are basically the only cultural form that allow you to actively engage in a system of power,” says Now Play This director Sebastian Quack, “to explore having power over others and having power over yourself.” Like a democracy, a game is a system of rules created by a minority for a larger group. Games allow us to play different roles and so see the world and its problems from fresh perspectives, even empowering us to solve them ourselves.

The majority of mainstream games you might play on a home console do not ask sophisticated political questions. But this event was populated by experimental games from the artistic fringes of the gaming community. It opened with Ling Tan’s Playing Democracy, a giant game of Pong which allows the players to modify its rules, unbalancing the game’s fairness by adjusting the size of the goals and paddles on one side. I watched a child trounce his mother repeatedly because her paddle had shrunk so small that she couldn’t possibly win. He certainly seemed to be enjoying his lesson on systemic inequality in society.

‘Statues’ by collective Space Backyard follows the story of an arrogant king who believes he knows how to keep his subjects happy © Courtesy of Now Play This

Less glib was Chorus Effect by Joanna Bailie, Begüm Erciyas and Rob Ochshorn, an installation where you sit in a chair and read a passage from Francis Bacon’s utopian text New Atlantis into a microphone. As you do, an AI system accompanies you with a chorus of voice recordings of previous readers, just as your own recitation is captured to echo future readers. Somehow it has the feel of a game. You speed up, slow down and take unexpected pauses to try and outsmart the AI. The effect evokes joy in the harmony of all reading together but underneath is a sharp critique of conformity — if you say anything other than the preapproved text, your voice will ring out alone and unaccompanied. What is the value of individual expression, it asks, if yours is the only voice?

Another bite-sized and memorable game is Caroline Sinders’ Flag For Removal, which asks players to assume the role of a content moderator for a social network, judging whether to permit or remove reported posts, competing fruitlessly with an AI for speed and accuracy. If there is any concise argument for games’ extraordinary potential for empathy, it is this: furiously moderating an impossible stack of 60 messages in 30 seconds, while your boss sends you angry messages, knowing you’ll never outpace the AI, is extremely stressful. It’s a scathing indictment of the impossible spaces low-level tech workers are forced to inhabit in certain companies’ ruthless pursuit of greater AI-assisted efficiency.

Now Play This was not just about playing games, though — it was also about making them. Over the week leading up to the festival, Quack invited activists and artists to workshop new games around themes of democracy, with prototypes on display for weekend visitors. “To me the game design process is maybe more valuable for democracy than the finished game,” he says. “In play-testing and prototyping a game, you talk around an experience you had with an unfinished system and engage with the people building it. You treat it as a temporary structure and admit you don’t know if it’ll work. These are core skills that we desperately need to improve the systems that run our lives.”

On leaving the event, I had a clearer idea of what it could mean for democracy to be playful. Living under political structures that seem to resist change or improvement, we might long for the looser, more experimental and collaborative framework of thinking that games engender. In play we can imagine change, explore possible futures, and adjust the rules to reflect changing needs. That it is playful makes it no less serious.

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