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Last Updated: Monday, 30 August, 2004, 07:00 GMT 08:00 UK
Video games find their political voice
By David Reid
BBC Click Online

The net has been an essential organising tool for political activists for some time. But video games with thought-provoking or political messages have emerged as a way of making those who play them a little more aware.

Italy's commercial capital, Milan, is a city steeped in history and wealth. It seems an unlikely place for a revolution.

Screengrab of Molleindustria's MayDay virtual march
Activists can create their own avatar and march online
But venture down a side street off the tourist map and the Centro Sociale La Pergola can be found, a gathering point for a group of Milan's young radicals.

Many of them are media professionals for whom the net has become an essential tool for political organisation.

"It's because it's a many-to-many medium, whereas traditional politics is done one-to-many - from Gates to many, from Murdoch to many, from Berlusconi to many and so on," said Alex Foti, from political activist group ChainWorkers.

"It is a way of harnessing the wisdom and vitality of the crowds," he explained to BBC's Click Online programme.

"Social research has proved that groups, when confronted with well-defined problems, show a marked interest in them."

The net allows the Centro to organise political demonstrations cheaply and easily.

Online instead

For activists who cannot take to the streets, the organisation's website, Molleindustria, or "soft industry", has offered them the virtual equivalent.

There, they can take part in an online MayDay parade which allows people to add to the throng and stylise their own marching demonstrator in an avatar form.

Screengrab of Molleindustria's Tamatipico game
Employees have to be kept happy if you want them to work
Molleindustria is best known for its video games.

In line with its radical politics, the aim of its games is to highlight what its creators believe is most unfair about global capitalism and the modern labour market.

Their online game, Tamatipico, gives players their very own employee whom they have to keep happy to maintain production.

Fail to give your worker enough sleep or time in front of the TV and he calls in sick or goes on strike.

But ultimately the boss has the upper hand: if you are unhappy with your worker's performance, you can fire him on the spot.

"We don't think it's enough to simply change the graphics' look, or to change the characters in order to give a different message," games designer Paulo Pedercini explained.

"The real meaning of a video, its ideology, is expressed mainly through the internal rules of the game, its structure and mechanisms."

Sombre simplicity

This approach is best illustrated by another group from Uruguay called Newsgaming.

They have produced a Shockwave-based game called September 12th.

In its frightening logic, players hunt down terrorists, but with clumsy missiles, collateral damage is impossible to avoid.

Screengrab of Newsgaming's Madrid game
Madrid has a sombre simplicity about it
By contrast, their game Madrid, if it can be called a game, is sombre in its simplicity. The rules require players to click on the candles so they burn brighter.

But like all remembrance, the flames eventually fade.

The producers of these games are developing a sort of gaming counter-culture, seeing themselves as the latest in a line of political satirists playfully poking fun at passers-by or at those in power.

One of the main targets of such games is the US because of the internationalisation of its culture and more recently the war against terrorism.

But Americans themselves, indeed none other than the Republican Party, are using video games to score political points.

The Republicans' version of space invaders is Tax Invaders. It depicts Republican President George W Bush as the only hope in the battle against high taxes.

Video games are normally a form of escape, a way to tune out from the troubles of the world.

However, the producers of this new breed of game have shown they can also act as an effective vehicle for political expression.

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