Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing a couple of small games that tackle the task of dismantling capitalism (and its increasingly rigid class structures) in radically different ways: through violent overthrow (Tonight We Riot) and via systemic reform (Democratic Socialism Simulator). Both are 2D games that are fun to play, but also present the player with differing assumptions about how to change the world, mainly through how they employ game genres to various effects.
Tonight We Riot was created by Pixel Pushers Union 512, who describe their game as a “revolutionary crowd-based retro brawler.” It was released in May 2020 and can be played on PC, Mac, and Nintendo Switch systems. It has a single-player as well as a couch-coop mode and takes a few hours to complete. The game revels in its revolutionary rhetoric, offering the player a chance to violently overthrow corporate systems, battle libertarians, and beat literal “bosses” to achieve victory. Players start with their fists and can gather bricks to throw at their foes, slowly gathering more powerful weapons (if you save enough of your comrades from being killed) as you progress along levels. Making the typical videogame rhetoric explicit and tying it to radical language, rather than clearing areas, you "liberate" them from the bad guys. At the start of each level a newspaper front page appears, illustrating the politics and ideologies you are fighting against. Each area has several levels to complete that are progressively more difficult and end with a mini-boss, with the game concluding via a typical boss fight. The ending announces via celebratory cut scene stills that the rich who had “gotten fat off the hard work of those who labored for years” have fled, and now “goods were produced for use and need instead of profit, and the people enjoyed a plentiful life unknown before.”
In contrast to mayhem and overthrow, Democratic Socialism Simulator is a single player game with a Tinder-style interface that invites the player to “prefigure the opportunities and challenges of a [Bernie] Sanders (or Sanders-like) presidency … based on extensive research on viable policies and on the history of social democracies.” It was created by molleindustria in February 2020 for PC, Mac, and most mobile systems. The player begins the simulation after winning the office of President of the United States, and has two potential terms of office to enact reforms. In addition to being presented with numerous choices (institute Universal Basic Income? Create a national high-speed rail system? Cut military production budgets?) the player must balance how attractive these changes are to the voters (or at least enough voters to get re-elected), who all have differing priorities. The game offers the player some potential benchmarks: not overspending the budget, increasing worker power, and reducing environmental destruction. Endings are varied – one can end their term on good or bad terms with the electorate, be assassinated, forced to resign, or have a coup remove you from office.
Obviously these are very different games about how to re-envision a future with a more egalitarian class system. A central way to understand them is through their genres, and how each – brawler and simulation – offer the player different affordances and constraints in their actions. I won’t argue that one genre is more effective than the other in making their arguments, but instead that we can see the limits of how games can make arguments by examining their gameplay systems.
Tonight We Riot wears its heart proudly on its sleeve – it is a brawler – and violent confrontation is its core mechanic. The player throws punches, bricks, and bombs, or can attack enemies or obstructions with wrenches or chainsaws. Enemies are a relentless wave, employing guns, tanks, drones, and other machinery to obstruct your advancement. The player follows a traditional left to right progress across the game’s levels, and similarly different areas offer different types of enemies and natural environments that have their own challenges (such as blinding snow) to overcome. Progress is linear, and there are no choices offered other than what weapon to use.
The game-as-brawler makes literal the rhetoric that it is a battle that workers must “fight” against capitalism and the ruling class. Indeed, fighting is the only option. The game offers no negotiation, no opportunity for reform, and no compromise. Enemies can’t be reasoned with – they can only be killed. Workers are by definition the game’s heroes – interestingly there is no ‘main character’ but instead a series of workers that the player cycles through who all fight and die collectively for their cause – and capitalists are the enemy. Violence is the only solution according to the game, suggesting that for workers to successfully overthrow capitalism, things must get bloody.
In contrast, Democratic Socialism Simulator offers the player a plethora of choices of policies to enact, which can be accepted or rejected with a quick swipe to the left or right side of the screen. While a few of the bigger changes demand a Congressional majority to make into law, for the most part the player is given a blank check to remake the system to their liking. And it’s so easy to do, with no facts to find or votes to court. Even though costs are ostensibly an issue, the player can easily put the country into huge debt (I did without even noticing on my first playthrough), although eventually this might lead to your ouster. It’s unclear from the game whether the depicted voters are representative or not of actual public opinion in the USA, but it seemed to be a very different America than the one popularly portrayed in the news.
Like any other simulation game, DSS does quite a bit of abstracting away of the complexities of the political process, instead opting to give the player almost unlimited power to do what they want. This gives the player permission to consider and put into practice dozens of more egalitarian scenarios to empower the people (expanded workers rights; free education and healthcare paid for by greater taxes on the rich) and make capitalism more socialist. And part of the fun of a simulation is figuring out the system behind the system – what are the values coded into the choices being made, and how can we really know all the outcomes associated with the actions we think are for the best? The game lets you see some of the costs and benefits as decisions get made, but it doesn’t reveal everything right away. The game’s designer, Paolo Pedercini, has also made available a spreadsheet detailing the exact costs and gameplay results of each potential reform measure, a fascinating document to peruse. And similar to TWR, the fun of the game is in playing and enacting the change itself. While the ending scenarios for each game are an ostensible comment on playing the game ‘correctly,’ both are clear in the pathways they lay out to trample unfettered capitalism.
Both games are worth a playthrough, if not for their political messages then for their enjoyable gameplay – particularly the brawling in TWR and the humor in DSS. With the rise of the coronavirus we’ve witnessed how even within a global pandemic, not everyone is suffering equally, and the rich in particular are doing far better than most of us, not only surviving but sometimes in thriving. These games offer us provocative ways to think through how to get at an alternative economic system that would better support all people in society.