Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Playing to Lose

From an article in The Age on computer games with social agendas:

Among other socially conscious games with an agricultural theme is Third World Farmer, a 2005 student project from Denmark’s IT University of Copenhagen ( The game challenges players to stay alive through drought, disease, civil war, falling market prices and exposure to toxic waste from a chemical company that wants to lease their land.

“As the average computer game player is getting older, there’s going to be a larger market for games dealing with serious issues,” says graduate student Frederik Hermund, who helped design the game.

In the game there is no way to “win”, something Mr Hermund says has left many players frustrated, adding that the new version will not be “so bleak”. “We’re trying to implement ways to solve some of the problems by building roads and communications. I hope we’ll get less hate mail.”

Something about this scenario is strangely reminiscent of a discussion from the postgrad planning theory course this term. It’s a bit difficult to summarise the context, which related to the use of worst-case scenarios in particular kinds of activist literature. The discussion initially related to the… provenance of the scenarios – to whether particular kinds of claims could be grounded empirically. Talk rapidly shifted, however, from the accuracy of the scenarios, to what kinds of writing would mobilise greater numbers of people to political action.

I’m apparently an outlier on this one, because I tend to think that mainstream political mobilisation is more likely to result from a sense that some solution is viable. (I always think back to an undergraduate lecturer of mine who, asked whether peasants had revolted in a particular period because they were being deprived of food, said something like, “In general, historically, when you deprive people of food, they don’t revolt: they starve.” He then proceeded to draw attention to the constructive, as well as the reactive, provocations that contributed to driving dissatisfaction to be mobilised as political action.) Several of my students disagreed quite strongly, arguing that larger mobilisations would result from drilling in a sense that we have reached a point of no return: that we are facing issues to which no solution could ever be found.

I don’t have a strong universalist claim on the issue – my default position is to assume that political mobilisations have diverse causes. I would tend to think, though, that when problems appear (or, in the case we were discussing, are made to appear) overwhelming and fundamentally insoluable, a level of denial and demobilisation is somewhat likely to set in – and, as with the game manufacturers above, perhaps even a level of shoot-the-messenger anger against the harbingers of depressing news… To approach the same problem from a different direction, I tend also to think (with some qualifications) that Marx might have been onto something in suggesting:

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.

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