Video Game Pits Commoners vs. Enclosure

The commons has surely come of age now that there is a video game to illustrate the political dynamics of enclosure! A hearty commoners’ salute to Molleindustria, an Italian team of artists, designers and programmers who create “radical games against the dictatorship of entertainment.” Their latest creation is the flash-animation Free Culture Game: A Playable Theory.

Instead of pandering to the usual video pathologies — shoot-the terrorist, karate-chop the thug, and other violent motifs — the Free Culture Game is about sharing with the commoners and protecting the commons itself in the face of market appropriation. It’s a fairly simple, two-dimensional game that brings to mind the PAC-Man era, complete with bouncy electronic music. Rhizome News describes the Free Culture Game this way:

A circular field represents The Common, where knowledge can be freely shared and created; your job is to maintain a healthy ecology of yellow idea-bubbles bouncing from person to person before they can be sucked into the dark outer ring representing the forces of The Market. Your cursor, shaped like the Creative Commons logo, pushes the ideas around with a sort of reverse-magnetic repulsion field…. People who absorb free, round ideas stay green and happy, while those who only consume square market-produced ones become grey and inverted. The game never really ends: you can only do better or worse, suggesting by analogy that the fight for free culture will be an ongoing struggle without end.

If Richard Stallman and free software hackers were visionary in their attempt to liberate software development from proprietary monopolies, Molleindustria wants to start a “Gamevolution.” The group writes on its website that “videogames are an integral part of the global cultural industry, and they are in a strategic position in the ongoing processes of media convergence. These developments inhibit the political and artistic emancipation of this medium: every code line is written for the profit of a big corporation.”

Instead of buying into corporate gaming scenarios, Molleindustria “aims to re-appropriate video games as a popular form of mass communication. Our objective is to investigate the persuasive potentials of the medium by subverting mainstream video gaming clichè (and possibly have fun in the process).” The group wants games to “describe pressing social needs, and to express our feelings or ideas just as we do in other forms of art.”

Taking a cue from the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle, which popularized the slogan, “Don’t hate the media, become the media!” Molleindustria wants to launch new genres of gaming: “If we want to express an alternative to dominant forms of gameplay we must rethink game genres, styles and languages. The ideology of a game resides in its rules, in its invisible mechanics, and not only in its narrative parts.”

Molleindustria’s plan: “Using simple but sharp games we hope to give a starting point for a new generation of critical game developers and, above all, to experiment with practices that can be easily emulated and virally diffused.” Most of the games feel experimental; they function more as gags and commentaries than as games you’d want to play repeatedly…. but I can’t help but admire Molleindustria’s ambition.

Its games tend to have an provocative edge that may offend some. Faith Fighter, for example, is a spoof fighting game that pits one religious figure of your choice (say, Buddha) against the other (say, Jesus). The game invites players to “choose your belief and kick the shit out of your enemies. Give vent to your intolerance! Religious hate has never been so much fun.” I liked the idea behind MayDay NetParade, in which more than 17,000 people created their own customized virtual demonstrators to march in a online parade on May Day 2004.

Bottom-up, socially aware creativity comes to gaming: another frontier breached.