Thursday, August 30, 2012

Unmanned and the Rhetoric of Division

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Unmanned and the rhetoric of division.

Molleindustria has received quite a bit of attention for their consistently critical games. Phone Story might be their most widely played game, partially because Apple removed it from the marketplace seemingly because it criticized the relationship between technology and exploitation. Every Day The Same Dream received quite a bit of positive press for its evocative message about monotony and labor. These game are great, but I really do believe Unmanned is their best game yet.

In many ways this article is a sort of scoreless review. I had initially planned to talk about a few other games that use separation as a mechanic and a metaphor, but I think Unmanned deserves the spotlight. The themes of division and delay go far deeper than the two split screens. The game itself and the way it intentionally alienates itself from war games and, indeed, most flash games, drives home its multifaceted message so well.

The issue of boredom I find particularly interesting. I briefly mention Greg Costikyan's blog on gamasutra in the piece, but it deserves another mention here. I like this bit especially:

Gamers are trained to react to "boring" games by putting them down; they are not likely to play a little longer, to understand that boredom is part of the subtext of the game, to see that it is boring for a reason, that the designers are purposefully shaping a boring experience to bring out a sense of the anomie of life, and the distancing that drone warfare brings to combat.

I also think boredom is used to highlight the danger of "fun". Kirk's child plays war games and has a grand old time. Indeed, the most mechanically satisfying moment in Unmanned is playing along with him. But that thrill he gets is so alien to the war game experience of Unmanned. I do not suggest that violent video games necessarily desensitize to the violence of war, although that very well might be the case. Rather, Unmanned asks us to question how the act of fun might be a deliberate way we choose to distance ourselves from global systems - the same global systems that might construct the backdrop of the games we make for fun. In Unmanned, division involves choice. This isn't just a story about the injustice of drone warfare, but about psychological division and personal culpability. It might not be fun to play, but it is a nuanced and important experience.

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