E3 2017: In Trump, indie developers find inspiration

Dave Lee
North America technology reporter

Image source, Cat in the Hijab
Image caption,
The Cat in the Hijab places you at the centre of racial and faith discrimination

Christopher Jarvis says his motivation to make a game that tackles fake news is reenergised each time he leaves his home in New York.

"I live in Trump Tower. This is how I reconcile it with myself," he jokes, before turning a little more serious.

"I'm moving out soon."

At E3's indie game corner, where the multi-million dollar budgets are replaced with games made on a shoestring, politics is the driving force behind many new ideas.

"There's been a social political trend that we're seeing in the games," says Stephanie Barish, the chief executive of Indiecade, the a company that promotes independent developers, much like a film festival.

"It was kind of amazing to think how personal, and thoughtful, and political, and meaningful developers are trying to make their games.

"They're using the medium of game making the way an artist would use their paintbrush to express what they're thinking and how they're feeling about the current political climate. There's a sense of resisting against a feeling of oppression or tyranny."

Cat in a hijab

In March Indiecade backed #ResistJam, an event billed as a creative response to the "rise of fascism" in the US and elsewhere.

Over seven days, attendees produced a number of basic but emotive games.

Several of them are on display at E3, including The Cat in a Hijab - a point-and-click mini-adventure that has you playing the role of a cat (in a hijab) who boards a subway train. You're then faced with a barrage of comments. Some aggressive, others naively ignorant - and it's up to you to defuse the situation (or not) with your response.

Image source, Borders
Image caption,
Borders is intended to show how difficult it is to cross the US-Mexico border illegally

"Our hairball-in-chief is going to send you back to your own country soon," reads one attack. Another: "He's going to make our country great again."

On another table, Gonzalo Alvarez is demonstrating Borders, his simple but fiendishly difficult game in which you control a man trying to run over the border from Mexico into the US.

"My Dad crossed the border when he was 17," Mr Alvarez tells me.

"A lot of [his] stories are in the game. The border control, the helicopter that comes out later in the game."

As you navigate your character through the map, avoiding border guards, you pass the "skeletons" of other players that have tried the game.

"My dad saw the skeleton of another human being on the way here."

Mr Alvarez said the game wasn't about encouraging people to try and cross the border illegally, but to demonstrate how difficult it is.

"Look at how many people die. Building a bigger wall isn't an answer to what's happening here."

Tinder for fake news

Mr Jarvis' game - Polititruth - uses a swipe-left, swipe-right Tinder-like interface to help decipher fake news. If you think a statement such as "millions will lose health insurance" is fake news, swipe left. If you think it's true, swipe right.

The decision over what's true or not is powered by Politifact, the Pulitzer-winning fact checking organisation.

Eventually the hope is to integrate the idea into Facebook directly to help people distinguish fact from alternative fact. But the challenge that faces the app, and all of the games on show here, is in getting the title in front of the people who perhaps most need to see it.

"It might be a slow process," says Indiecade's Ms Barish.

"I don't think millions of people are going to play these games and change their minds. But I think it's empowering a group of creators, and I do think there's enormous potential there."

With Borders, Mr Alvarez took his idea direct to his target audience. He created an arcade booth and installed it in a gallery in Port Arthur, Texas. The presidential election vote in the area was tight - with President Trump winning over Hillary Clinton by just 0.5%.

"Putting it in an installation, that'll bring you a group of people who may be conservative - so that's at least a target I can market at.

"Having it in a public setting, not sitting on someone's computer, I think really helps it become approachable."

In a divided city, not everyone welcomed the concept of Mr Alvarez's game.

"People wanted me to make a game to control the other side, wanting to shoot people in the game," he says.

"To me that's a disgusting thought process. They said they wanted me to get kicked back to Mexico.

"They might have a problem with that since I'm from New York."

Pro-Trump, more fun?

Though not on show at E3, there are also several pro-Trump indie games available.

Image source, Make America Great Again: The Trump Presidency
Image caption,
This Pro-Trump title has sold tens of thousands of copies

Make America Great Again: The Trump Presidency is a "simulation" (to use the term very loosely) of the President's regular day-to-day activities (with the exception of playing golf).

You control the president as he flies around the world in a helicopter, and make decisions as to whether to drill oil, install the controversial Dakota pipeline, or "beat ISIS". At the top of the screen, a ticker shows the national debt falling, but also the world getting more "angry" at he US. As anger builds, a progress bar starts to fill… you're headed to World War 3.

The game, you'd presume/hope, isn't designed to be taken seriously, but as a gameplay concept there's no denying it looks much more fun than other the other games I've mentioned here.

And that's the big challenge in creating games with an activist message, says Mr Alvarez.

"I didn't want to make something preachy. That's not fun. Making something that was fun was my top priority."

Risk averse

It's fair to say the major games publishers steer clear from even remotely controversial political messages. In an industry where making a lead character a woman is a talking point, anything more daring is avoided - boycotts can be costly.

"A lot of it has to do with the diversity of the people making the games," says Indiecade's Ms Barish.

"From the top down, I think it's an uphill battle.

"Because as you can see people are really risk-averse. It's a year where they all have new consoles. The market for those is hardcore gamers and they're focusing on that particular market and so they're not taking the risk."

There are signs this could change, however - with the latest Far Cry title straying into political territory with its storyline of a town overrun with religious fanatics. Its creative director told Radio 1 Newsbeat that the games industry should "mature" and take on such topics.

But Far Cry is an outlier, for now. But Ms Barish says she believes what starts in the indie scene eventually seeps into the wider industry.

"Ultimately we're just beginning. There's no reason to think that because these are small political games they won't end up making an impact.

"All the material that's on the edge of the game industry ultimately ends up impacting the game industry."


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