All Design is Political

(Originally posted on Imaginary Funerals, August 24, 2015)

Let’s start here: All choices that you make and all actions that you take carry some degree of political ideology. You do not have to intend to be making a political statement to make one.

Some choices aim to reject some ideologies and create change, and some decisions are passive or active choices to reinforce the existing ideologies and maintain the status quo. This is not a new idea, but the second part of the concept is often and easily overlooked. Most recently, I’ve seen it explored in Kaisa Kangas’s excellent article (but too short, I wanted more!) Processing Political Larps in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book, which you can download for free here :

Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait here until you get back.

As a creator of intentionally political games, Kanga’s article was the first I jumped to read in the KP book. There are so many meaty design considerations to discuss about these kinds of games: the level of transparency or duplicity in the approach of the game, the design and crafting of political delivery, the level of control maintained over the message, the complexity around creating a happy balance for the player between continued engagement and political exploration, and the challenges in creating lasting post-game effect are some of the things I’m increasingly fascinated with.

This article isn’t about any those things, but hopefully I’ll get around to writing about some of them eventually. This article is about recognizing that our basic choices are political. Practice shapes thought and action.

Let’s design a game about supers:

– Design 1: This game is about super-human defenders; people who uphold the law, work with the police, support the government, and use their super powers righteously to combat evil doers – not unlike Superman.

– Design 2: This game is about super-human issues; people who are working towards a goal to effect change. Sometimes that goal requires working with or against the government, sometimes that goal requires working with or against other interest groups that do or don’t align with their own – not unlike the X-Men.

Human beings have a cognitive bias which favours the status quo. This causes us to see the current state as normative and natural, and in general influences our decision making towards maintenance and against change. It influences the way we think, and how we define the concept of “political”. In the games above, the one we are most likely to define as political is the second one, because it focuses on issues and the idea of changing the status quo which mirrors issues in our own status quo. It’s easy to see politics in it: these supers are trying to change the world: they have an agenda, they pursue it, they have debates and disagreements that are focused on the issues, and they try to influence the way people think, how they act, and who has power. They try to move people, and invest power to the new idea.

When we look at the first design, we don’t think of it as political because it’s just real life with super-powered cops. Good is good, evil is evil, normal is normal and the super defends it – nothing political about that! Right? Except there is… the idea that the status quo is good, those that oppose it are evil and that what we see as normal is natural, is absolutely a political stance. The characters in this game are also trying to influence the way people think, how they act and who has power. It’s just that they are just trying to move people’s beliefs and the investment of power into maintain the current idea.

So both are political. So why do we care? Well, first we care because when we are dealing with a cognitive bias that favours the status quo and we don’t realize we are being political when defending that status quo, then being political conveniently becomes a bad wrong thing that others do and we don’t. Second we care because just because we have a bias to maintain the status quo doesn’t mean we necessarily agree with everything in it. If we don’t understand that maintaining the status quo is a political action, then we might unintentionally be advocating things we do not actually believe in.

And what does this matter to designing games and play experiences?

Well, design influences the narratives people play in, how people engage with that material and what we take away from them. We know this, of course, but we normally think of it in terms of fun or experience: the designer makes a game that allows people to tell a kind of story or give them a kind of play experience, this allows for people to have fun, and hopes that they walk away from the experience feeling like they’ve had a good game. Nothing wrong with that, right? That’s the point of making a game.

But that same system of engagement is true for people’s experience with the political aspects of the game. The designer makes a game that carries a political message, the players engage with that political message, and walk away affected by it. When that game is the larp System Danmarc that Kaisa Kanga describes in the article I linked to above, that process aims to be intentional: The players play a story about post-apocalyptic world that lacks infrastructure and support that drives home the alienation and vulnerability of that world, players get very engaged in playing it, really explore how it feels, and then players walk away with a different understanding of the state of homelessness.

When the designer does not consider political intent in design, the game will still influence, just not in a way that is intentional. People may play righteous defenders of the state taking down bad guys who oppose it, get very into that engagement, really explore how that feels, and then walk away with a reinforced understanding about status quo methods of control, the righteousness of violence, and the justification/authority of the police/military (as an example the extent of which of course depends on the play experience).

The point is, that the game will have a political direction, even if the designer does not account for it, and as so, is a political action in itself even if action was not intended to be taken. The designer could, personally and separately be politically aligned with that action, and could personally and separately be political against that action. In either case, the designer is creator of that action. The designer called it into being, and invited others to play in and practice in it.

The players of course, have a part too: they shape that experience with in the input they put into the game, in the meaning they make from the game, and in the way they integrate it with their lives and actions after the game. The designer has made a structure with an implied ideology, invited people to practice within it, and the players engage or resist it as agents do within systems, but regardless of their actions, it neither replaces nor eliminates the design action already taken, but only changes the degree or quality of success of the political action.

So if you design, your game will be political whether you want it to be or not. The only question is, will it be political in a way that you really want it to be?