Politics has taken more than its share of swipes at the video game industry in recent times. But what happens when games bite back?
Socially- and politically-aware games are becoming increasingly common online, the most recent being Molleindustria's McDonald's Videogame, a multi-tiered sim satirizing the process by which Mickey D's tallies up its millions served.
According to Paolo Pedercini, spokesman and founder of Molleindustria, the McDonald's Videogame was inspired by books lik Jeremy Rifken's Beyond Beef: The Rise & Fall of the Cattle Culture and Naomi Klein's No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies which deal, respectively, with the cattle industry and the emergence and persistence of brand-based culture.
"We have often claimed that video games have the potential to make complex systems such as the economic and social easy to understand," says Pedercini, "so we tried to give a practical example."
In "McDonald's," game play occurs on four stages, which the player can switch between at any time. Gamers start out in the agricultural sector of South America where they farm to produce soy cultures, and rear and grow livestock. In addition, players can clear away sections of rainforest for farming, and corrupt the mayor for the use of land. At the feed lot, players fatten up cows - being sure to monitor for sickness - and add hormones to speed up the fattening process.
When managing the actual restaurant locations, employees must be hired, fired, chastised, and rewarded in order to keep the line of hungry customers moving. Meanwhile, at McDonald's HQ, the player can devise marketing campaigns, effectively pay off detractors (environmentalists, politicians, etc.), and oversee sales and progress of the company in the board room.
Although the game shines with the harmless, plastic aesthetic of a Happy Meal toy, it quickly becomes clear that this is a sink-or-swim business sim. Money tends to disappear faster than it's made. To earn the volume of customers and cash that the fast food industry has become known for, players must balance their time between multiple stages, know when to play it straight, and be willing to get their hands dirty.
Beyond its implicit messages, the game's visualizations and text offer their own commentary on the industry. The marketing department consists of a Mac-occupied designer, a child doodling mindlessly, and an older girl, smoking marijuana. In the restaurant, the grillmen are almost always Hispanic or Asian. In the tutorial, those same grillmen are described as preparing sandwiches "like T-model Fords."
Previous Molleindustria games like TuboFlex and Tamatipico also refer thematically to "Fordism," a topic which is of particular interest to the company, whose name translates literally to "soft industry," or "soft factory." According to Pedercini, "We are all precarious knowledge workers, a new class that needs a new imagery, so we decided to satirize the outdated radical-leftish style based on factories, gears and soviet stuff."
Other Molleindustria games deal with social issues like gender and sexuality. In Orgasm Simulator, the player simulates the timing of a woman's moans during intercourse, being careful to keep them up to speed with the man's lest he loses interest or realizes she's faking.
In the end, no matter how potent a game is, its message is only as powerful as its audience is large. Although not a household name, Molleindustria has made a considerable impact on the casual, internet games community, with "McDonald's" having been dugg, featured on Boing-Boing, as well as offered on a number of online game portals. "In my opinion," says Pedercini, "those mainstream, casual online gamers are a more heterogeneous user catchment area than, let's say, the hardcore gamers that drive the console market."
-Reporting from Ireland, GP Correspondent Scott Jon Siegel