Parody and Design

As many of you would be aware, the World Bank is behind a new online game called Evoke.

EVOKE trailer (a new online game) from Alchemy on Vimeo.

What is interesting is that already — while there has been much publicity before the game, it officially started on March 3rd — a parody has been created. Invoke is described as an “ARG to save the World Bank”.

It isn’t the first parody of an ARG or online game of course. There was a similar one for I Love Bees called CAPitALLism; and more general fun ones like I Love Beer. Last Call Poker had Fast Mall Joker. Jay Bushman wrote a short parody scene of The Beast, as if the true protagonist was Coroner Sweborg [pdf]. But these parodies have not just been created around large-scale (or at least well promoted) branded entertainment ARGs. Small independent ARGs also have parodies too, like Chasing the Fish for Chasing the Wish; GuysGuise webpage for Lockjaw…and I’m sure there are many others (tell me!). There have also been general ARG parodies (parodies of ARGs in general or all ARGs, not a specific ARG), such as Seen Steve. There was even a #pretendargfest (a festival in Twitter for those who weren’t at the 2009 ARGFest). I was honored to be invited to speak on the future of ARGs. I spoke about ARGs in space. And, in a slightly bigger context, Penny Arcade has been running a parody of fantasy franchises since 2005 (it started with this comic and blog post, and has continued with many comics and an extensive wiki of the fantasy ‘world’ for years).

But what I find interesting about these parodies is two things. 1) what it says about nature of the forms; 2) the design issues associated with them. On the first, let’s look back at some discussions about why parodies emerge in the first place. A key insight was introduced by philosopher and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin in his theory of dialogism. Within dialogism is the notion of the contre-partie. To Bakhtin, there is no discourse (whether it be artistic, rhetorical, religious etc) that doesn’t have its own double, its own parody. A contre-partie provides:

the corrective of laughter and criticism to all existing straightforward genres, languages, styles, voices; to force men to experience beneath these categories a different and contradictory reality that is otherwise not captured in them (Bakhtin, 1981 [1930s], 59)

In order for someone to parody an ARG, or any similar formats, it needs to be recognised as a form in itself. That is, for a long time ARGs have been this weird unknown form that many people have struggled to grasp. Parodies have emerged, but they have been from players already in the community. But the Invoke parody is not by the ARG community, it is by game educators, critics and consultants Christian McCrea and Katharine Neil (I’m not sure of what Katharine does, but I know Christian does those things).

The parody is a critique of the World Bank, capitalism, branded entertainment, ARGs, and Jane McGonigal’s online games. I can understand criticism of the World Bank and capitalism. The fact that the mechanics of the game, the whole multi-sited system and missions can be parodied means that it is a form that is immediately recognisable. It wouldn’t be a parody of form if there was no recognisable form to parody. This means the mechanics and missions have become somewhat standardised. They are not part of experimental fringe culture, but have moved into mainstream creative forms if you like.

Then there is also a critique of the rhetoric of ‘games saving or changing the world’. This is something that Jane has been championing for years. Games are a prevalent expressive mode that is definitely becoming part of all aspects of culture. But, as ARG (cross/transmedia) designer Adrian Hon reflects, there is a tendency “to make some very big statements about using these games to tackle some even bigger problems”. Adrian notes that many of the ‘save the world’ games do inspire people, “but that means they can change the world no more – and no less – than stories or books or movies or TV shows.” Another issue is how to measure whether people are ‘saving the world’ and whether they are games at all. Here we have a corrective of media spin, if you like, or the simple sound-bites and sometimes simple mechanics that are rife at the moment in the wild wash of gameifying everything (go with me on that word).

The Invoke attack on branded entertainment is somewhat specific to the World Bank being behind this project. But Markus Montola highlights this issue with a few other branded entertainment games:

I don’t know what’s the lesson for ARG designer, for company with a bad public image, or for pervasive games researcher. I remember hearing complaints on The Lost Ring based on the fact that it was financed by McDonalds and collaborated somehow with Beijing Olympic Games. Similarly I remember Vanishing Point being criticized for being a Microsoft Vista promotion. When you mobilize the grassroots, you should prepare to face criticisms such as this one. Personally? My view on World Bank is so much influenced by various criticisms, such as Naomi Klein’s in Shock Doctrine, that I wouldn’t be thrilled to work for them.

Most branded entertainment gets criticised, this isn’t anything new. But there are some brands that are criticised more, and some that may raise issues with the practitioners who work on them. I personally do have a line I don’t cross. Thankfully the brands that I have worked with have all been ones that fit into my OK category. There has been one that I didn’t work with directly, but through a production company. On this project I worked on the initial design of the project pre-pitch. I would not have worked on it if it did go ahead because I didn’t feel the product added any value to people’s lives (even though the multi-billion dollar sales of it says otherwise). Thankfully the project didn’t go ahead so I didn’t have to give the *sorry but too busy* response. But I also personally like it when good can be done with…bad money.

This talk of brands and parodies and criticism and practice brings up what is to me a second interesting issue. That of design. ARG (and trans/crossmedia) designer Jan Libby has commented in Twitter that:

i’m sure the evoke gang knew something like this might come up & have a plan of dealing w/that dynamic of community

Likewise, Michael Andersen (new owner of ARGNet), is

sure there’s a brilliant idea to deal with it / incorporate the efforts

It will be interesting to see what comes next. McGonigal has the problem of dealing with protests within the game (if there do turn out to be any), but perhaps also ones outside like Invoke. Andersen doesn’t see a problem with Invoke, it is the ones that may potentially ruin it for the players within the game that are an issue.

Jane has commented in Twitter that she has:

caught some of the discussion, it’s not unexpected, we will keep trying to communicate the goal;
to create an environment to support new ideas and open innovation, not to push existing solutions;
& that EVOKE is a direct result of demand from African schools for a way to engage students in development.

While these are just tweets Jane sent to fellow ARG designers quickly in response to their conversation (I don’t want to paint Jane into a corner), they do point to the need to educate people about the goals of the project as she has been briefed. I mean, the project could work well for the World Bank, but it seems Jane hasn’t been asked to create a project to improve the image of the World Bank. The initial brief is critical in understanding the nature of a project. I know literary theories and game critics etc all trumpet the “author is dead” and so intention is unknowable and irrelevant, but it can help understand the nature of these projects. Sponsorship (branded entertainment if you like) is on the rise. Critics should not assess it in the same way they have branded entertainment in the past. I could talk more about this but enough for now as there is one other item I wanted to discuss.

How can the designers of projects that are expected to raise criticism (such as having the World Bank behind it) use this knowledge in the design? What are the things they can do? I have some thoughts brewing but I’m keen to hear your ideas…

5 Replies

  • Great analysis, Christy! I’m fairly impressed by the Urgent Invoke parody site, as they have managed to incorporate their criticism into the original game’s design elements. Although it was a bit surprising to see that the site is trying to shift discourse about the parody to a particular page on their site in response to comments that apparently have already been deleted.

    My reaction to the content added to the Urgent Evoke website seems to have been a bit hasty. I was worried that a string of anti-WTO/IMF posts added in rapid succession was an attempt to drown out the discourse on the site. That has not been the case, and everything has been quite cordial. I am, however, still interested in seeing how the design team will react to the “invoke” tag (if they do at all).

  • I find Urgent Evoke quite funny and clever too. It is ‘game criticism’ in that it is a game that criticizes a game!

    I’ll tone down the comments about criticism within the game therefore. Didn’t realise/didn’t check!

    It will be interesting to see whether there is an official response. There probably doesn’t need to be. It may only encourage people to be for or against the game, which isn’t the point and wouldn’t be good for either games.

  • Hey Christy,

    I’m coming to this conversation a bit late, but something was nagging at me, so I thought I’d post a comment anyway. In your mention of the backlash against the notion that games can change the world, you quote Adrian Hon as saying that games “can change the world no more – and no less – than stories or books or movies or TV shows.” This quote kind of bugged me in a couple ways. First, I’d argue that stories rival nuclear weapons and sunlight for their ability to destroy and create. A whole rant could be written about how the contexts and expectations created by stories shape every aspect of our lives. So to say that games can change the world no more and no less than stories is a little bit like saying nothing at all. But I know this wasn’t what was intended by Adrian’s comment, so I’ll skip that one for now. The thing that keeps me thinking about all this relates to the notion of the “game-ification” of everything, and the real differences between storytelling and game play. Games are engines for behaviour. They do not exist without action. ARGs, pervasive games, and other games that are layered on top of our everyday lives by definition layer new actions atop our normal activity flow. That’s what they are. They change the way we move, the way we interact with others, the range of our interactions, and so on. Books and movies *may* do the same thing, in terms of their capacity to inspire and instruct, but behavioral shifts are an intrinsic and constituent part of game play. For me, this is a powerful affordance that lends some credence to the imaginings of designers like Jane McGonigal. I certainly don’t want everything to be scored and ranked in the manner of the dystopia envisioned in Schell’s recent talk. But I also feel like there are some really powerful progressive opportunities here. And maybe that’s another thing about parody — when people start making fun of something, you know you’re onto something good.

    Thanks for another awesome and provocative post!


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