He's done it again, Paolo Pedercini has made a fun, polished, punk-positive satire, but this time instead of focusing on a particular industry or scandal, he's taking a broad-view of a world economy driven and chained by oil. In Oiligarchy you play the CEO of an international oil company, drilling your way to riches and dominance. I've been looking forward to this game since Paolo mentioned it to me at Games for Change in June, he told me "the better you are at the game, the worse you'll do."
Unlike some of the major releases this year, this game lives up to its promise.
Pedercini and his Molleindustria-l posse deliver the same cocktail of production value mixed with social commentary; everything from the framing of historical events as covert operations to the clanking music of the derricks puts this game over the top aesthetically. The main success here, however, is in the design of the system, it sets a new benchmark for model complexity and implicit argumentation, just as The McDonald's Game did in 2006 and Operation: PedoPriest tried to do in 2007. Like McDonald's, this game will be played by tens of millions, already hitting two million unique plays within it's first week - this is persuasive media, this is the new mass entertainment, this is the new conversation platform.
I did a review for JIG that covers the basics, the comments there are entertaining. You know those pictures of mammals turning into apes, then hominids, then homosapiens? The comments there may remind you of that picture. Paolo completes the strip toward modern man with his postmortem, where he does the analysis of his own game that I probably would've done here. Instead, I'm about to take us into transhumanity.
So, Paolo's model is pretty good and based off real data and history, at least to the extent that those things are real. Let's start by putting on our meta-programming hats and examine the Godelian gap between Paolo's worldview and the game. Paolo thinks oil prices are correlated to supply, and that the run-up and subsequent collapse in prices are due to free market forces, which he is critical of. If you look at some other data, however, this axiom seems flawed. If you understand the mechanics, the literal equations and algorithms, by which markets price assets, then these patterns are by-definition self-fulfilling prophecies, buying begetting more buying and selling sparking more selling. Futures contracts in oil are financial derivatives that can move due to financial demand, irrespective of actual supply and demand of oil. The majority of volume in those markets come from Hedge Funds and the like borrowing up to fifty times their reserves to buy contracts that will never be settled with physical delivery of any kind. The clincher is that the recent strength of the dollar was literally a conspiracy between the Japanese, Euro and US central banks to buy a bunch of dollars, get the Hedge Funders to flip their positions, and then the collapse of Lehman (which they signed off on) triggered the rest (stock market meltdown, artificial demand for dollars to settle Credit Default Swaps).
While critics of the Bush administration and their ilk across the aisle might see the oiligarchy model as being all-inclusive, those critical of the entire secret government horror-show might want to include a few more variables that aren't preoccupied with picking on "The Free Market". The Free Market is a straw man myth perpetuated by people who had already bought the government with the creation of the Federal Reserve, by having the middle class believe in an invisible hand we ignore the men behind the curtain - free markets generally only exist in villages and college dorm rooms. I could make a game out of this worldview, that monetary oligarchy is a deeper form of control than oiligarchy, and use the same strategy as Paolo. I could put you in the role of the technocratic/fiat money elite, using what I call "phantasm" and Paolo describes as "Challenging Meaningful Play". What we mean is: you take pure agency and spike it with the psychological warp of finding yourself altered in a non-trivial way by monstrous decisions and/or unexpected consequences. In my game, you could use renewable energy to maintain the same kind of hierarchical status that reigned during the oil age, and you would manipulate positive feedback loops in markets instead of negotiate the negative feedback loop of oil depletion.
But, maybe we can do better...
What if had something like Metaplace but for procedural rhetoric? What if we let people build and alter arguments and models? It's like two wicked design problems for the price of one, but if you consider that monetary systems, energy systems, social systems, legal systems, and so forth, are all at the least game-like clusterfucks if not outright games, then it might be worth it to let people construct models that are literally applicable and also lead by example. This is a way to have your cake and it eat too, explore contradictory models like the current facade of a free market capitalist system, while also doing more than just complaining - without falling into the trap of "simulated activism" that leaves you satisfied without having actually done anything.
This game has proved a few things, at least to me:
- you can tackle complex subjects quite effectively without using too many CPU cycles
- you can make such games fun and appealing to a wide audience
- you can make such games for very little money in short time periods
- there is definitely a place for punk satire of this type
- there is also a place for inductive gameplay that transcends satire and encourage the emergence of new models
If we get to this high goal that I'm setting, it'll be because we stood on the shoulders of snarky Italian giants.