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Jason Rohrer’s game design sketchbook at The Escapist is pretty darn cool. His latest, “Police Brutality“, looks at civil disobedience. Inspired by the footage of a man getting tazed at a Constitution Day (oh, the irony) forum where John Kerry was speaking, the game explores the strategies an individual can take in such a situation by voicing protest.

What’s especially interesting to me about the game is that it leans towards a dispositional bias – that being the assumption that people either resist authority or conform in such situations based on their inherent personality, or disposition. Alternately a situational bias would look for factors in the environment that cause people to either resist or conform.

The game only considers strategy once the event has taken place. It effectively ignores the factors that restrict people from moving to action in the first place – the underlying assumption is that the situation itself doesn’t have as much impact on a person’s will to act as their own disposition does.

You start with one character that has the disposition to resist authority. While other bystanders can be motivated to act (via shouting), the player’s initial character has to do nothing to overcome the situational factors that would prohibit them to act. Characters that have been convinced to help can still revert back to a terrified state upon standing next to an officer. You can change characters, and only the character the player is controlling is immune to becoming terrified again. This being the only factor in that immunity makes it a sort of roving disposition.

Now to be clear none of this is a criticism of the game, but my own take on the perspectives behind the game. That even a game “sketch” has such a thought provoking outlook from the author is a wonderful thing. It’s more that it makes me think of how I would approach the same subject matter.

To me, watching the beginning of the Kerry forum video, the question that overwhelms me is – why don’t the officers realize what it is they’re doing? Look at their faces. They’re not Gestapo. They are wonderfully ordinary people trying to do their job. They did not set out that day to oppress that man’s rights, they set out to get paid, to feed their families, just like any other day. Are they evil? Or are they just wrong?

They’re fulfilling a role they have chosen to take on. They have their own identify somewhat removed by that role & the uniform, which makes it easier to cross these kind of lines. As a bystander, is reacting strictly to the officers’ role is the most effective thing to do? You immediately, as that man did, are forced to take up the opposite role protesting against authority.

The problem is in either role your solutions are limited. The police can restrain and taze protestors, the protestors can resist being moved (and potentially resort to violence themselves). What are the other options? Looking at the many videos taken of the event, maybe doing exactly that is – recording it. Admittedly, that’s not the greatest thing for the guy getting tazed, but having others see it, having the officers themselves watch their own behavior, brings people at least a step closer to realizing the problem (I think).

How does that translate into a game experience? That’s tough. At the core of it is giving the player a role (either protestor or officer) and asking them to rebel against it (which goes back to my last post).

While the game’s iconic representation of police officers encourages you to see them simply as their role (as their uniforms in real life do), to provide a contrasting re-humanization would either require higher fidelity, longer narrative (both crutches for such a short piece), or mechanics that inspired empathization. This could be officers showing support for other injured officers, or if you could resort to violence, officers using non violent methods to deal with you (like pleading with you not to resort to violence). 

That contrast is only the set-up, really, which you would then have to pay off by providing other alternate strategies (like being able to pull officers out of their role somehow so that they stop their behavior), or alternate win conditions (measuring some impact of the public consciousnesss after the event).

One Response to Police Brutality

  • Nick says:

    There’s only one thing I can see being a bit skewed in the sketch: it assumes nobody will be inclined to violence. If one end of the spectrum is being fearful and not interjecting then the other end is being radical and violent.

    Not to critique the game, I think it’s Rohrer’s most relevant game so far — it would just be interesting to see a situation where the user would not only have to incite resistance, but prevent the outbreak of a riot (over stimulation of the pawns). Granted, sometimes rioting is the only answer (as history has shown) but it’s obviously something the non-violent protester wants to avoid in order to get their point across.