Sign up for news

This question has bothered me for a long time. Since my first brush with real genre criticism (going to GA Tech before the take off of the LCC school my unfortunately minimal humanities requirements were nonetheless wonderfully met by classes like “Movie Genres” and “History of Science Fiction”), I’ve looked for subversive elements in games much like the elements in subversive genres like science fiction.

This isn’t exactly easy. If being subversive means making the reader (as in a person “reads” a “text” in any medium, to save me the pain of typing reader/viewer/listener/player) question their own assumptions, games seem to start with a handicap. In order to play a game, you must play by rules set down by someone else. If you are always inherently working within a given rule system, is it ever possible to subvert it?

That problem centers around the mechanics of a game, but not on the topic. Would a satirical game then be subversive? Not a lot of examples here to pull from. “Harpooned” (the “cetacean reseach simulator”) is perhaps the first proper satirical game in my mind. It uses its exaggerated elements (whale gibs, shooter mechanics, etc.) for both humor and to make a socially valuable point, without taken them so far that they conflict with the game’s message. As satire Harpooned effectively makes a point against an existing institution, but it’s not exactly that my assumptions are brought into question, just that I’m made more aware of a problem.

So there’s a distinction to be made between a game that is subversive with respect to its message, and one that is subversive in its “telling” (still no verb to describe the presentation of a game to another, because let’s face it, design is such a shit-watered down verb). “You Have to Burn the Rope” is subversive in the context of other games, and what it points out about them, but there much less subversive about the presentation of those points.

If a game uses procedural rhetoric to make a subversive point, like say “Food Import Folly” from Persuasive Games, the player is meant to question the validity of a system by exploring it. That game is trying to make a subversive point about the issues with the FDA’s food import inspection regulations. Without the ability to change or alter the system simulated by the game, how subversive can the message be? At best you can only point out that there is a problem with such a system, you can’t argue for a solution without being able to see the solution’s effects simulated. Is it less subversive to point out a problem without being able to suggest or allow the exploration of solutions? 

Harvey Smith, creative director of Blacksite: Area 51, often claimed the game was subversive for dealing with political elements the way it did. From my own playthrough (on easy), it’s a harder for me to categorize it that way. There are some elements that could be seen as subversive, but with few exceptions they are all on the strict surface of the game.

For instance, while on the first mission in an oil refinery in Iraq, one of the squad members asks, “Who the hell gives refinery workers assault weapons?”, to which another squad member responds, “Umm… We do.” A strong statement you don’t usually see in a game. But the next chunk of dialog involves the squad members quoting Star Wars. The end effect of sequences like this one is that the dialog is very true to life. I can imagine real soldiers talking like that. Does it make me reflect on or change my opinion of those political choices? No, although that may be not only because the game pretty much comes out and says what it thinks, but that I’ve already asked myself those questions.

The chapter titles are typically ironic uses of Bush administration terms (“Mission Accomplished”) or references to their fuck ups (“Somebody call FEMA”). Pretty unapologetic in their criticism, but then when you look at the plot itself the themes are muddled. The main villain was another soldier who had been experimented on and left for dead by the government. Only as part of his revenge he pretty much wants to kill everyone – making it difficult to look at him as a reedemable or empathizable character. And so it’s not “hey the government did something wrong”, but “hey that guy wants to kill everybody”.

The Escapist recently interviewed David Jaffe on his canceled game Heartland, which attempted to deal with similar issues. In part he discusses production problems like deciding to make a left-leaning political game in Utah of all places (wha-huh?), but he also goes into some scenarios for the game:  

Jaffe describes a real-time sequence where the player and squad enter a suburban house after the Chinese invasion has turned the neighborhood into a war zone. It’s the home of a Chinese-American family. The squad rounds up the family, having them kneel in the living room.

The player chases after the teenage son, beating him and dragging him down the stairs, and throwing him into the living room. The commanding officer orders the player to douse the family and the house with gasoline, and set it on fire. “It was meant to be, ‘Oh, my God, this is the worst thing in the world,'” says Jaffe.

The direct choice almost forces the player to question themselves, along the game’s theme. The reason I say almost here is because the presentation of such a choice will have difficulty declaring that it is a choice to the player (unless it’s explicitly defined via interface like the Little Sisters in Bioshock). If they think they have to do exactly what the game character is telling them to in order to continue playing the game, they won’t act differently. But with repeated choices, the chances go up that it will become apparent to everyone.

Portal (which Joe McNeilly of GamesRadar says is the “most subversive game ever“) manages to both explore subversive themes and utilize subversive scenarios in the game itself. It goes against the standard masculine oriented FPS in that it removes all guns as weapons. The portal gun that replaces them takes on feminine characteristics because it, as McNeilly says, “creates connections rather than destroying life.” Bonnie Ruberg equates the portals with vaginas, even.

The single most subversive moment for me in the game was being lead to the furnace towards the end – stuck on the moving platform leading to your supposedly inevitable death. It’s a well crafted moment, because while the flames are incredibly stressing as they move closer, in reality you have probably have several minutes to realize you can use the one single mechanic, which has been taught extensively across the whole game, to escape. GLaDOUS tells you that you are effectively powerless against her, while you must realize you are empowered to change your circumstances, all while under duress (which is a tricky thing to accomplish design wise).

However, is that subversive moment is directly tied to the game’s subversive themes of masculinity/femininity? I have problems making that connection, but I can’t completely discount that it might be there (you are using the portal gun to give yourself life in that case, but that’s a bit tenuous). Now, the focus of the themes of Portal are naturally more narrow than a game like Blacksite (taking on gender issues in games vs. the war in Iraq), but that is somewhat separate from analyzing the methods they use to explore those themes.

Is the “insincere choice” (telling the player they have no choice while they actually do) the best means we have to present a subversive message? If we are locked into a rule system by the nature of the game’s code we can never change the system, what would be the ultimate extent in this regard? Making a game that allows the players to create their own rules, would almost seem to devolve very quickly into art-piece. The resulting experience might have something profound to say about the abstract notions of games as a subversive medium, but would it lack enough direction/focus to be captivating in the slightest, and therefore possibly unable to be profound or meaningful to an individual? This is in software anyway, an ARG or board/card game might have more potential to explore this area today, with only human (and adaptive) participants.

Maybe this is all just dancing around the definition of subversive. If to subvert is to overthrow or undermine the principles of something, I guess it depends what you’re targeting to undermine. Were you directly attempting to undermine an institution’s policy selections, maybe a game Blacksite would be subversive. If you wanted to change an individual’s perspective on the matter by subtly causing them to question themselves, then it wouldn’t. Can you accomplish something like the former without doing the latter?

Whatever you want to call them, each of the two concepts, conveying a message that goes against the consensus and the delivery of that message to the reader, has a spectrum as to how deep you want to push them. Even if you want to make a point undermining a larger institution, making the reader question their own assumptions on a personal level communicates the point most powerfully. Combining both concepts (using interactive elements such as insincere choice and potentially dynamic systems) is further towards the end of an overall spectrum of how subversively you can explore an issue in a game.

(Sadly I also wanted to discuss No More Heroes here, based on posts like Schlaghund’s, and I do in fact have a copy of the game on the top of my to-play stack, but have not been able to find a Wii, dammit).

11 Responses to How can a game be subversive?

  • Max says:

    Addressing subversion on a formal, mechanical level rather than a dramatic one: does Nomic count as a subversive game, or as a game which is impossible to subvert?

    Also, as a player, what about cheating?

    From a post-post-post-your-critical-school-here perspective, doesn’t any subversion of a system legitimize said system? It seems necessary to lend some credence to any system in an attempt to undermine it, otherwise why bother at all?

    Huizinga’s point about cheaters was that their rebellion against a play-system legitimized and reinforced its magic circle, rather someone who refuses to play, and therefore denies the legitimacy of a given mode of play.

    This may be fatuous, but then if subversive game causes players to question their assumptions, perhaps the change in strategies from beginner to expert may be enough?

    Also, I recall the company store seems to get Wiis in fairly regularly… =)

  • Jimmy Maher says:

    I don’t know if you’re into textual interactive fiction at all, but a very good example of subversion is the IF game Rameses (

    You play a withdrawn and depressed teenager. Anytime you try to prod your avatar to do something about his situation, he refuses with some lame excuse or another. The game thus subverts our expectations of how IF is supposed to work: i.e., you order your little puppet about in the game world, and he does exactly what you tell him to do. In addition to being a surprisingly moving examination of disaffection and depression, it also raises some interesting questions about the exact relation of a player to his in-game avatar.

    I think this sort of subversion of our expectations about how a given genre of game is “supposed” to work can be very powerful and effective, albeit only if not overused. (Rameses used its lack of interactivity very effectively to make a point, but if another game tried to do the same thing I would just consider it a lazy gimmick.) It’s also not the sort of thing you’re likely to see in commercial games, of course, just in freeware efforts that can afford to be a bit more “artsy” and daring.

  • Patrick says:

    Dude, you should play CuttleCandy, we geared it to be subversive from very early on. A subversive RPG or FPS, sure, but a subversive casual game? Tell all your friends.

  • Borut says:

    Max –

    Nomic does sound like a mechanically subversive game, since players are rewarded for thwarting rulesets. But then something like Asshole, the drinking card game that allows players to change/add rules is probably not, because if the game’s goal is to get everyone drunk, you’re definitely not rewarded for subverting the game’s declared intention.

    At a larger philosophical level, subverting a system that opposes you only give it more power/credence if there was no actual power to begin with, only perceived. In other words, you’d have taken on a victim mentality by giving the system more power. But when the advantage is objective, I don’t think you can say that’s the case.

    So think I don’t exactly agree with Huizinga there, in that someone who is cheating is subverting the game – with the added wrinkle that many “cheats” are actually put in place by the game’s developers and therefore a player is not really subverting the game in using them.

    That’s an interesting point about difficulty progression, in that a game that has significantly richer mechanics in more advanced difficulty levels may require changing play styles completely. However, those are assumptions you would only have come by as a product of playing the game (the play styles you had learned up to that point), so is the game making a subversive point? Yeah, I don’t know, but I could some potential there for it.

    And even the damn company store is out of Wiis till June. :(

  • Borut says:

    Jimmy –
    That’s a cool example. Both Bioshock and the Darkness used the avatar to explore tensions between narrative control & player control in games, but I kinda like using it as a metaphor for depression (now if I could only make myself get over the hump of being literate enough in IF to not get annoyed by it).

    Patrick –
    Ok, I made it about a level and a half in (well, admittedly this was during lunch at work so I only had so much time), but how far along do you have to get before the player gets that subversiveness? I kinda see where it might be going with the cutscenes, but was the casual length an problem in conveying a point subversively? Does doing something subversive correlate with complexity, and therefore time?

  • Jimmy Maher says:

    I have Bioshock sitting on my shelf, but I need to get a new videocard to actually play the damn thing. Definitely looking forward to it.

    If I might be allowed to lapse into proselytizer mode for just a moment…

    As someone who is interested in the storytelling possibilities of games and their potential for addressing real world issues, you should give IF a chance. Some fascinating work is being done. See Victor Gijsbers’s The Baron, for instance, which places you in the shoes of a child molester and actually manages to evoke a certain understanding if not exactly forgiveness. There are various getting started guides that can teach you the basics of interaction in an hour or less. Playing IF is no longer a game of “guess the verb” and “read the author’s mind” like in the old days.

  • Justin Parsler says:

    I think that to get to the root of this issue we need to seperate a suberversive text from a subversive reading(where any game is a ‘text’ and anyone who plays it is ‘reading’ it).

    When people read, they make choices (even if they are not aware of it) about ‘how’ they read something. In the case of a game, when a player (for instance) goes out to deliberately ‘break’ the game then they are ‘reading’ it in a subversive way – a way the designer did not intend. There are lots of ways to ‘read’ suberversively and it is easier to do it in a game then, for instance, in a book, because a game, no matter how structured the rules, still allows more freedom to act than a book does.

    This ability we all have to subvert the intent of something we are reading is different from a game that is, in itsefl, suberversive. It seems plain to me that a game *can* be subversive, because any means of communication can be suberversive. I do not think the issue is ‘can games be suberversive’ but ‘how can games be subversive’ – which is the subject that Mr Pfeifer is really addressing.

    However, I think core to my (very limited) point here is that we need to clearly udnerstand that a game offering players an opportunity to be subversive and a game that has a subversive message are two very different things. One could argue, of course, that is a game *lets* you be suberversive, then you are not being subversive at all – you are merely doing what the designer’s intended.

    For instance, say I modded Sim City such that capitalism in no way worked and a communist/socialist model did. I would be making a subversive statement here (even if its a pretty basic one), but a player who went along with my model would not be subversive: they would be agreeing with me. The player would only be subversive if they tried to make Capitalism work, and damn what I (as designer)think.

    I touched on issues of subversion in a paper I co-wrote about Vampire Bloodlines here:

    However, this paper only really touches on this rather huge and complex subject – a subject that, whilst mostly being discussed by academia, is pretty damn important to the industry.

    As a last note: this was a very quick posting, and I have glossed over a huge amount of detail here rather than send everyone to sleep:)

    Thanks for a thought provoking article:)

  • Borut says:

    Justin – Yeah when I discuss a game being subversive, I mean explicitly that it’s creator(s) meant to express a point subversively.

    The point of modding is similar to the issue of cheating that Max raised above. I think that has the potential to stray from the term “reading” – if I start chopping up pages of a book, throw them up in the air and read the random bits here and there, am I reading the original work, or have I destroyed it? With modding, especially with games whose creators have built in advanced modding functionality, this is perhaps less the case, but more so for cheating and more advanced modding.

    Still though, that reading is subverting the game systems by directly changing them, which seems to be necessary in order to do that. The exception or grey area here is games with emergent dynamics, such that a player might combine mechanics in such a way that the designers did not intend – however most designers of such games are fully away of that possibility and go to great lengths to support such interactions directly, not requiring a subversive reading.

  • Nick says:

    Before I say anything, thanks to the poster above, that actually cleared things up for me a bit.

    I believe Huizinga’s point about cheaters being more welcomed than those who refuse to play relates not so much to formal game cheats, but rather to exploiters and hackers. For example, if I were to ask a friend to join me in playing Counterstrike and he said he didn’t care to, then the game has been devalued in my mind — the person who disregards the game is the worst enemy of the person who plays it. The cheater however, justifies the seriousness of the game and reinforces the magic circle because cheating is inherently a method of ensuring a better chance at winning the game, albeit through dirty or ambiguous means. Yes, cheaters may still be looked down upon, but it shows that winning the game is something of value to be coveted, that someone would go out of their way to bend the rules in order to win — the game gains value because the cheater is in the magic circle and wants to win (or at least enjoys beating the other players; griefing).

    To get back to subversion, you should try playing Noitu Love 2:

    While I think there is a distinction between narrative subversion and mechanical subversion in games, Noitu Love 2 actively works to change player expectations mechanically. It plays a bit like Metal Slug mixed with Devil May Cry, but with plenty of unique bosses (several per level) that challenge the way you are used to using your abilities or keeping track of things. Some bosses have no health bars, or lose their health bars in a phase — most can only be killed using special parts of the environment. There are level segments where the wind blows against you, forcing you to thrust forwards by aiming at enemies, parts where gravity constantly flips but your movement keys remain constant (gravity changes direction, UP still jumps the character, but the jump is DOWN on-screen).

    This kind of mechanical subversion does nothing to send a message by itself (it spices up gameplay and makes for fun problem solving), but used in unison with narrative — like you mentioned with Portal — I feel a game can indeed be subversive.

    Like the comment above outlines nicely, it seems like it’s not an “if” but rather “how much” can a game be subverted, or subvert an audience.

    That even creates another question, using the Sims modification example: if the player follows along and creates a socialist economy has the player been subverted by the game, and if they opt to try and make capitalism work does that mean the player is trying to subvert the game?

    If so, does the act of trying to subvert a game actually make the game subversive whether the authors planned for it or not? For instance, if I try to play Lemmings without killing anything, or play GTA without killing.

    Excellent article, but my brain hurts :)

    P.S. The comments are acting weird, sorry if this spams your wordpress >