Oppression in Games: What are we learning?

Awhile back we got a smart phone for the first time, and I downloaded a game based on the cuteness of its icon. It turned out to be Triple Town, and I got briefly obsessed, even finding it on Facebook when I ran out of credits or points or whatever it is they give you until you have to start paying money to keep playing.

It’s an addictive puzzle game, which is what I found appealing about it. You combine icons to make higher-value icons. But these icons tell a story. They’re not just little jewels or tiles or something. Triple Town is set on land, populated by bears. You combine grass until you have flowers, and you combine those until you have bushes, and those in turn become trees, which then become buildings, and then churches and cathedrals. Along the way you trap the bears, turning them into tombstones. Enough tombstones and you’ve got a church. You encounter “ninja bears” who can move around more freely and block your moves, and you kill them, to turn them into tombstones, too. At some point the game tells you you’ve been working on colonies; there’s a mainland which sends out ships to them to get their resources to bring back to the “Capital City,” where they can be used to build monuments, armaments, and coin-making farms and factories to fund further exploitation of the islands.

So not only was I a bear-killer, I was an imperialist. I got deeply uncomfortable and after a while it wasn’t even my “guilty pleasure” anymore, it was just an addictive thing I felt creepy about. So I stopped playing.

In the back of my mind I wondered about Triple Town. I imagine a lot of people don’t have issues with killing tiny animated bears and stealing their resources; the game is very popular. Were the game producers just idiots, unaware of what they were teaching people? Or were they deliberately brainwashing folks? I put it out of my mind.

Then the other day, I thought of it again and Googled “Triple Town colonization” – and found this post by one of the game’s creators, from back in 2011: Lost Garden: Triple Town Beta (Now with Bears).

This article is interesting on several fronts.

One, it talks about tuning emotions in a very strange way. I feel as though I’m reading something written by an extremely intelligent but powerfully manipulative robot.

During one early prototype, the NPCs were accidentally displayed as small children. Naturally, players felt bad when trapped them and they turned into grave stones. Accidental deaths led to guilt and sadness while deliberate deaths evoked a dissonant feeling of cruelty.

Two, it reveals that the theme of imperialism is very much an intentional part of the game:

Triple Town is a game about colonization. Consider the following common dynamics and how labels derived from the metaphor tie them together in a coherent setting.

  • You’ve been ordered by the empire from across the sea to build a new city on virgin territory.
  • In the process, natives (depicted as less than human) keep showing up on ‘your’ land. They never attack you, but they keep preventing you from expanding.
  • So you push them off to the side. More experienced players create small reservations and pack the natives in as tightly as possible.
  • Due to overcrowding the natives die off en mass.
  • You use their bones to build churches and cathedrals.
  • When particularly difficult natives appear that seek to escape your reservations, you bring out your overwhelming the military might and remove the pest so you can continue with your manifest destiny.

The match between the theme of colonization and emotions of the mechanics was so strong, I tuned it back slightly so it wasn’t quite so on the nose. Instead of selecting a recognizable group that suffered under colonization, I made the NPCs into morally ambiguous bears. It would have been very easy to present players with a choices that were obviously black and white where players fall back on pre-learned schema. However, I’m more interested in the edge cases in which a player does something they feel is appropriate and then as time goes on they begin to understand the larger consequences of their actions. At this point in the development of the world, player should naively explore the system and due to the dynamics of game, then form a strong justification of their role as colonists.

What started as an abstract game is slowly but surely turning into a rich world. What is beyond the city walls? Long term, the themes of colonization, imperialism and the impact on native cultures will unfold over a series of planned game expansions. With slight variations in labeling, I should be able to tune in a variety of powerful emotions related to the theme of colonization.

And three, the creators of Triple Town came up with this metaphor after designing the game. And because they didn’t see this until after they’d produced their satisfying game dynamic, they’re running into issues. Not only will players like me get disgusted and give up because the game appears to be completely racist and oppressive, others will push their discomfort aside and keep playing anyway, and yet others won’t even pick up on the theme of imperialism and will think if the bears as just “bad guys.”

So, this made me wonder what had happened in the couple of years since the beta was released. If I continued playing, would I be pleasantly surprised? Would I be shown the error of my imperialist ways? Back to Google.

In a more recent article published in June 2012, Bears are Jerks: The Evolution of Triple Town, we read,

The best thing about that narrative, as Edery sees it, is that there’s room for more change. Right now it’s a straight-up colonization story, but what about the future? One of the potential narrative twists could have the colonists revolting against the Empire, perhaps even joining forces with the bears.

The article continues,

Focusing on the jerkiness of bears is one way of looking at Triple Town, but as he points out there’s more depth in the colonization narrative that meets the eye. Bears aren’t jerks. Looked at mechanically, they’re a necessary randomizing element that has the added bonus of being easily converted into points and coin, rewarding the player for clever play; a resource with legs. Looked at from a narrative perspective, they’re as much victims as villains. Colonization has always meant bending the local environment to the colonizer’s will, but the bears refuse to go quietly. After all they didn’t know the Empire was going to turn their meadows into housing developments, in the process making churches out of their bones. No wonder they’re grumpy.

Yeah, exactly like the Native Americans who were “grumpy” and had to be killed off too, when white Europeans showed up and started forcing Christianity and exploitation on everyone. Great lessons, guys! I like that in this post, a couple of years after the game was produced, the game creators are still only thinking of ways out of the hole they’ve dug themselves into.

So what’s happened since then? At a game developers’ conference in March of this year,

…executives at Spry Fox explained that the team behind Triple Town saw discovering usable free-to-play game mechanics like “sending ships out into the ocean, hoping to find land” and that they hadn’t always found the right islands, with even the critically-acclaimed Triple Town not “highly successful.”

… thus revealing that not only did they apparently never redeem themselves or the game; in fact, they think of the game’s fans as just another colony to exploit, that didn’t work out. COO Daniel Cook goes on to say,

“tiny slivers of land” must be ignored on the quest for the “continent of play space.”

… aaaaand they’ve learned nothing.

And look what they’ve taught all of their Triple Town fans in the process:
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Maybe the folks at Spry Fox should think more about what story they’re telling, before they begin designing more soullessly addictive games to play. And maybe they should think more about their relationship with other human beings, who are not colonies, or slivers of land, or continents, or markets, or even consumers, but sentient beings who are always learning and thinking and who are capable of wonderful things – if we only put our minds to it.

(Lest I sound too judgmental, I should say that ultimately I think the fault here lies not with the people at Spry Fox but with capitalism. They’re just a product of a system that alienates us from each other and forces us to exploit and profit from each other’s labor, instead of using our intelligence to do more useful things. Hey, someone should make a game about that…)

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