With the scary rise of populist fascist sentiment in the west, many of us are confused, scared and unsure how to act. An unusual opening line for a blog post about a game jam, but Resist Jam sought to unite game makers in a stand against fascism: to create games exploring issues around civil rights, freedom of expression and resisting the abuse of power.
I wanted to contribute a game to this jam, so I asked my friends Nat, Jim, Jules and Joe if they wanted to work together on a project. We all wanted to get involved and so we formed a team! I’ve worked with these people before and this unit is my game dev dream team – we had a great time working together.
One of the first things that surprised me about this game jam is that it encouraged us to discuss our political ideas and stances together as a group. I’m not sure about other countries and cultures, but on the South coast of England we don’t discuss the subject of politics in public very often. An opportunity to hear the opinions of your friends (and people overhearing in the pub) is really enlightening. Freedom of expression during a game jam brainstorm is not unusual, but the amount of learning that came from listening to other people in stage was notable.
Our discussion around the game jam brief was mostly political, so we were likely to make a political game. Inspired by games like Papers Please, we were looking for a game that gave players incentive to make decisions that were against their natural political opinion, to encourage players to look at issues from another point of view.
After brainstorming a few ideas, we ended up circling around the concept of playing as a politician and appealing to a crowd. Political margins are slim, and UK politics are all about appealing to the centre ground. I believe that most politicians are doing what they think is right, but they seem to contradict and betray core voters around election time, compromising their core values for populist policies. We thought that this area of politics might be fun to turn into a game, with the key question:
Will you compromise your own values to win votes?
In many ways it’s asking sympathy for the Devil, encouraging the player to empathise with a politician. Still, we hoped that by encouraging players to consider what politicians phrase as “difficult choices”, we’d encourage our players to me more aware of the pressures that underpin the nature of our democracy.
The first design of this game saw players operating sliders to adjust their policy, then broadcasting their stance to the crowd. All the characters were human at this point! A little bit like a game of mastermind, players had to tease out a policy that appealed to the broadest range of voters. This design lacked a little depth, so we came up with this idea of newspaper headlines that change the issues that the voters care about, forcing the player to adapt and respond. This essentially puts the player as a politician against the press!
Under the hood, each voter had a value from -50 to 50 as to their left and right political lean on each issue. Adjusting the sliders on our policy areas generated the lean of the player’s message. Through maths (kindly provided by Susanna) the voters moved towards the politician they agreed with most on a sliding scale.
There were lots of problems with this design. Firstly, most of our voters had to be centrist in order for our ‘message’ to work, and subtle changes to policy actually had very little visual effect on the crowd. Perhaps this version was too accurate a simulation! Additionally, explaining the UI, the notion of policy, the synchronous turn taking, the cause and effect – basically the whole game – was much harder than expected. We had key policy areas and descriptions, put players never really engaged with these ideas in order to win over the crowd, so we weren’t challenging the player’s values as intended. Time to rethink the game design.
During our brainstorm session, we’d had an idea whereby the player was given a statement and then asked how they wanted to respond. We realised that interacting with policy areas in this way was powerful, and we can feed this into our existing game design.
This led to the current design of the game – the player is presented with three statements, and has to choose the one they most agree with.
To make the voters more responsive, we changed the underlying mathematics so that they move toward the politician they agree with on the most amount of issues. There are 5 issues in the game, so if a voter agrees with the player on at least three issues, they will be on their side.
This solved most of the problems, but the voters were still moving around with some mystery. The player was just clicking issues and seeing a response – we wanted to challenge how willing they are to trade their beliefs for political gain. Allowing the player a little peek under the hood, telling them “55% of voters will agree with this”, lets them see how their choice might affect the game and makes them consider how strongly they believe in it.
The newspapers were kept in this design to mix up the voter profiles and force the player to respond to the changing whims of the crowd. These flip the opinions of a random set of voters on a certain issue – changing the public support for an issue.
At this point, the game still featured some nebulous concept of a political debate – there were voters, campaigners, newspapers… but no setting. We wanted an English feel to the game, so decided upon a village fete: a right wing speaker pitches up and you have to present alternative arguments. Upon seeing the field designed, we asked “What if the voters are literal sheep?” This gave us a unique setting for our political argument, and a name – “Bleat the Wolf”.
Having a farmyard theme meant we were ready to pin down our policy areas and ask Joe, our writer, to come up with some specific policies to challenge our players! Joe did a great job creating a mix of farrmyard puns, references and policies that make sense on the farmyard but have a place in the real world too. This made the game lighthearted and fun to play, but still fulfilled the aim of questioning the player’s political beliefs.
The final touches were added in pretty UI, animations, music and SFX. I wrote a function that causes the sheep to baa() every 4 seconds (I’m pretty happy about it) and we were ready to submit!
Everyone on the team worked really hard on the project. It was an intense time, putting long evenings into game dev after our day jobs making games. Working again with Nat, Jules, Joe and Jim, I was reminded how lucky I am to work with such talent, and what it takes to make a game in such a short space of time.
Please give the game a go! It’s not perfect, such is the nature of jam games, but it achieves what we set out to do. For this reason, I am incredibly proud of the work we put in together.
In case you’re looking to hire me, please can I highlight the two main imperfections of the game. 1) You really need to invest time to read all the cards before you make a decision, but the time limit is too short. The time limit was added to make you feel under pressure, like a politician, but it’s too much. 2) The newspapers appear at random times, rather than between rounds, and dismiss all the cards played in the round, often disappointing the player. We also don’t make it clear enough as to what causes newspapers to appear because we ran out of time to get the animation in. Game jams, eh?