Flash: the graffiti of the 21st century

Over a year ago, I wrote a piece for Slate magazine about how online Flash games were being used as the newest form of social comment. As I pointed out at the time:

As a game, however, it’s pretty dull. Most of these political games are. You’d never find yourself pumping quarters addictively into them. They’re low-tech, 2-D, cartoonish, and the game-play in most is so painfully simple that you can master them after one or two sessions at the keyboard. Yet this is, weirdly, part of the point. These games aren’t trying to get you hooked or make your thumbs sore. They’re trying to make you think.

These days, more people are starting to take this thesis seriously, which is deeply cool. In fact, there are now two new blogs that exist solely to track the growth of games as commentary — Water Cooler Games and Social Impact Games. And when the guys at Newsgaming.com recently launched a game called Sept. 12 — which essentially argues that trying to fight terrorism by bombing Middle-Eastern countries will only produce more terrorists — game-designer Greg Costikyan completely lost his shit; on his blog, he posted:

I don’t object too strenously, really—I mean, idiotic and banal editorials are written every day. And indeed, this is an idiotic and banal—well, I won’t call it a game, and they don’t either. Game-like editorial object. Once mustn’t get too exercised about idiotic and banal editorials; they are legion, and being idiotic and banal in expressing an opinion is a fundamental human right. Still and all, if the purpose is to demonstrate the utility of games as a means of illuminating current political issues and derive greater insight into them…. surely this has failed.

Costikyan is a smart dude, and he’s certainly right that Sept. 12 isn’t terribly subtle. But it doesn’t mean the idea of games-as-commentary is bankrupt. Indeed, New York Defender is a much more complex example of this genre. In the game, you try to prevent planes from crashing into the World Trade Center — but you always inevitably lose, which produces, as I argued in Slate, “a grim message about the hopelessness of anti-terrorism: Try as you might to knock every enemy out of the sky, one will always slip past.” More precisely, the game argues that in an open society like the U.S., one cannot prevent all terrorist attacks from succeeding; the key is to simultaneously be trying to change the world so that terrorism isn’t a necessary last resort of people who want to make a political point.

You could argue that argument is way too idealistic, and not very new. But nonetheless, experiencing that argument as a game gives you, I think, a new way of grappling with the point of view. In games like this, you experience an argument through physics, as opposed to through words. Consider how weird that is: We now have game designers using physics as a rhetorical style.

Here’s another analog: Graffiti. Back in the 70s, it exploded as a cheap, quick way to produce colorful art and pointed political commentary. Flash is doing the same thing for the Internet. Flash games are graffiti for the 21st century.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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