In the world of indie game development, Anna Anthropy is known primarily for three things: her encyclopedic knowledge of 2D level design; her ability to manifest personal and political thoughts on gender, sexuality, and kink through her own spatial and procedural designs; and a preternatural knack for being able to convey this knowledge and her design sensibility to others — sometimes evocatively, sometimes angrily.
It should come as no surprise then, to see Anthropy doing something for political game design that hasn’t often been done before. Anthropy’s “Keep Me Occupied“ is a cooperative maze-navigation game where two players must hold down switches for each other in order to proceed through gates — at least, that’s what it was when it was an unnamed prototype made at a game jam.
If you download “Keep Me Occupied” and play it on your own computer, it’s a quirky cooperative game that could be loosely connected by its background images and title to the Occupy Wall Street movement. But unlike many newsgames or activist games, “Keep Me Occupied” wasn’t designed as an external representation or commentary on its subject matter for the edification of the world outside looking in. Instead, it was designed to be played by the very people taking part in Occupy demonstrations.
This isn’t the case of a game and its designer scratching toward political legitimacy in the world at large; it’s an artistic intervention targeted toward a specific community.
cheering on a social movement?
My first impression of the game was that it performed a fairly simple role of cheerleading. “Keep Me Occupied” is unflaggingly optimistic, analogizing the progress of an idealized social movement as it moves ever onwards and upwards. The rule that Anthropy added to her earlier prototype in order to liken it to the Occupy movement is clear and beautiful: When your team of two’s 60 seconds in the vertical maze are over, your avatars “occupy” the last two gate switches that they pressed. The avatars keep those gates open for all subsequent playthroughs, allowing new teams to reach higher and higher.
It’s a model of scaffolding: As Occupy establishes more permanent sites, rules of conduct, and connections to the larger political community, it makes everything easier for all who will come after (either seen as new members to the movement or as potential future movements in the same vein).
These first impressions left a sour taste in my mouth, because it all seemed too pat and facile. What about the eroding force of exhaustion, apathy, and institutional attacks by police and local government? Why aren’t there rules that attempt to simulate these difficulties, perhaps in the form of morphing maze structures or the “death” of occupying avatars over time?
Might the calcification of former players as static gate-holders be read as cynical rather than hopeful? And, finally, is it necessarily true that as an organization grows it becomes easier for new members to grok its culture and find a meaningful place in its grand scheme?
One answer to these questions is that it isn’t a critic’s job to suggest design elements; these aren’t Anthropy’s initial concerns, and the work stands on its own. Another is to delve deeper into the experience of playing “Keep Me Occupied” and its place within a given demonstration.
The meaning behind the arcade cabinet
One element that this game leverages is its physicality. “Keep Me Occupied” is the flagship software for a custom arcade cabinet built for Oakland’s Occupy chapter. According to Anthropy, the Oak-U-Tron 201X cabinet was released for their January 28 demonstration. Because the unit is battery-powered and mounted on wheels, it can accompany demonstrators while they march — a fact which strengthens the relative simplicity of its play.
It’s hard to understand the importance of this arcade cabinet without knowledge of the social history of the arcade and empathy for the plight of the introvert at an event like an Occupy demonstration.
As analyzed and partially recounted in Todd Harper’s excellent dissertation, “The Art of War,” the arcade cabinet is a machine that brings people together in a strange and wonderful way. In the case of fighting games, Harper’s main subject matter, these objects and the software they carried were able to foster the grassroots development of a new sport (professional fighting gaming).
Most of the avid fighting game players that Harper interviewed have some story to tell about how they were pulled into the larger fighting game community by an initial interaction with a stranger in an arcade. People naturally congregate around these objects, especially when the games they bear allow for more than one player.
In this way, the Oak-U-Tron itself serves as a social scaffolding tool (being an introvert who has attended a few Occupy events and found myself unable to push myself into conversations with strangers, this would have been a blessing).
Another important aspect of arcade cabinets is the “I Got Next” convention. As Anthropy recounts on her blog, she added “shortcuts” to the game to inspire some players to sacrifice their playtime in order to make the road significantly easier for future players. This kind of sacrifice makes much more sense when placed in the context of a shared arcade space, where players are likely to pass on the controls to someone else in the crowd out of courtesy.
But even without this context, we can see this as another example of a game’s expressive ability to manipulate time. Sometimes, 60 seconds in a game will go by in a flash. But, playing “Keep Me Occupied” and realizing that the only way to guarantee the highest possible score is for somebody to bite the bullet and essentially burn 58 seconds in order to hold open the first set of gates, this minute of time dilates significantly.
It’s an invocation of the idea that everyone has something to contribute to the Occupy movement, regardless of their skills or the time they have available to commit. Perhaps “Keep Me Occupied” is a cheerleading game — but in a wider ecology of editorial and political games that use cynical humor in order to convey a message, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air.