March 14, 2004

Newsgaming’s Madrid

by Andrew Stern · , 12:35 pm

Via Watercoolergames, Gonzalo Frasca’s Newsgaming.com has a small new piece, Madrid, a simple homage to the victims of the recent bombings in Spain.

(Correction: Originally the above paragraph also listed Ian Bogost as a co-producer, but this was incorrect; some of the later comments in this thread refer to that original version of the post.)

I found my initial reaction to this piece to be different than how I felt about Newsgaming’s Sept 12. My reaction deals not with the simplicity of the interaction / behavior itself (an issue some had with Sept 12), or with the idea of paying homage to such an event in an interactive manner; I feel both are appropriate and have been done tastefully enough. It’s just that I feel a bit uncomfortable with the term game in this context. (Again, terminology…)

I suppose the term game for me still implies play, and if not necessarily pleasure, at least the thrill of the challenge. To me, those phenomena don’t match up well for paying homage to a tragedy. Or at least I haven’t yet found a way to think about it that makes me feel perfectly comfortable. (The term serious games works fine for me, since the scenarios it is applied to leave room for play, creativity and the thrill of solving challenges.)

So, again (1 2) this suggests to me that we need a new term or terms for interactive experiences that explore the nuances of people’s lives, emotional situations, the “human condition”, etc.

With Sept 12 I was more comfortable with the term game, since it quite effectively drew the analogy of the videogame-like mechanics of launching cruise missiles at the enemy from afar.

All that said, I think it’s brave of the Newsgaming folks to be experimenting with this form in this way. I look forward to seeing more experiments; sadly there seems to be no shortage of current events to react to…

By the way, I tried for a few minutes, but couldn’t “win” this “game”; I couldn’t manage to get the glow bright enough for whatever payoff you might get.

… oh… hmm… ah…

20 Responses to “Newsgaming’s Madrid


  1. Michael Says:

    It’s interesting that Madrid, September 12 and Kabul Kaboom all make use of the same procedural rhetoric: the unwinnable game. In Madrid one must keep playing – keeping the light alive is a never-ending duty. In September 12 one must not play – the “winning condition” is a mirage that any attempt to play moves ever further way. In Kabul Kaboom one must play but be doomed to failure – since you’re starving you need to catch the food packets, but the bombs will always get you. So part of the discomfort about calling these games is caused by the fact that undermining the notion of winning condition is at the heart of these works. Which leaves me to wonder what other procedural rhetorics could be employed in a newsgame. Do newsgames always have to be about the unwinnable game? Are there certain topics that one shouldn’t turn into games? Gonzalo has argued before that it would be obscene to make a game about the Holocaust (and he doesn’t mean shooting Nazi soldiers ala Wolfenstein – he’s talking about the Holocaust per se). One can imagine making a game using the previous newgaming design in which one must be forever vigilant to keep the memory alive (no winning). Is there anything else one could do? Back in the day when Gonzalo talked about narrative design in games (his One Session Games of Narration days), he had some interesting ideas for making choices really matter in the context of interactive story. Gonzalo, have you thought about resuscitating some of those ideas?

  2. nick Says:

    I tried for a few minutes, but couldn’t “win”

    In Madrid one must keep playing – keeping the light alive is a never-ending duty.

    Actually, you can win. Perhaps you two were playing on trackpad or eraser-based systems? I think the little line near the right-hand side of the light indicator at the bottom is supposed to signal your ability to win, but I bet it would be very tough to do so without a mouse (with the right settings).

    I don’t have a problem with calling Madrid (or September 12, or Kabul Kaboom) a game, but where does it get us? If there’s nothing to discuss in terms of rules, gameplay, goal state, skill, play activity, and so on, why not just discuss it as interactive art and use generic HCI and artistic terminology? Unless it’s injecting this into the context of gaming (as opposed to that of “net.art”) that is the important thing about the label “game.” But what is important about that?

  3. andrew Says:

    I assume Gonzalo and Ian refer to Madrid and the other Newsgaming pieces as games for several reasons, such as injecting them into the context of games as you suggest, but I’d guess a primary reason is simply that there is no other well-used and well-understood single word that comes close enough to characterizing them?

    And that’s where I think we are in a real need for new term here, akin to how Aldous Huxley coined the term “feelie” in Brave New World. Such a term (not “feelie”, though, too corny) could perhaps better identify forms such as interactive drama, IF, etc.

    This discussion echoes Noah’s sentiments from a few weeks ago, too.

    (I was using a mouse by the way — if Madrid is winnable, I wasn’t able to do it after a couple minutes of trying.)

  4. nick Says:

    I’m not so sure that a new term, by itself, is going to help with discussion of Madrid. What I’d like to know is what makes the experience of this game (or whatever you’d like to call it) interesting? I think the main thing is the text that is written on people’s shirts; the interactive dimension just gives you something to do and makes you spend a longer time with the image, distracted from reading it directly. I think there’s more affinity to a political cartoon than to a video game here, in terms of what aspects of this work are actually important. Someone who reviewed or criticized video games would not have much to add to the discussion, beyond what someone who analyzed political cartoons might say.

    Feel free to contradict me, though, by providing some video-game-specific analysis…

  5. Ian Bogost Says:

    To be fair to Gonzalo, my role in MADRID was pretty peripheral; I play tested and beta tested, and I gave Gonzalo some design feedback, but this was really his concept.

    For the record, I think there is a winning condition in MADRID, but it’s detached from the traditional notion of winning in games. You win MADRID through the realization that the solution to terrorism is mired in the future.

    At the same time, I think it’s a great idea to look for modes of rhetoric than the unwinnable game. But, are we really talking about “winning” or just other kids of completion states? In the Dean for Iowa Game, the game ends with a definitive score, which we saw players compare (and even base hard dollar contributions on). What about Grand Theft Auto? What about Pac Man, for that matter, a theoretically endless game.

    “Winning” a game is probably a bigger topic worth discussing further. There’s a beginning discussion over at Mia Consalvo’s MemoryCard.

    As for the “is it a game” question… I’m just not very interested in answering that one. If other people want to, that’s fine, but I’d rather spend my time thinking about new procedural rhetoric. But as Nick points out, keep in mind that the principle goal of the Newsgaming project was to create games that functioned more as political cartoons.

  6. Gonzalo Says:

    Hey, from Montreal airport. Two small comments, I’ll post later. First, a small credits detail: the game was developed by the Newsgaming team, which does not include Ian (it is against our policy to make newsgames with guys whose names are just three letters :). Second, Michael, YOU CAN WIN at Madrid (hey, you need to practice, dude). See you guys soon!

  7. andrew Says:

    I think the main thing is the text that is written on people’s shirts; the interactive dimension just gives you something to do and makes you spend a longer time with the image, distracted from reading it directly. I think there’s more affinity to a political cartoon than to a video game here

    To the extent that is true, I would view Madrid as a failure. To be successful, works like this must offer more than what a static (or even animated) political cartoon can; its reason for being interactive should be essential to its meaning, more than just a hook for getting us to look at an image…

    We’re all tired of trying to define what is and isn’t a game, and I hesitate to continue pursuing that line of thought… Yet, in fact, one of the things that makes Madrid interesting to me is its reference to games! Let me reframe my point: I’m feeling provoked by the concept of creating an interactive work about a tragedy using game-like devices, such as the progress bar in the corner. Maybe it’s because a straightforward reference to games like this, for me, sets an expectation of play, the thrill of challenge, etc. In the context of this tragedy, that doesn’t sit well with me, yet. (Again, it worked for me in Sept 12 because of the reference to the videogame mechanics of modern warfare.)

  8. Ian Bogost Says:

    Andrew, nice point. I think the issue you’re touching on has to do with representing highly abstract concepts as calculable ones. It’s sort of the representational equivalent of describing a terrorist bomb in terms of the power of the explosive.

    In this case, the progress bar could be read to articulate this difficulty. Unless there’s something Gonzalo’s not telling me, I think the top end of the flame level meter is a red herring. But, the bottom end does correspond with the calculable state that the game represents — that of giving up.

    Of course, this gets back to Michael’s original question about self-reflexivity in newsgame rhetoric.

  9. Gonzalo Says:

    Hi, I just got to Quebec after some 20 hour trip. I am a bit confused, but let me just two things. First, please correct the credits. The game was developed by me and the newsgaming.com team which does not incude Ian. He’s my partner in crime at Watercooler and we did a game together (the Dean game) and I look forward to make more games, but he should not be credited for Madrid. Second thing, you can win the game. It is not easy though, but the winning feature is there (I could add some jokes about the Tech guys gaming skills, I guess ;) So, the conclusions were a bit rushed, I guess, but interesting. Well, I need to sleep. I’ll post more tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you guys next week! Gonzalo

  10. Gonzalo Says:

    Hey, I just realized that the post I made from the airport did post after all (the connection was crappy and it got reset it). Anyway, I guess I made it now very clear that you can win at Madrid and that my good friend Ian was trying to get the credits to my games, my bank account, my wife and all my GameBoyAdvance cartridges while I surfed the friendly skies on my way to frozen Canada :) Good thing the Uruguayan secret police stopped him on his tracks. Now, back to sleep. Gonzalo

  11. Ian Bogost Says:

    Hey, I’ve been talking since 6 posts up about how it was your game!

    Your GPA carts, well, that’s another thing ;)

  12. andrew Says:

    Poor Gonzalo at the moment is both extremely jet lagged and being forced to speak Canadian French, so his confusion is understandable. All’s straightened out now, we can return to our regularly scheduled debate.

  13. gregolas Says:

    Andrew —

    It took me about 30 seconds to win with a mouse! :-)

    But re the substance — this is a game. It’s the same game as juggling, essentially — or maybe “Whack-a-Mole” invertered (“Lift-A-Mole”?). There is something worthy of criticism here — the game play isn’t subtle, but can ponder how the Whack-A-Mole ludic structure (sorry – couldn’t think of a better way of saying that) might support or detract from the effect of what would otherwise be a representation of a memorial gathering following the Madrid massacre.

  14. michael Says:

    OK, OK, you can win. The second time I played, I did win (though not in 30 seconds – took more like a minute or two).

    So Kabul Kaboom and September 12 make use of the trope of the unwinnable game. What does Madrid do? I agree it has a Whack-A-Mole ludic structure (by the way, before people start impugning our game skills at Tech, I must say that I rock at Whack-A-Mole – used to play alot at the Circus-Circus casino in Reno). When you Whack sufficiently, you get a payoff, though the payoff for me doesn’t really add to the experience. In fact, having the meter bar be a red herring and making another unwinnable game might may have been more effective. With the unwinnable game, the concept of the piece and the game action are tightly related, whereas the notion of a game payoff in reward for skillful play isn’t as integrated with the concept of a memorial. That said, it’s impressive that they made anything in two days – I tend to think about projects in terms of years rather than days.

    With Ian, I’m not so interested in having the “what is a game” argument. But I do like Nick’s question about what theoretical leverage deploying the term “game” gives you in this context. For Madrid, I’m not sure it if does buy anything. Invoking “game” doesn’t help me locate the procedural rhetoric at play in Madrid – in fact, now that I’ve won, I don’t know what the procedural rhetoric is (the payoff mechanic is at odds with the idea of a memorial). I’d call Madrid a software toy – something you can fiddle with that engages you for a few minutes. But for Kabul Kaboom and September 12, I find invoking “game” quite useful. Both games make use of known gameplay mechanics that establish an expectation of being able to win. The confounding of this expectation is precisely what makes these experiences rhetorically function.

  15. Frasca Says:

    Hey guys. First of all, Quebec city is a terrific place. I am here for ICEM 2004, a conference on educational multimedia. James Paul Gee keynoted yesterday, Seymour Papert will do it today. As you can imagine, I am having a blast.

    That being said, it is a pleasure to have the game being discussed here, this “instant” feedback is one of the best things anybody could ask for. As a webgame creator, I usually don’t like to comment on just released games, because it is so much fun to see how they take an online life of their own. On the other hand, as a researcher, it is really compelling for me to talk about them. I think this is in part due to the immediacy of the newsgames, too. I have been always fascinated about political cartoons. One of my favorite cartoonist is Plantu, from Le Monde. He posted 2 drawings about the Madrid attacks during the first 2 days, all blaming ETA. Now, he just posted one with a little Osama. It is one of the beauties and dangers of journalism.

    Certainly, Sept12 and Madrid are structurally two different beasts. First of all, Sept12 took 3 months to develop and Madrid probably about 9 hours. In Sept12, I think that the ideological message is not on the graphics, but on one of its rules (kill civilians, generate terrorists). That is not the case of Madrid, a game that relies more, as you guys say, on the emotional value of the graphics. However, the game rules still work as a trope, even though not as strongly as Sept12, I think. If you give up, then you lose. If you work for the collective shining of the candles, you’ll win. The main challenge that I faced with Madrid is answering to the following question: how do you make a game about something so terrible? Even though this is not a Boalian game, Augusto Boal always says that you must work with oppression and not aggression, because there is nothing that you can do against aggression once it is over. I understand what he claims that, but I think there are workarounds to model these situations.

    As a theorist, I do not see a problem to call Madrid a game. It has both a winning and losing scenario, a goal, a constrained time and space. Certainly, an awfully simple game, but still a game. Certainly, a game that heavily relies on its narrative framework, as defined by the graphics and sounds. Another thing that could be present in Madrid (and I hate to criticize my own games, but I guess have to assume this role of artist/theorist even if I do not like it), is the taboo of playing with the dead. Of course, you are not litterally playing with them, but you should see the faces of the people that I have been talking to during the last few days when I say that I just launched a videogame about the attacks in Madrid. Everybody assumes that it would be some gorey, action game, because that’s one of the genre’s most common traits. So there is some alienation going on when you create a game about an unplayable topic, I guess. So, not only I do not have a theoretical problem to describe Madrid as a game, but there is also an aesthetical/rhetoric effect by presenting it as such (notice that Sept12 is presented as a simulation and not as a game).

    Janet Murray posted a link to Madrid to the IDT list and she described newsgames more as experimentation with a new genre that as games as such. And I totally agree. There is certainly a toy-like, simulational element on newsgames that is a direct consequence of the simplicity that their immediacy requires. But there is a room to playfully generate a communication between the most traditiona and established genres of games and videogames, and these little games based on the news.

    Wow, this was a long post (it’s been a while since I posted something like this at my own blog!). I got an email at newsgaming.com from a guy who said that it was the first time in 15 years as a gamer that a videogame made him cry. Certainly, I do keep in mind that it is easier for a designer to generate “easy” emotional reactions when dealing with such a terrible topic as terrorism. It would be understandable that some people would accuse Madrid to be a manipulative, cheap-thrills piece (so far I haven’t heard anybody saying it, but it is one of the logical reactions to expect). But if we are “inventing the medium” as Janet Murray likes to say, then we do need to open the door to difficult topics so they can enter the game realm.

    And just one more thing. As Michael says, I have written about the morality of making a game about things like the Holocaust. But I did say that it “would” be considered immoral to do such a thing, but I am not convinced that it has to be. I think there are thngs to be learnt while playing with fire. Surely, there is a likely chance that we’ll burn ourselves with it. But, as I like to say, fire can also bring light into things. And that makes the risk worth taking.

  16. gregolas Says:

    > But for Kabul Kaboom and September 12, I find invoking “game” quite useful.

    Which is kind of intereting, because unlike Madrid, those two games lack a quantifiable outcome (“winning or losing scenario” as Gonzalo says)

    Gonzalo> “…you should see the faces of the people that I have been talking to during the last few days when I say that I just launched a videogame about the attacks in Madrid”

    But if it were just a cartoon of people with candles, presumably everyone would be fine with it. It’s when you add Whack-A-Mole to it, that it becomes participatory and ergodic (well, at least semi-ergodic) and therefore something different.

    With all due respect to Huzinga and the seriousness of games, I think the reaction you’re getting is probably due to linking something horrific, shocking, and sad to a “game.” I think it still violates cultural expectations to make a game based upon a massacre. (Of course, cf. Damien Hirst on the role of the contemporary artist!)

    I guess my criticism is somewhat like Michael’s — the “procedural rhetoric” seems at odds with the apparent memorial purpose. Memorials are generally for reflection & contemplation — they aren’t about making the candles burn brighter.

    But that said, I think you’re right, Gonzalo — you’re just learning the rules of playing with a new kind of fire.

  17. Barry Says:

    It also seems to tap into one of the more common assumptions made about digital games, that there is a complicity between the performance of actions in the game world and performance of actions in the real world. And for once (as the last two posts make clear) that works against expectations of possible game content.

    I would probably disagree with Greg — mourning remains something people do (it is a performative action), although the rules of that performance vary between cultures, even if we are used to static and contemplative memorials. What the game form seems to ‘add’ to the political cartoon is a positive sense of participation in an act of mourning? Whereas September 12th made uncomfortable playing because of where it placed the player, Madrid allows for a sense of community with those who mourn? There’s a neat little didactic message in there as well, if (as I suspect) all the candles have equal value in terms of the game mechanic, pushing a player towards an acknowledgement of equivalence which I would suspect not everyone would universally agree with.

  18. gregolas Says:

    Barry> mourning remains something people do

    Well then I disagree with me too.

    Barry> What the game form seems to ‘add’ to the political cartoon is a positive sense of participation in an act of mourning?

    See, for me, that’s the rub. I can accept that one shouldn’t hide a memorial candle under a bushel (putting aside the potential fire hazard), and that brighter is better. But the game action of managing 20 community candles by trying to keep them maximally bright seem a fairly administrative to me and removed from the purpose of a memorial (speaking as someone who recognizes the importance of keeping all the birthday candles lit but often uses ten matches to accomplish this).

    Maybe I’m an idosyncratic reader — obviously, if the game made a player cry, it is finding some people who feel a resonance between the mechanic and the message.

  19. andrew Says:

    Dave Thomas (buzzcut.com) wrote a glowing review (sorry) of Madrid for the Denver Post.

  20. greglas Says:

    Here’s Dave’s take on the above:

    “At first, this familiar activity feels like it will trivialize the subject matter. You wonder, “Can you play at grief?” Once the candles all glow brightly, the frenetic clicking gives way to a moment of hope. All the action adds up. Something happens that makes you think action is better than despair.”

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