(We first published this on the website KillScreen a few years ago, but it’s no longer there. So we’re republishing it here.)
When I first played Oiligarchy, it shocked me.
Ostensibly a resource management game, I managed “one of the biggest Oil companies in the World”[sic]. To win--or finish the game, depending on your point of view--I had to clear cut forests, support right-wing anti-socialist dictators, rig elections and pay for political influence, start multiple wars in the Middle East, hire defense contractors to defend my oil platforms, deplete the world’s oil resources, and finally cover the world’s surface with “human power plants,” converting humans into fuel.
My actions caused the end of the world. “The Last World War started for the control of the remaining oil resources and quickly went out of control...You will spend your last days in the darkness thinking about your role in this mess,” the game explained to me at the end.
The thing that shocked me wasn’t Oiligarchy’s “message” that unbridled greed and resource depletion will cause the end of the world. (I already, to a lesser degree, thought that before I played the game.) No, I was shocked at how easily gameplay could be manipulated to serve an ideology. Basically, Oiligarchy doesn’t rise above the level of propaganda.
In Oiligarchy, you have two choices: play the game, drill for oil and cause the end of the world, or don’t play and get fired. (There is also a rare ending called “retirement” where, if you stop contributing to the political system and stop drilling for oil, you retire peacefully and society evolves into a post-carbon world. But I didn’t get that ending, and the gameplay doesn’t lead you naturally to it. In other words, that's not the point.)
I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily the message of Oiligarchy could have been flipped on its head. What if the Heritage Foundation made a Sim City-style game where taxes destroy the economy? Or the Cato Institute made a game where environmentalists destroy our quality of life? These hypothetical games would be just as hollow as Oiligarchy.
There is this optimistic feeling in the air that video games will change us for the better; that they will save the world. But if the persuasive games genre ever truly takes off, every point of view on the spectrum will jump into the fray, and we will be back where we started, except the games will be worse for it.
The makers of Oiligarchy should remember: propaganda is propaganda, no matter what the message. For every Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle, there is a Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will.
And gameplay shouldn’t be abused to push blatantly political messages.