In a corner of Somerset House, a group of cackling kids click away at a computer, rapidly shifting the borders of US voting districts and watching as their chosen candidates subsequently cruise to victory. Though it’s slightly disconcerting to watch a group of half-termers engaging in a spot of gerrymandering and deciding the political future of the United States in the process, a scene like this is also the whole point of Now Play This – an annual exhibition showcasing the very best in experimental game design. After taking a year off due to pandemic restrictions, the latest festival returned to its central London home for 2022 last weekend, with this year’s event focused on the relationship between games and democracy.
Filled with carefully curated games that explore themes around political power and representation, this year’s edition of Now Play This taps into the kind of decision-making that underpins virtually every game you can imagine.
If you’ve ever opted to violently overthrow a power-drunk Greek dictator in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey or grappled with the various moral conundrums at the heart of Detroit: Become Human, then you’ve engaged with the idea of actions having incredibly serious consequences, all from the comfort of your sofa. From the different plot paths in high-stakes zombie apocalypse survival game The Walking Dead to the superpowers bestowed on the ordinary inhabitants of Life Is Strange, countless stories hinge on handing huge amounts of influence to players in the shape of an avatar, and letting them shape entire virtual worlds.
And as anybody who has ever indulged in a spot of masochism on The Sims can quickly attest to, the power often goes to your head. The beauty of games, of course, is that undoing every last shred of interference is just a reload away. As exhibition director Sebastian Quack puts it in an early look at the new show, terrifyingly important, society-altering decisions start to take on a more playful quality in these spaces.
On the surface, at least, systems of power don’t feel particularly playful when they’re unfolding in real life, and as Quack also highlights, the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine serves as a stark reminder that democracy is constantly under threat and never a given. Many of the games here, like the aforementioned The Redistricting Game or Playing Democracy – a seemingly innocuous game of Pong that allows the winning player to change the rules – make a much deeper point about how easily politics can be manipulated to suit those wanting more power.
— Now Play This (@nowplaythese) April 11, 2022
This undercurrent is exactly what’s so interesting about Now Play This. One minute, you’re among a bunch of strangers moving around cartoonish wooden forms at the show’s interactive Sculpture Playground, putting on a show for the tourists lining Waterloo Bridge. The next, an interactive documentary called Out For Delivery plates up a personal, observational look at the rapid expansion of food delivery services in Beijing. Adding a fascinating dimension to the work, all of the footage was shot on the same day that Wuhan shut down due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Like many of us at the very beginning of the pandemic, the delivery drivers in the film seem relatively unbothered by events unfolding over 700 miles away, unaware of how much life will shift in the future.
Elsewhere, a game called Flag For Removal pits visitors against AI trained to moderate offensive social media posts. As the software sifts through a heap of sixty tweets in well under a second, it’s physically impossible to beat – but since its judging messages based on arbitrary rules and can’t handle any amount of nuance, a fair number of hateful messages still make it online. In the end, I only manage to win against the robot by smashing the approval key as quickly as possible – which says a lot about the state of online moderation.
— PlayLab (@PlayLabTv) April 9, 2022
Frantically mashing brightly coloured buttons on DATA/POINTS: Political Party is as fun as you’d expect, and at first it feels a little like smashing your way through a Mario Kart mini-game. Ultimately, however, the goal is to match different colour segments up with real-life election results displayed on a screen, and the only way to get there is by collaborating with your fellow mashers to ensure each party’s vote share matches up exactly. Cue, a lot of yelling as the buttons continually spin around and change function.
Now Play This 2022 opens TOMORROW! We're thrilled to be taking over the New Wing of @SomersetHouse and can't wait for you to experience the exhibition & events programme. Experience interactive work, talks, workshops, and learn about the relationship between democracy and gaming. pic.twitter.com/lnS8ceLu2k
— Now Play This (@nowplaythese) April 7, 2022
The eeriest game of all comes in the shape of Chorus Effect, an immersive sound installation by Joanna Bailie, Begüm Erciyas, and Rob Ochshorn. Stepping up into the hot-seat and perched on a tottering stool in front of a small, curious crowd of on-lookers, I feel a little like a member of Westlife before the big key-change, and begin to read from a script placed on the music stand in front of me. Though I was dreading the idea of delivering a short monologue, the reality is far more scary.
Rattling through the tongue-twister sentences, chosen for their pleasing vowel-sounds and slightly nonsensical word orders, the archived voices of previous visitors start blasting out of surrounding speakers. Behind me, a gruff voice stumbles over a tongue-twister of a line, and off in the distance an excitable kid practically screams every other word though helpless laughter. It’s both creepy and slightly irritating, like an overbearing great aunt who finishes the end of every sentence for you (…tence for you). As the festival puts it, taking part in the whole experience leaves you feeling like a ventriloquist and dummy, simultaneously.
Like many of the seemingly harmless games at Now Play This, Chorus Effect also left me thinking about what happens to our online footprints long after we’ve moved on; though it’s disarming to hear the process happening in real-time, the things we say, write and click are captured every single nanosecond and held in a kind of haunted data holding bay, whether we like it or not. These games might not present any alternative, but they certainly shed plenty of perspective on the way that life is designed at present. It makes for a fascinating, and admittedly fun, journey into the heart of power structures.
Now Play This took place at Somerset House from April 8-10.