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Inside the IGF Student Competition: De Menezes International

In this series on the IGF student competition, Gamasutra’s sister site GameCareerGuide interviews the students of IT University of Copenhagen who created De Menezes International, a game submitted to the IGF about the anti-terrorism movement.
In a new series, Gamasutra sister site GameCareerGuide is looking at some of the games submitted to the 2009 IGF student competition. In this interview with the developers of De Menezes International, we learn about a serious game that discusses the psychological and social effects of the anti-terrorism movement, developed by students at IT University of Copenhagen. De Menezes International is a multiplayer political Unreal 3 mod about terrorism, surveillance, and paranoia. The game focuses on everyday civilians in a simulated airport, and explores how people treat each other in the post 9/11 world. In each round, the goal is amass the most points by completing your personal tasks and making your flight. But there’s a twist: there’s a chance that one player is a terrorist, working to sneak a bomb onto the plane. In addition, a few players play as police agents who must watch the citizens and try to stop the terrorist – if there even is one. If the plane ends up exploding, the civilians are given a major point deduction. For this reason, civilians are strongly incentivized to watch one another and report suspicious behavior. The critical gameplay element that makes the paranoia work is the difficulty in distinguishing between civilian and terrorist actions. Inspired by psychological games like Mafia and Shadows Over Camelot, the core gameplay lies in argument, witch-hunt, and difficult decisions that must be made in the face of incomplete information. Politically, our hope is that the game raises questions, rather than make any type of concrete, self-contained argument. Tell us how De Menezes International came to be. De Menezes Intenational started as a project class for the second-year MTG master’s students at IT University of Copenhagen. The semester-long assignment, as given by Professor Miguel Sicart, was to build a serious game about surveillance, terrorism, and public transportation. By the end of the semester, the game was half-complete. We had run into some problems with the Source engine, and some of our team members had been too busy with other classes. About seven of us decided that we believed enough in the project to finish it on our own time. We decided to start from scratch in the Unreal 3 engine. What was your goal in developing the game? At first, the goal was just to complete a school assignment, and hopefully build a portfolio piece in the process. After the semester ended, our goal became to make a finished game (we’ve all worked on too many unfinished game projects). Perhaps more importantly, our goal was to try making something different. Unsatisfied with many existing political games, our hope has been to explore alternative approaches to political games -- or rather, political gameplay. We would be thrilled if our game leads its players to see public spaces a little differently – perhaps with more complexity – on the next trip they take. Of course, the game is still in beta, so we’re still seeing how our experiment is playing out! What do you think is the game’s greatest asset? What sets it apart from other games in the IGF? De Menezes International explores issues of terrorism, surveillance, and paranoia in a different way – differently than both “older” media forms and many existing political games. First, the game undertakes an exploration of the political landscape surrounding these issues, rather than hammering home an explicit or direct message. Rather, the game confronts players with several conflicting messages that play out in different ways. The idea is to have the players literally “play” with the ethics. Second, the engagingness of the game lies in the multi-person “play,” rather than in the game system itself. In contrast to the recent glut of single-player political Flash games, De Menezes International leverages discussion as a core game mechanic. Politics, after all, is all about how real people interact with each other. What drew you to focus on paranoia? At first, our focus was on the general societal paranoia (justified or not) that has led to increased surveillance in the post-9/11 world. Indeed, it is not uncommon for airports to hire "behavior identification officers." In fact, the game draws it name from the 2005 shooting of Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian national who was tragically mistaken by London police for a potential suicide bomber. During the design process, we realized that another form of surveillance is the way civilians watch each other. For better or worse, the post-9/11 airport is a very paranoid place. Saturated with media images and governmental warnings, more than a few of us have eyed our fellow passengers nervously. Over the last several years, there have been a number of incidents in which airplane passengers reported each other for “suspicious behavior.” For example, in August 2006, a flight from Malaga was delayed after passengers traded rumors about two Arabic-speaking men. Whispers had turned into witch hunt, and the two misjudged men were eventually escorted off the plane for interrogation. Of course, there have also been “positive” examples of vigilance, such as the passengers who stopped “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in late 2001. What games (or non-game things) influenced this game? You already mentioned Mafia and Shadows Over Camelot – can you say more about what specifically in those games influenced your game? The largest game influence is a party game called Mafia (also known as Werewolf). Like Mafia, De Menezes International focuses on human psychology. The “fun” of the game lies in the argument and discussion between players. Mafia is all about witch-hunts and the ways in which fellow citizens watch each other. In Mafia, accusations are made based on small actions, a strange comment, a facial gesture, a tone of voice. Suspicions balloon into lynchings. Oftentimes, these suspicions are proven incorrect and paranoid; the accuser feels embarrassed. But sometimes, the witch hunt works, and the mafia are identified and eliminated. Another influence is the board game Shadows Over Camelot, a collaborative board game in which there might or might not be a traitor among the players. The fact that there might not even be a wrongdoer adds an extra level of paranoia. This situation is also truer to real life, in which there isn’t a terrorist the vast majority of the time. One game we tried to distance our own game from is Counter-Strike. Though extremely fun, Counter-Strike represents a more standard (and superficial) way in which video games tend to approach the issues. Counter-Strike is a game about the terrorists and counter-terrorists. De Menezes International, by contrast, is about the regular everyday people who are caught in between. It’s about us. [An extended version of this interview is available on GameCareerGuide.com, Gamasutra’s sister site for information and advice about education and careers in the game development industry.]

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