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This chapter is from the book

A Mind Forever Voyaging

Admittedly, the intersection of people who were affected first- or second-hand by the kinds of events caricatured in Papers, Please and the people likely to play the game contains only a small number of people. If the point is to make something that affects a larger number of contemporaries on a political issue, one of the first to try to tackle that goal in a commercial setting was Infocom’s 1985 interactive fiction game A Mind Forever Voyaging, written and designed by Steve Meretzky.

The computer games industry was nascent in 1985, and with the low amount of computing power available to consumers (compared to today), the form of interactive fiction was a popular way to get deeper concepts in games fleshed out. The specific type of interactive fiction Infocom created was the “text adventure.” Like Depression Quest discussed above, players are given blocks of text to describe the situation of their character. Unlike Depression Quest, the options available to the character were hidden. Players could type in commands that were parsed by an interpreter that would allow the game to go forward. For instance, if you wanted a description of the view out a window, you could type LOOK WINDOW. If the game had a case to handle that, then it would give you a description of what it looked like when you peered out the window at your location.

Meretzky was coming off the commercial success of the adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into text adventure form (and earlier successes Planetfall and Sorcerer) and wanted to create something more than just an adolescent pastime. He decided to make something that would be more political in nature and leveraged his intense aversion to then-president Ronald Reagan to make something that he hoped would be both entertaining and convincing.

In A Mind Forever Voyaging, players play a character in a distressed version of the United States of America that is using a supercomputer to simulate the effects of a new senator’s sweeping plan to revitalize the country. The character interacts with this simulation of a town in America called Rockvil after the plan has been put in place to report the effects over several time periods. The plan is a generic right-wing agenda that could be copied and pasted for many presidential candidates over the last generation (lower taxes, decreased regulation, strict law enforcement), with a couple of planks that seem out of place with contemporary politics like mandatory conscription for criminals.

Early in the simulation, things seem fine. There are some hints that there is trouble brewing under the surface, but largely Rockvil is doing okay. As you progress in the game and move farther into the future, Rockvil deteriorates. The increased focus on domestic law enforcement turns the nation into a police state with a mandatory curfew; a focus on religion by government officials turns into a full merger of an insidious Church with a more powerful State including “church police”; income inequality left unregulated turns into ration cards and fenced-in enclaves for the rich.

The rhetoric is pretty clumsy, unconvincing, and lacking in nuance. Meretzky’s polemic attacks straw men and is hard to take seriously unless you already completely agree with his political alarmism. It leaves no out for those of opposing political persuasion and is more likely to entrench than persuade. But some of the futurism of his 1985 experiment has indeed come to pass. Luckily, zoos haven’t been reduced to monkey-fighting arenas yet and the amount of street cannibalism is currently low, so we may have a decade or two.

The point of appreciating A Mind Forever Voyaging isn’t to appreciate its predictive prowess or its ability to be persuasive. It’s to appreciate that game designers can even aim to be persuasive. Game designers can aim to create something that is more than just adolescent power fantasy. Game designers can create works of art like A Mind Forever Voyaging that attempt to insert themselves into the social and cultural landscape.

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