It may seem obvious, but studies have repeatedly shown we are much more likely to listen to people who resemble us. Studies in the 1970s showed that we are more willing to lend money to strangers who resemble us in some obvious way. In another study, researchers were able to get people to agree to sign a petition without even reading it just by wearing similar attire. Marketing agencies have been using this technique throughout the modern age: Person X likes product Y, you are like person X, therefore you should like product Y.
Because of this, one possible way to make a game more persuasive is to get the player to identify the protagonist of the game as like themselves. This is difficult in a sci-fi odyssey like A Mind Forever Voyaging because the protagonist is a blank slate of an artificial human. Games with a more modern design often allow for custom characters to be created. Nick Yee’s research suggests that those custom characters often resemble a slightly idealized version of the player herself. And we like the things that our avatar likes. In a 2006 study, researchers were able to observe a subject’s increased preference for a fake soft drink just by creating an ad where an avatar that looked like him was holding the drink.
Italian group Molleindustria makes explicitly political interactive content and does not shy away from its hard-left perspective. What may be the most persuasive of their games is Unmanned. In the game, players start by doing some mundane tasks: hitting the alarm, thinking about the day ahead (via some text choices), shaving, keeping the car on the road through drowsiness and distraction, and of course, singing in your car as loudly as possible.
These tasks serve to create a connection with the avatar. While the avatar is not customizable and is cartoonish enough to not really look like anyone in particular, a few elements serve to foster an emotional connection to the character. First, he is doing the same kinds of tasks you do every morning. Second, the text prompts flesh out a man suffering from some malaise that may be identifiable to the audience. Third, the shaving sequence causes the avatar’s face to bleed if you shave too quickly. Any cuts you create persist on the character throughout the game, creating an “Ikea effect.” This is the colloquial term for liking something more simply because you’ve put a personal effort into it, similar to how we often have an otherwise unexplainable connection to the Ikea furniture that we assemble ourselves.
After setting up this character to be relatable enough to be like ourselves, he starts his work as an unmanned drone operator. In the drone operation, you have control. Unlike September 12 (referenced in Chapter 6, “Mechanics as Message”), you have the option to launch an airstrike or not, although the game tries to manipulate you a bit into doing so. The tension created by the uncertainty is much more relatable because Molleindustria first established this connection. It is not the character possibly bombing an innocent civilian; rather, now you may be bombing an innocent civilian.
After this, you engage in more mundane activities: smoking a cigarette, attempting to bond with your son through a video game, going back to bed. This brings the player back to empathy with that character. The scene in which the player plays a shooter with his son also contextualizes the disconnected considerations of violence. Without this second half, the game would feel more overtly manipulative. But by bringing the action back to the mundane, it rolls the whole experience back into a relatable whole.
The game has a clear political point: The use of unmanned drones in war creates a moral hazard with regard to the disconnection between the use of force and its effects. But it never needs to say it. And instead of saying it, you experience it as someone faced with that tension not because an avatar experienced that tension but because an avatar you identify with experienced that tension.
The risk of persuasive games is that they can trivialize their subject matter. In most games, the worst-case scenario is that you can get a “bad ending,” which can be ignored because it is of no consequence to actual reality. The lives and concerns of fictional characters and systems are trivial. They don’t exist. It’s easier to forget this with films because we see actors who are relatable in some way to ourselves. We forget this in books because we fill in the narrative blanks of characters with our own imaginary frameworks that make sense to us. Additionally, both of these media are guided by an author whose responsibility it is to treat subject matter with respect and guide the plot into ways that do not trivialize the subject under consideration. But the freedom allowed in games can only show us the consequences of our actions within a limited framework. If the game’s designer has a message to convey, but the player can act in a way contrary to that message and not feel proportional consequences, then the avatar-player relationship suggests that the consequences of similar real-world actions are also trivial. That’s not the message most persuasive games want to relay.