A good joke — and most especially a searing piece of satire — loses its power when it's over-analyzed or drearily explained. GOP Arcade pretty much speaks for itself.
GOP Arcade's laugh-out-loud, politically relevant video games like Thoughts and Prayers, Get Trump's Taxes, Good Guy With a Gun and Bomb The Right Place represent a growing sector in games. Sites like Molleindustria and Games for Change also offer funny, spiky games that make a serious point.
"That’s the connection we want to make."
Video game humor is often self-referential and grounded in nerd memes. Or it's safely distanced from a historical subject matter, or heavily-slathered social judgment of the Grand Theft Auto school.
Now we're seeing a surge of games that have something vital to say about the world we inhabit, and that qualify as genuine satire.
There's something endearingly homemade and scurrilous about these mini-games. Thoughts and Prayers, for example, took just six hours to make. It has been played by around 500,000 people, according to its three-man team of creators.
Co-creator Brian Moore says short, gutsy games can punch hard in today's social-digital environment. "People have short attention spans," he explains. "We could write a Medium post, which would be too long to read. We could make a video like Vox. But there’s something about putting yourself in the seat of what’s being talked about and having you do it, and then you get that reveal at the end."
The joke is often a variation on the theme of "you think you have power and influence but really, you don't." This is a brutal upending of video game convention, in which power and skill lead to desired outcome.
"We like the fact that people play two or three times, thinking that, 'oh, man, if I get to 250 I’ll be able to save a life'. But it doesn’t ever happen. You realize, holy shit, this actually doesn’t do anything. That’s the connection we want to make. A lot of people have that reaction. It’s all that we could hope for in that situation."
GOP Arcade games are all smart slices of mockery that target specific shibboleths often associated with right-wing politics in America, those being gun rights, tax loopholes that favor the wealthy and aggressive foreign policies.
But according to Moore, there's a bigger ambition at play here. GOP Arcade is just part of a more far-reaching project, called Everyday Arcade, which plans to broaden its field of fire.
"We want to become equal-opportunity satirists."
"There’s some liberal slant on some of these things we've done. But we want to become equal-opportunity satirists," he says. "If you look at something like The Onion they give people like Trump crap constantly, but they also take on Hillary, Bernie Sanders and everyone else in the world. We’d love to have that sort of angle.
"I guess I’m liberal-minded, but I have my own issues with liberal candidates and liberalism in general. Everybody does. It’d be bad if you were on one side so hard that you could never think of a single piece of satire based on somebody you typically back.
"This just felt like the best place to start. A lot of people are talking about these issues. And clearly, in the case of Thoughts and Prayers, the quicker we can get from a conversation to a game, or from a current event to a game, the better the impact we can have."
Satire and news are ever-entwined, with social media the new enabler. Everyday Arcade is working towards being able to access the nexus between events and the need to discuss them in shareable, funny ways, even when the core subject matter, like mass shootings, isn't funny at all. The humor isn't merely there for laughs. It's there to make an important point in a way that's both atmospherically dark, and light-footed.
Thoughts and Prayers was created in the aftermath of the mass-shooting in Orlando when, as usual, apologists for the status quo canted their standard empty response, while refusing to take any action.
Moore, along with creative partners Chris Baker, and Michael Lacher, created the game and shared it on social media. Although they don't yet have a big social media following, the game was widely shared, especially on Facebook. "It just picked up on its own, naturally," says Moore.
"It’s just a very shareable thing," he adds, "You can get the idea across quickly. People understand it right away. It speaks for a larger cause about taking action in the world as opposed to just talking about it."
Moore says he's a big fan of all kinds of games, but most especially indie games with something to say. He cites Papers, Please as a big inspiration. That game, about a border guard balancing his own humanity with the needs of his totalitarian government employer, savaged the comforting idea, propagated by countless video games, that heroism is the natural state of human agency.
"We want to be hilarious, but real," he says. "We want to make games that make you feel something while making you laugh."
For the creative process, Baker, Locker and Moore rely on one another. They all have a background in publishing and advertising, with some serving time at Buzzfeed. They've also created serious work for clients like UNICEF. One of their games was a smart cellphone app that promoted a charitable push to bring fresh water to those in need.
"We pitch ideas to one another, and if we can make each other laugh, that’s usually the bar for entry," says Moore. "That’s the process." Depending on who is available, they try to get the game up in a day or so. So far, there's no commercial element to GOP Arcade, though if it grows in popularity, that will change.
"Right now there’s no specific plan. We don't think it's just a small side project, a thing we did once. We hope it’ll be bigger and last a long time. We’re focused on making sure that the experiences are good, that they’re fun, that they prove a point. And then we’ll get to the point of worrying about money when our bills start going through the roof."
In the meantime, Everyday Arcade is planning more games. "They have that special ability to throw you in the seat and have you experience something directly," says Moore. "They can give you a jolt. It's a powerful thing."