Your Objective is Anarchy: How Video Games Encourage Rebellion

On Sunday, February 3, 2013 2 comments

Last time we talked about how video game objectives can influence how much a player values something. The careful designer can set up an objective that forces the player to temporarily adopt a value-set that is not their own.

 Speaking of forcing their values on players, Every Day the Same Dream is an indie game with a bleak outlook on life. The player is stuck in a vicious cycle of waking up, getting dressed, and going to work. The only way to “beat” the game is to go against the system. The player must accomplish five tasks. They are given no instruction on what they are supposed to do, but must figure it out for themselves by going against the flow. For example, one of the tasks involves going to work in their underwear and being fired by the boss. Another task involves the player throwing themselves off the roof of the building where they work. The goal of the game is to break out of the everyday routine and have players think for themselves. The player is forced to “fight the man,” regardless of their current job satisfaction. And because being a free-thinking douche is the only way to win the game, the game advances an anti-establishment doctrine.

Petting cows: the biggest middle finger you can give corporate America.
What’s more, the way players accomplish this goal is rhetorical. Players are rewarded for suicide in the sense that it helps them progress in the game. The sparse bits of dialogue in the game don’t mention the main character dissatisfaction or frustration. The game never tells you that it wants you to refuse labor and become an individual. It doesn’t have to. Simply by making that a goal, the game illustrates its argument to the player. If you sit down at your desk and work like a good little drone, then the cycle repeats ad infinitum. But by throwing social norms to the wind, players are rewarded with advancement. It’s positive-reinforcement for rebellion.

He's very nonchalant about the whole suicide thing.

Portal also preaches an anti-establishment rhetoric. In the beginning of the game, you are in a lab undergoing a battery of dangerous tests (for science!). An anonymous voice instructs and encourages you over the intercom. Players are given little context for what they are doing and who they are working for. Even though they’re kept in the dark, the only way to move forward is by completing the tests. The players have no choice but to abide by the rules of an unknown force.

As the game progresses, the disembodied voice shows signs of impairment and malfunction. Still the only option is to continue through the tests. Things change when the computer running the tests tries to dump the player into the furnace. The tables are turned, and now the only way to survive is to rebel and find a way to shut down the malicious computer running the facility. In this way, the players are both literally and figuratively encouraged to bring down the system.

GLaDOS just may be the only feminine incarnation of "the man" in existence. 
Portal puts gamers in a situation where they have to blindly follow the voice of authority. Then the game takes that authority and makes it insane and unreliable. Players are forced to rely on themselves, not an anonymous authority. The game is a sort of pro-solidarity/ anti-authority science-fest.

Check back in a few days for the next part in the series!


  1. You are very knowledgeable about video games and their intent. So should we monitor who plays these games more closely? Would it prevent any of the antiestablishment violence that is occurring currently in our society if we did so?

    1. That is an excellent question, and I won't pretend I have a perfect answer. However, I think that restricting access to information is ineffective. People will always find a way around any restrictions. Instead, I think education is the answer. We need to teach people to question the messages media feeds them. If we teach people how to dissect books, video games, etc., then they can decide for themselves what has a harmful message and what doesn't, rather than relying on censorship. I don't think this would put an end to the violence in our society. However, I think that some people will be violent no matter what, and they are predisposed to that kind of behavior. Even those few would benefit from learning to think about the information being fed to them.