How the World's Riots Inspired a Video Game

Are real-world riots the right subject matter for a video game? Is it even possible to address such subject matter in a game with the gravity it deserves?

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RIOT (2013)
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Six months ago, ex-Valve editor and cinematographer Leonard Menchiari took part in his first protest in northern Italy's Susa Valley. The protest was part of a decade-long campaign aimed at preventing the construction of a high-speed railway line through what many consider to be an area of natural beauty.

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"I was occupying the A32 Chianocco highway, near Turin, with several hundred people", says Menchiari. "After a few days of occupying the highway, blocking the path of the military that is currently protecting this huge project, we realized that the police were coming. A helicopter was above us the whole time, rocks were banging on the sides of the road, and hundreds of policemen marched towards us and violently separated us into different sections".

"After pushing us all together, we were facing the police the whole time; I was in the first line pressed against a policeman's shield. We started talking to them. We saw in the policemen's eyes that they weren't happy to be there. I was wondering what would happen once the leader would order them to charge against a whole crowd of peaceful people with their hands up”. Menchairi soon got his answer as the front line was moved to the back and replaced by a fresh wave of police, free of the rapport some protesters had managed to build with their would-be adversaries.

"I realized that also this was perfectly calculated," Menchiari says. "Immediately after they gave the order to beat us up as hard as they could, I couldn't breathe. Then I was thrown to the side and rolled down the cliff being pushed by the water jets that the police truck had. Shortly after, I found myself running with a bunch of people in complete darkness in the middle of an open field, away from the scene, while police were shooting CS smoke grenades directly at us, trying to hit us rather than just intoxicate us. Some grenades were shot in people's homes, others ended up seriously injuring people”.

"Police were shooting CS smoke grenades directly at us, trying to hit us rather than just intoxicate us."

"The battle didn't stop for a while," Menchiari continues. "The police kept following us and beating up whoever was in their way. They chased everyone in the town involving even people who had absolutely nothing to do with [the protest]. We tried to stay calm as much as we could so that nobody would get killed if they tripped and fell on the ground under people's feet, but the police were fast, and those left behind would get heavily beat up and arrested. It was a pretty tough situation.”

Tough is certainly one way to describe the situation. Scary might be another. But as an experience, it's one that Menchiari keeps to heart, and one that he believes should be shared. And so, inspired by his experience, the commitment of the protesters around him, and images of social unrest across the globe, Menchiari set out to create a video game that would educate the world.

The result is RIOT, an RTS game that, in the words of game designer Mattia Traverso and programmer Ugur Ister, will try to allow the player to experience “what being in such events means and how it feels".

Of course, much of the social unrest that has inspired RIOT is a result of the economic turmoil sweeping the globe--not an ideal climate for the small Europe-based team to get funding for a video game. But, as is so often the case these days, crowd funding provided the answer. At the time of writing, the IndieGoGo campaign for RIOT stands at roughly double the original $15,000 target.

The crowd-sourced cash will not only be used to fund development and testing of the game, but will also allow the developers to do something far more interesting: to document and actively take part in social unrest in Italy, Egypt, Greece and other places around the world.

Menchiari will shortly be on his way to Egypt, where there are reports of a protester being killed in Cairo. Riots erupted in response to an Egyptian court upholding the death sentences of 21 individuals for their role in a football riot. Enraged supporters of the accused took to the streets, burning buildings and fighting with police, during which the protester was killed. This comes a month after scores of protesters were injured in clashes with police across the country as Egyptians took to the streets for the "Friday of dignity" to protest President Morsi's failure to uphold the principles of the 2011 revolution.

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It's hardly the sort of environment you'd go out of your way to be in, but for Traverso and Ister--the team helping to build on Menchiari's vision for RIOT--it's all part of making a game that communicates the experience of a riot to the player: "How can we claim to do this if we don’t feel it on our skin first?" Traverso asks rhetorically. “We are aware of the possible dangers of joining such events, but that is part of what we accepted starting this project. We want the game to play as if the user was in the middle of the crowd, and so we have to experience that."

Traverso and Ister believe that video games represent the perfect medium for dealing with the type of social unrest that they want to explore. “We chose the game medium because its interactive component enables us to use the suspension of disbelief of the user as never before, and actually feel the riot. We believe that videogames, being interactive art, are the ultimate tool for actually living problems, rather than just reading about them, or watching them from a distance."

It’s hard not to admire the team's commitment to the game and it’s clear from talking to them that they are passionate about the subject matter. Making a meaningful game that provokes specific emotions is important to Traverso and Ister. "With the multiple political and social issues growing stronger and stronger in the last couple of years, and with most people having to worry every month about the rent or their family, the general discontent keeps growing. It is an ideal time for a game like this, focusing on a single, incredible, actual issue.”

"We believe that videogames, being interactive art, are the ultimate tool for actually living problems, rather than just reading about them."

And when they say "actual", they mean actual: every riot in the game will be based on a real world event. In that sense, RIOT is both a game, and a type of playable documentary. And while the developers are reluctant to detail the game's narrative at such an early stage in its development, they do confirm that there will be some kind of framing of the historical and political context of the riots that take place in the game.

"What we can tell you is that the game is that it will be divided in the campaign. Each section will be about a specific historical/spatial context, which is again divided into sub-levels that follow a narrative order. Single events will be also featured in bonus levels, or eventual future updates."

This places the game within something of a burgeoning genre: the "current affairs" or "news" game. That includes the likes of Unmanned--a browser-based game in which you live a day in the life of a US drone pilot--and the titles being produced by Game the News, such as their strategy title based on the recent Syrian conflict, Endgame: Syria, and environmental tower defence game, Climate Defence.

But as the controversy surrounding the release of the aforementioned Endgame: Syria highlights--Apple initially refused to sell the game via its iOS store due to its political content--there’s often something troubling about transforming events in which real people have suffered into something with which we can play. The line between raising awareness about what is going on in the world and exploiting those events for entertainment is a fine one. Of course, every medium faces this problem to some degree, but it seems particularly pronounced for a medium that asks its audience to actively participate.

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But speaking to Traverso and Istar, you get the impression that their team most certainly isn't trying to exploit current events in making RIOT. Nevertheless, it's an issue the duo is aware of.

"That's a risk of course, but also a chance. We will do everything we can to respect the matter we are treating with care, and to show the non-fun side of riots through the fun of the game. One side will fight for respect and to share awareness, the other one for money. The differences in how the two factions are controlled depend exactly on the motivations behind them, on the different struggle for freedom, security, clout, power and money, and on the historical context.”

The motivations of the two factions are not necessarily intended to reflect a binary good versus evil, however. "There's often more than one side or truth to a story and that is why we want to allow the player to take control of both sides and show their different motivations and the nuances between black and white," Ister continues. "We want to capture the emotions of each side, and show them with no bias involved."

Aiming to present the game’s events to the player as neutrally as possible makes sense, given that there's evidently something of a journalistic intention to RIOT. But it's easy to imagine that becoming difficult when dealing with, for example, the 2012 democratic uprisings in Egypt. There, people were protesting against Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi after he granted himself unlimited powers to "protect" the nation. Is this not a case where trying to tread the line between allowing both sides to be heard is overly problematic?

"We want to capture the emotions of each side, and show them with no bias involved."

"We personally think that it can also be something positive, maybe a little cathartic, to give a person the opportunity to do something they could possibly regret or dislike," Ister responds. "There is good in bad, and certainly there is interest in feeling what bad is like. Once again, good and bad are terms that should not exist in the game, since we just want to offer an objective look on the matter by giving the player the full ability to judge the facts.”

Whether or not RIOT can effectively balance enjoyable RTS mechanics while simultaneously functioning as an effective way of informing players about real-world conflicts remains to be seen. Given the response to the IndieGoGo campaign, though, there's clearly an appetite for a game that deals with serious, real-world issues. RIOT is making a bold attempt to tapp into this emerging genre in a way few games are. Here's hoping we see more experiences like it in the future.

RIOT will be released on iOS, Android, PC and Mac.

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