Last month I posted my impressions of Wikileaks Stories, a project organised by gnome of Gnome's Lair and Jonas Kyratzes, author of the acclaimed The Infinite Ocean. I caught up with Jonas to get a better understanding of the project and his thoughts on its progress. Here are the results of our conversation. Jonas risked life and limb to get these answers to Electron Dance.
How did the idea for the Wikileaks Stories project come about?
It was rather simple, actually. I'd already been thinking about making some sort of Wikileaks game when the gnome of Gnome's Lair asked me about using games to support Wikileaks; his idea was to get various people involved, to turn this into a sort of community activism project. I thought that was great, so we got to work. I guessed it helped that we already knew we were both on the same page, politically as well as artistically.
When it comes to political activism, I'm never quite sure if the materials produced preach to the converted or actually reach a wider, less engaged audience. What are you actually trying to do on the ground? Is it part of a larger PR battle to support Wikileaks? Or a mission to spread the details of the Wikileaks cables to a wide audience?
I think we're trying to do all of the above: provide inspiration for those who are already engaged in the struggle, make a public statement in favour of Wikileaks, and spread the word to those who have either not informed themselves or have been misinformed. In theory, the latter aspect is quite attractive: games being a widespread and not particularly political medium, they could be a great way of reaching people in an open-minded mental state, where they might give new ideas a chance.
Note that I said in theory - I'm having some doubts about how well this model works.
Did you get interest from other developers prior to launch?
I can't say the response from developers was enthusiastic. It wasn't terrible, either: several developers expressed some interest, but relatively few were certain that they'd contribute. Some just didn't find the Cablegate material inspiring enough; others simply didn't have the time. All in all, though, I felt that a lot of people either weren't interested in politics at all, or were afraid of the subject matter.
What I find particularly fascinating is that we got such a lot of coverage from the mainstream media, but relatively little from the indie scene. I feel that if we'd gotten more support in that area, the project would have accomplished far more.
An article by Simon Ferrari in the second issue of Kill Screen discusses the Play The News project, in which games engaged players in current events. They targeted ongoing stories because it was not possible to build something quick enough to react to breaking news. What did you learn about the problems of producing a topical game?
My personal approach was not to think of it as a topical game, but simply as a work of art that engaged political themes. Not a game about the news, but a game about (modern) history. This was very important to me, because I feel that otherwise it's very hard to produce something meaningful and lasting. I don't mean to use that dreadful argument that we keep hearing about movies which fail to seriously engage subject matters like the Iraq war - "oh, it's not about the politics, it's about the characters." Nonsense. This is very much about the politics. But it also has to function as a work of art.
But that's creation. Reception is a different matter - timeliness is an issue, especially if people perceive your game as a "newsgame." Games aren't easy to make - at least good ones aren't - and managing to release a game while the subject matter is still in the news and capable of generating interest is a challenge. But then, political novels and films don't have that problem, so why do games?
I pondered if, four months after launch, Wikileaks Stories had missed its window or whether it's time was still yet to come. What are your thoughts? Is this an unfair question?
It's not an unfair question at all. It's not easy to give an answer, though. On the one hand, I do think we would have gotten more attention if we'd released a bunch of games very quickly. On the other hand, the story isn't really over, and anything we can do to keep reminding people of what's going on is potentially helpful.
You had a problem getting sponsorship for You Shall Know The Truth. Was this related to the game's content?
It never even got to the point of discussing content. Almost no-one was interested in sponsoring the game, despite massive media interest in our project and the relative success of my previous game. I'd hoped that the "controversial" nature of the material, coupled with the media coverage, might actually make the game attractive to some sites - but that sort of thing only happens in less hysterical times. The Flash market seems to be losing its appetite for challenging/original material anyway, and You Shall Know The Truth was the last thing anyone wanted to see.
I got a single sponsorship offer, but it was so low that I decided to release the game without a sponsor. In retrospect, I don't know if that wasn't a mistake. I didn't feel very comfortable slapping someone's logo on the game for so little money, but perhaps if I'd done so, a lot more people would have played it.
I think Wikileaks Stories would have made a bigger splash if it had a larger base of games, but you make me wonder: are there just too many damn games out there now? It seems the internet is drowning in free Flashware.
I think it's the same problem that many people who use the internet for creative purposes are discovering: there's a lot of information out there, and very few ways of actually reaching people, especially with work that is slightly unusual. Many of the bigger websites have no interest (economic or otherwise) in plugging/sponsoring challenging or controversial material, so it only reaches the people who are actively looking for it.
Some people might argue that that's a good thing, but I disagree; I think we need to be challenged, we need to encounter ideas that we're not used to, both for our own mental health and for the health of the overall cultural system. But on the internet people tend to see only what they expect to see.