« War with Iran Could K… | Home | On V Update to Old Id… »

Propigaming: A Review of Oiligarchy

(We first published this on the website KillScreen a few years ago, but it’s no longer there. So we’re republishing it here.)

When I first played Oiligarchy, it shocked me.

Ostensibly a resource management game, I managed “one of the biggest Oil companies in the World”[sic]. To win--or finish the game, depending on your point of view--I had to clear cut forests, support right-wing anti-socialist dictators, rig elections and pay for political influence, start multiple wars in the Middle East, hire defense contractors to defend my oil platforms, deplete the world’s oil resources, and finally cover the world’s surface with “human power plants,” converting humans into fuel.

My actions caused the end of the world. “The Last World War started for the control of the remaining oil resources and quickly went out of control...You will spend your last days in the darkness thinking about your role in this mess,” the game explained to me at the end.

The thing that shocked me wasn’t Oiligarchy’s “message” that unbridled greed and resource depletion will cause the end of the world. (I already, to a lesser degree, thought that before I played the game.) No, I was shocked at how easily gameplay could be manipulated to serve an ideology. Basically, Oiligarchy doesn’t rise above the level of propaganda.

In Oiligarchy, you have two choices: play the game, drill for oil and cause the end of the world, or don’t play and get fired. (There is also a rare ending called “retirement” where, if you stop contributing to the political system and stop drilling for oil, you retire peacefully and society evolves into a post-carbon world. But I didn’t get that ending, and the gameplay doesn’t lead you naturally to it. In other words, that's not the point.)

I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily the message of Oiligarchy could have been flipped on its head. What if the Heritage Foundation made a Sim City-style game where taxes destroy the economy? Or the Cato Institute made a game where environmentalists destroy our quality of life? These hypothetical games would be just as hollow as Oiligarchy.

There is this optimistic feeling in the air that video games will change us for the better; that they will save the world. But if the persuasive games genre ever truly takes off, every point of view on the spectrum will jump into the fray, and we will be back where we started, except the games will be worse for it.

The makers of Oiligarchy should remember: propaganda is propaganda, no matter what the message. For every Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle, there is a Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will.

And gameplay shouldn’t be abused to push blatantly political messages.

21 comments

If I may offer a quick rebuttal, however quick one can be turning up a few years late to the party…

To say that video games are damaged by pushing “blatantly political messages” is to disrespect the medium.

Film, literature, music and theatre have all been used to communicate political messages. Furthermore, whether it be from Jonthan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” or Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, all of these mediums have benefited from such inclusions.

Does the writer really think that artistic creation exists in a vacuum? Are they aware of just how difficult to create and limited art would be if one had to exclude political elements?

Take a strategy game like “Sid Meiers Civilization”. How do you integrate warfare mechanics or diplomacy or set the default win-states in such a game without sending an implicit message about the nature of international relations?

How do you make a video game about democracy, such as the video game “Democracy”, without sending a message about the nature, value and limits of democracy?

Gameplay is not being “abused” to push a political message in games like Oiligarchy, it is being used. The fact that someone else could use games to articulate an oppossing political message is neither here nor there.

Political sentiments have, are and always will be a part of artistic expression. It’s about time that we accepted that.


@ Fin – I think art should address politics. (How could you not?) I just want it to do it accurately and with nuance.

Great art asks questions, instead of giving answers. Great art asks questions about political issues, the more nuanced ans difficult, the better.

Propaganda tells you, with one sided characters, what to think.

I think your example sort of illustrates it, “A Modest Proposal”. First, it’s an essay. But second, Swift doesn’t actually say what he means (the Irish are deserving of sympathy) he writes a pamphlet about eating children to illustrate his point.

Compare that to this game, with zero nuance.

The more blatantly political the work of art, the more it tries to “teach” you, the more it suffers as a work of art. And the more it deviates meaningfully from the world it seeks to represent.


@Eric C.

I have quite a long response, I wish it was shorter, but alas there are some fairly nuanced (ha!) philosophical points that I want to make here regarding art and politics.

“Great art asks questions, instead of giving answers.”

According to who? You?

I certainly don’t think that “Great art asks questions, instead of giving answers”. I think great art is perfectly capable of making triumphant or declarative works as well as making tentative and probing works.

“Propaganda tells you, with one sided characters, what to think.”

What’s the difference between an artist presenting a belief they hold, in an intentionally compelling way, and an artist telling you what to think?

The answer is there isn’t one, really. If you are in the business of trying to convince people then you are in the business of propaganda, even if you think you’re above it.

While we’re at it Swift’s essay is as devoid of “nuance” as Oiligarchy is.

Swift sets out with the goal of convincing others of a political position. He didn’t aim to create a work that would question whether or not the treatment of the Irish was humane or not, he had already decided that it was barbaric and wanted to motivate people to support his position.

Furthermore even when artists do ask questions they can’t escape making other declarative statements.

For example:

“What is the right balance between equality and freedom?”

Now there’s a perfectly “neutral” political question!

In fact, but maybe I’m wrong, according to your definition of “great art” it would probably make the cut in terms of decent subject matter. No?

The problem is that for every question you set you end up designating dichotomies and problems in need of resolving. In this instance by posing “What is the right balance between equality and freedom” as a serious and meaningful question the artist assumes two things.

1. That equality and freedom are antagonistic to one another.
2. That both ideals are necessarily desired and so a balance must be struck between them.

Do you catch my drift here?

Even the kinds of questions and problems one considers to be important and how one formulates those questions requires prior political and philosophical commitments in order to contextualise make sense of them. Artists who create political art will have to outright argue or portray something as the truth, even if that “truth” isn’t the focus of their art.

This is precisely why I prefer writers who are not embarrassed about their political leanings. A philosopher like Roger Scruton may be a crazy conservative wing-nut but at least he has the good manners to admit that his political persuasion influences the way he writes.

In summation, even the political art that asks questions often comes loaded with a number of affirmative political statements. It’s just that those affirmations are undisclosed to the audience because those affirmations are not explicitly made (even though a tacit acceptance of them is needed in order to make sense of the art).

If you want political art that doesn’t make definitive political statements then you may as well pack up and go home and saying “I wish political art was more accurate” is a lot like saying “Why don’t more people think and believe exactly like me?!?!”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting it, but you’d have to be pretty crazy to think that it’s a reasonable demand.


@ Fin –

First off, Fin, I think we’re talking past here on a number of issues. (I believe art should address political issues. I as well, prefer political writers and artists.) Let’s get my core thesis out there: bad political art (tends to) pushes blatantly, one-sided political messages. You asked a lot of question, but let me pose one to you:

What is bad political art, in your opinion? For you, Fin, what defines art handling politics poorly? Surely you don’t think all art about politics is created equal in quality. For me, one-sidedness defines bad political art. What defines bad political for you?

“According to who? You?” Yes, that’s my belief. But others too. very randomly, just found this review of “American Sniper” https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/02/american-sniper-war-violence-oscars/

“What’s the difference between an artist presenting a belief they hold, in an intentionally compelling way, and an artist telling you what to think?”

The complexity of the belief, would be my guess. “Oil companies are evil” is not a very compelling or complicated belief. I’d rather explore the forces that make oil companies act that way. What animates and drives them, and their industries. One way to avoid creating propaganda is to create interesting, compelling characters. Cartoon-ish, one-dimensional villains don’t serve great art.

Controversial example: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is not a great work of art. It’s an influential book that helped animate the countyr against slavery, but it’s more of a historical document than timeless classic. Other books about slavery have outpassed it in terms of quality. (The same applies for Sinclair’s “The Jungle”)

On Swift, again, you choose an essay instead of a work of art, if one can make a distinction. But look at Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a political book, but not nakedly political. By hiding the present day political references in metaphor, the book becomes timeless. Same with 1984, for example. The truly transcendent political art transcends time. They get past simple, present day political arguments and get to core issues.

As far as your last example, I can’t really imagine a work of art framing the question that way. We’re talking about plot, situation and characters. A great work of art probably challenges the assumptions about freedom and equality like you said.

But let’s use a different example, the one I believe applies most, good vs. evil.

Many, many, many artists—and many more regular people—believe the world is a battle of good vs. evil. I don’t. And when a work of art simplifies the world down to those two sides, I feel it fundamentally fails to capture the workings of the world. It misses the truth of the humanity.

This isn’t just an aesthetic discussion. Propaganda (my word for bad, political art) has a corrosive affect. Read our past articles on this. Interrogators in the CIA were inspired by “24”.

“I wish political art was more accurate” is a lot like saying “Why don’t more people think and believe exactly like me?!?!” Not really. I actually agreed with the political message of the game I reviewed, I disagreed with its presentation.

But pretending like blatantly political art isn’t affected by whether you agree with it, that’s also not how people view art. I don’t see how you can’t debate political art without discussing the politics. To use the extremes, a movie showing the glories of “the white race”, I would never like that film. Same with a film showing gay marriage is tearing this country apart, or Ayn Rand’s obectivist fantasies. No, I don’t agree with the politics, which means the artist is mis-representing the world, which means the art fails to illuminate basic human truths.


@ Eric C –

I will start by answering your question and move from there.

“What is bad political art?”

The political dimension does not change the answer for me, bad political art is the same as bad art in general. It’s art that fails to achieve its own intended aims. It’s a question of competency, ultimatly.

Those aims can simply be to express oneself, to provoke others into discussion or consideration, bolster and give comfort/support to ones comrades or introduce a new idea or subtlety to discussion. Hell it can even be used to intimidate and scare opponents off or direct aggression.

How one rates the accuracy and nuance of the sentiment behind a peice of political art is generally dependent on to what extent one agrees with or has been exposed to the politics of the artist. In which case we are not judging the art for being “bad art” but for being “bad politics”; I think there is a difference there.

Furthermore I see no reason for complexity to necessarily make political art good, sometimes complexity is superfluous or just a cover for an argument to moderation.

One could host a nuanced and complex debate between a medical doctor and psychic “healing hands” practitioner but what would be the point?

In terms of the “freedom balanced with equality thing” you’re kind of missing the point here. I’m not talking about a concrete kind of question but about the fact that the moment the artist begins asking a political question certain normative and descriptive political axioms must be accepted in order to allow that question to function. There is no safe, neutral ground where this does not happen.

Naturally art that asks “questions” is usually more interesting but it sends no less a message than art that makes a statement. Are we on the same page here?

Also I don’t think timelessness makes political art any greater; if a work of art was created to illicite a response in a specific context why does that make it lesser?

As for “24” you seem to have confused the quality of the art with the quality of the moral outcome. The fact that 24 lent support to torturers and bolstered Chicken-hawk political fantasies may actually be a sign that is good art.

I’ll iterate my position once again. Both the shocking of others into considering and then researching a topic, such as the role of natural resources in international politics, or the general aim to articulate a worldview, however simple, is a legitimate use of art.

Video games were not abused. One may find Oiligarchy’s message boring or lacking nuance and depending on the artistic aim of Oiligarchy one may question whether or not this means Oiligarchy is “bad art” but again it all depends on the intentions of the artist.

Oh, and I’d rank “A Modest Proposal” as Satire which quite happily falls under the banner of literature.


Well, I think with you’re definition, you’ve opened up a number of troubling questions. First off, who determines the aim of a piece of work? Is it the author? How do you determine what the author was thinking? Or do you have to analyze the work, and work backwards to figure out what it was trying to do?

Are all aims created equal? If my goal, as an artist, was to bore the reader instead of entertain, well, I can type 100,000 of words of nonsense, publish the book, and I’ve created a masterpiece.

More importantly, this gives no judgement for the quality of the aim, especially the political aim. You write, “How one rates the accuracy and nuance of the sentiment behind a peice of political art is generally dependent on to what extent one agrees with or has been exposed to the politics of the artist.” as if this is a bad thing. Guilty as charged.

Sorry, white supremacists, I’ll never find racist or homophobic propaganda enlightening as art, since it fails to accurately portray the truth of our reality/world. But if we just want to determine with racist writers achieve their aims, hypothetically, they can write masterpieces.


@Eric C

I don’t see what is troubling about those questions… but I’ll happily give my take on them before discussing this a bit more.

Q: Who determines the aim of a peice of work? Is it the author?

A: As far as we are talking about the aim of a works initial creation and distribution then yes… the author.

Q: How do you determine what the author was thinking?

A: Well most art is relatively explicit but you can always ask the author or if they are dead you have historical resarch and published writing to help enlighten you.

“Are all aims created equal? If my goal, as an artist, was to bore the reader instead of entertain, well, I can type 100,000 of words of nonsense, publish the book, and I’ve created a masterpiece.”

Maybe. If that is considered a masterpeice by some then who cares? I’m not troubled by what each group deems fit for which title because I’m not pretending to lay down any objective criteria for what makes amazing art. That’s why my definition of good art is bordering on tautology: good art is art that is good at what it does.

I think that’s why you don’t like my definition of art. It purposefully avoids turning the broad spectrum of experiences and activities that is art today, into a narrow hunt for a particular set of features like “timelessness” or “asking questions instead of giving answers”.

“as if this is a bad thing. Guilty as charged.”

What is being called into question is the political merit of the art rather than its artistic merit. A fascist painting is capable of being beautiful, moving and expressive to people even if it is the totem of a hateful culture which we wish would just die out.

One does not need to condone, love or appreciate all works of art in order to recognise that they are all legitimate expressions of art nonetheless. In the end, the artist owes us nothing for the pleasure of creating; the aim is not always to enlighten you in partiuclar.


I don’t think the majority of players see games like Oiligarchy as art. First and foremost it’s the simple challenge and enjoyment of playing the game. Put bluntly, games are for pleasure, art is deemed something more intellectual. You approach these mediums in a completely different way, and have preconceived expectations of both. As pointed out by Fin, every expression of human endeavour can be seen as political, because nothing exists nor can be created in a vacuum.

Eric, I would be more worried about the subtle more insidious messages in other games (I don’t play, but watch both my bros play), than the blatant simplistic propaganda in Oiligarchy. In fact, playing this game may make people ask questions and debate more about these important issues.

PS. I’ve posted a few comments before but they haven’t shown up, hope I’m not being blocked.


@ Dee G – Love the comment! We’re worried about those other forms too. We should have a guest post on that next week…

And as far as I know, none of your comments have been blocked. All comments await moderation. Just check back, they shoulld all go through. If, after a couple of days, they don’t go up, email us and let us know. But I don’t think I’ve deleted any of your comments. Since we started moderating comments, we’ve only deleted comments once.


@ Dee G

While most players don’t see Oiligarchy as art, I don’t think that really matters. I’m sitting here sipping a mug of coffee but I generally don’t consider my mug nor the house that I’m living in to be works of art. Nonetheless they are both the products of designers and architects utilising their artistic credentials.

Furthermore I think it’s really problematic to separate intellectualism and pleasure or assert that the latter is the defining domain of art. I mean, people do enjoy intellectual literature and film so obviously being pleasurable does not preclude something from being art, but does it have to be deemed intellectual to be artistic?

Where is the intellectual experience offered by music that is generally bereft of lyrical content, such as baroque or rave music? What about pottery, dance or landscape water-colour paintings?

There are all sorts of artistic works which do not carry much intellectual content because the work is, for example, focused on an emotive theme or more interested in playing with form than in saying something concrete.

Art is just an activity, the complimentary or pejorative descriptors that we attach to “what art is or should or should not be“ is usually just an attempt to restrictively define art as “the stuff I like“.

I wrote a bit about this topic as it pertains to video games, here: http://cut-throatandclueless.blogspot.co..

Also I agree with you about the “blatant vs subtle” point when it comes to propaganda. I much prefer people who don’t pretend to be impartial: transparency is a much more achievable and worthwhile goal than impartiality IMO.

All the best!


@ Fin – It’s okay for other people to view art differently than you do. I disagree with Dee G’s definitions of art, but I don’t think I need her to come around to my viewpoints on art. It’s still a legitimate point of view.

One does not need to condone, love or appreciate all art criticism or other views of art in order to recognize that they are all legitimate expressions of art criticism nonetheless.

Art criticism is just an activity. The complimentary or pejorative descriptors that we attach to “what art criticism is or should or should not be“ or how other people should view art is usually just an attempt to restrictively force others to view art the way we do.

I think that’s why you don’t like how I view art. It doesn’t into into your point of view of how one should analyze art.

That’s okay. Everyone can view and judge art differently.


Expressions of art and art criticism are not the same. Art at its conception is simply descriptive and only acquires its normative elements once it seeks to incorporate other aspects of life.

This is distinct from art criticism which begins with a normative component: This is what the art SHOULD be like.

Accordingly, “bad art” is often little more than a personal nuisance or general shame. Bad art criticism however is much worse. If allocated cultural weight it can be a force that restricts the very artistic process itself.

For example “dark cabaret”, as much as I love the idea, I can’t stand. The lyricism is generally childish and outside of a Tim Burton film it makes me want to roll into a ball and cringe.

The only downside to the existence of dark cabaret is music I don’t like.

Contrast this with an art critic whose modus operandi involves weilding a rubber stamp that implies that all worthwhile works of art tend towards a fixed set of goals (nuance, asking questions etc).

That critic is part of a process in which standards and expectations are set. Standards and expectations which, applied in such a broad manner, harangue artists into creating work that is designed to “tick boxes” rather than act as an authentic mode of expression.

The downside of this is an artistic culture that throttles creativity by imposing a teleology on art that is independant of its creator.


@ Fin – I see where we disagree: you think “bad art” can be ignored. A “nuisance”. But art isn’t merely “descriptive”. That’s just not true. I think art has the power to influence, for good and ill. It can embolden fascists, or, more specifically, influence racist points of view. And artists make arguments (good and bad arguments) through their art. I want the freedom to criticize those arguments.

In your mind, no one can criticize the racism in “Birth of the Nation”, even though, true fact, that film popularized cross burning as a symbol of white supremacy. Sorry to everyone who was terrorized by the Klan with a burning cross on their lawn, but we don’t want to inhibit an artist’s racism by judging that racism. Ironically, in your opinion, the more effectively the film glorifies white supremacy, the better the work of art.

If that’s your way of analyzing art, yeah, I can’t go there. I think most people would agree.

In reality, art and art criticism are part of the same conversation. Symbiotic. Artists make political statements and critics respond to those statements. Instead of stifling creativity, it sparks it. Artists aren’t easily-influenced zombies. (Not to mention how much great art has been created specifically challenging artistic and cultural norms.)

The danger posed by people giving opinions about art—which, essentially, is your argument: anyone who criticizes art might influence art and artists and what they create—is infinitely smaller than not letting people give opinions about art.

I guess I just see a double standard in your line of thinking. You keep insulting me, calling me a “critic…wielding a rubber stamp” stifling creativity with my beliefs of “This is what the art SHOULD be like.” The same applies to you. You’re stifling discussion, with your belief that “This is what art criticism SHOULD be like”. Where I’m “throttling free expression”, you’re preventing others from having opinions different than yours. You think you’re justified because art critics threaten creativity; I think I’m justified in critiquing art because art influences the world.

Oddly, I think your viewpoint will stifle creativity and discussion way more than my critiques.

In the modern internet era, everyone is free to create whatever they like. We should be free to critique and criticize as well.


@ Eric Thanks for replying! I wasn’t expecting my post to go through let alone get a reply, so I’m glad it worked this time. Looking forward to that guest post:) BTW I had a look through some of the reviews/comments for Oilgarchy, and many players found it ‘over political’. When something is being blatantly obvious, it doesn’t go unnoticed. I just found that really interesting.

@ Fin Of course, I was actually speaking generally on how the average person on the street defines/perceives art for themselves. It is a narrow and often prejudiced notion of what art is or should be. I largely agree with you. It really is in the eye of the beholder and has nothing to do with being educated or ‘intellectual’ (whatever that means). I spent sometime in art school and I’m a maker/designer myself. I also come from a family of musicians, completely self taught.

art is deemed something more intellectual

Deemed is the key word here, as in ‘viewed as’.

I wasn’t trying to make a statement of fact, just a generalised observation on the perception and expectation of both these media. I certainly didn’t say that art couldn’t be pleasurable, the same way it couldn’t be solely defined as intellectual. I meant intellectual as something with more thoughtfulness. That’s all.

Debating about this is all fine. Art is a central part of cultural production, and no one person has the definitive say. Everyone, even those who have no view or thought about these things is part of the culture and society from which that art is produced.

I recently saw the film Levitated Mass about Michael Heizers large sculpture/installation piece. He essentially lifted a large rock and placed it in the middle of a specially constructed trough or trench which people could walk through and view the rock. But that’s only part of (what I consider) the art. The film itself, in my opinion, was the other half. Documenting the journey the rock took, the people involved in the logistics, and most importantly, the people coming our of their neighbourhoods to see the rock and hearing their views – negative, ambiguous and positive. It was all part of the art, or should I say, part of the value the piece has to society and culture. What the artist was intending is almost irrelevant. Anyone in the creative business knows, when you put something out there you have no way of knowing exactly what people will make of it. Michael Heizer has never given an explanation of what it’s about, and I think that’s absolutely fine. It’s meaning is not defined by the artist alone, and in this case, the art is finished by the people who see it, make films about it, critique it. It’s all part of that organic, unpredictable thing called culture.


@ Dee G – Is “Levitated Mass” worth a viewing? I live in Los Angeles, but I haven’t seen it yet.

On Oiligarchy—and why I’d argue it doesn’t work, even on its own terms—is that blatant politics often turn people off, including supporters. If the goal is convincing people about the problems of abusing natural resources—which was the designers intention—this won’t do it.

Psychologically, people, when confronted with issues, can actually become more convinced of their position. I think this game will alienate any conservatives—cementing them in their beliefs—and possibly alienate moderates who, otherwise, would be predisposed to enjoy the game.


@Eric C

I think you should read my comments a bit more closely. You seem to have misconstrued my position a number of times now. In order to clarify I’ll begin by outlining what I am NOT arguing for.

1. I am not arguing that racism etc cannot be critiqued while it is within the confines of art, indeed how one would delineate such confines is problematic in itself, nor that a work of art should not/ can not be disliked for its political message etc.

2. I am not against any and all forms of art criticism.

Critique is extremely important in building “cultures” that incentivize, discuss and appreciate art.

So what am I arguing for then?

1. Racist art should be critiqued and it should be critiqued on the grounds of its racist message. BUT… racist art is bad because it is racist, not because it is “doing art wrong”.

There is nothing remotely ironic in arguing that a film that glorifies white supremacy well is a superior work of art to a film that glorifies white supremacy poorly.

It’s the atomic bombs efficiency that makes it so horrifying.

Likewise a “good” peice of racist propaganda is more loathsome to us because we recognise and fear just how effective it is at converting people to its cause.

2. My argument is that criticising art for not meeting a rubber-stamp teleology, because that’s what we impose when we make sweeping generalisations like “great art should”, backs an attitude that tells artists what they should strive for before they have even picked up the pen/camera/paintbrush/mouse.

I don’t really have a problem with expectations being made in terms of quality or even “factual accuracy” once we know what the art is intending to do… but before we know that, all bets are off.

The thing with Oiligarchy is that it is never made clear that what Oiligarchy aimed to do was “paint a realistic picture”.

In fact in their “Oiligarchy Postmortem” the creators argue that it was never possible for them to create a realistic vision of the oil industry as it pertains to political corruption.

Quote from here: http://www.molleindustria.org/oiligarchy..

“Despite that, mathematical models constituting the core of a game can be based on documents or derived from well-informed theories. Obviously the goal has not been to produce some kind of scientific, objective representation, but to outline a web of cause-and-effect-relations that can arguably share strong qualitative similarities with the mess we call reality. “

Different motives put different expectations on different types of work and change the way in which they can be meaningfully criticised. For instance, there is no point in argueing that Kafka painted a lope-sided picture of bureaucracy when it was never Kafka’s intention to paint an accurate one.

I’ll quote myself here with emboldened emphasis.

“Art at its conception is simply descriptive and only acquires its normative elements once it seeks to incorporate other aspects of life.”

“Great art should” is far too restricting because it presumes that all art aims at the same thing. If anything my position allows critics to be more free with their criticisms by arguing that they don’t need to stick to the same metric all the time.

If people want to assess art on timelessness and nuance then that’s cool. All I’m saying is that they should recognise that that approach is not appropriate all of the time and should be willing to adopt new approaches when they are suitable.


@ Fin – I reread your comments more closely, and I don’t think I misconstrued what you wrote. I’ve made logical conclusions from your positions. I could spend time going point by point, but it seems pointless. There’s really no point in continuing the back and forth, since we don’t agree.

I actually agree with your closing paragraph: there are no rules to art. The moment one says, “Great art CAN’T do X”, you can come up with an example of X. I’ve written about this before in regards to writing. There can be no rules for great writing, only guidelines that can be broken when necessary. Even you characterized my argument as “Great art should”, instead of “Great art has to”.

Still, I feel “great art” tends to certain things well, with only the rare exception disproving the rule. (It’s a continuum. Some rules are more easily broken than others.) Analyzing these guidelines doesn’t inhibit artists.

On this level, I’d argue you’re actually doing artists a disfavor. By NOT telling artists “what they should strive for before they have even picked up the pen/camera/paintbrush/mouse”, you’re encouraging artists to NOT learn their craft. To repeat the mistakes others have made. Way too much bad art has been justified by “authentic free expression”. (Not to mention, an artist is free to create whatever they want. I’m free to think it fails as art. You don’t want the criticism, keep it locked in the drawer.)

Like the saying goes, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” Way too many artists have created way too much bad art by not learning the rules, or feeling that they don’t apply to them. Then they wonder why they’re not succeeding as artists.

This comes from the point of view of an artist, learning the craft of screenwriting. A lot of “screenwriting gurus” offer hard and fast rules for what screenplays can or cannot do. Many professional screenwriters—check out the Scriptnotes podcast, for example—lambast these ‘rules”. From Craig Mazin, “there are a lot of people out there who are spreading around the gospel of the rules. Rules of screenwriting, things you must not do and things you must do. And if you fail to adhere to the rules, your script will be thrown out. And I see a lot of these. But most of the time when I see them, I think, that’s completely wrong.”

But even he says later, “there’s a reason why people think they’re a rule because in most of these cases that thing we’re saying is not a rule, it’s generally a good idea. And so it’s a conflation of, you know, these are things to aim for in usual or things to think about. But they’re not, by any means, iron clad rules. Rules are things like this is an absolute versus here are some suggestions that you should tend to think about when you are writing your script..”

Does all art have to be timeless and nuanced, the two points you keep bringing up again and again? No. But it’s absolutely pointless to pretend that nuanced art doesn’t tend to be better than simplistic rah-rah drivel, or characterize someone saying that has prevented artists from authentically expressing themselves with undue critical influence.

This applies to propaganda. Propaganda rarely works. If propagandistic art works, it probably rises above the level of propaganda. By setting out to make a work of propaganda, the makers of Oiligarchy gave themselves a task they couldn’t achieve. (Again, I actually agree with the politics of the game, so that’s not at issue here.)

In trying to prove me wrong, you didn’t represent the actual intention of the game designers of Oiligarchy accurately. (Perhaps showing the difficulty of analyzing art this way?) I never argued they wanted to make a realistic portrait of the world. Obviously not, the game is clearly a parody.

But what did they actually want to do? The next section of their manifesto after what you quoted states their actual intention:

“Oiligarchy is meant to popularize Peak oil as a key issue to understand present and future crisis and to contribute to the re-framing of the vague and deceptive argument of “dependency of foreign oil” that is dominating the current political discourse in the US.”

I would argue they failed to do that, as I wrote above. The game is too blatantly political, which much psychological research on group polarization has shown, will actually not convince people to care about the game. It will make opponents more extreme and, in my estimation, turn off moderates they may otherwise have a chance of convincing. (And I would argue, by focusing more on the politics than the gameplay, they flat out made a bad game with poor gameplay that offers little to no replay value.)

Which brings me back to my original point. Because they sought out to make propaganda, seeking to push a blatantly political message, they failed to make a good game. By pushing that message, they won’t convince people of their message (their intended actual aim), and will instead alienate a lot of people. Consequently, they made a bad game/bad art, even by your metrics. A more subtle, nuanced game would have made the argument better. (Not a rule! Not a rubber stamp! Just a guideline that, in this case, works.)

As the saying goes, “stereotypes exist for a reason”. I’d argue “sweeping generalisations like ‘great art should’” exist for a reason: because they’re right most of the time.

And I should mention, I still believe this method of analyzing art has problems beyond mention. Why does the author of a work control its analysis? What about works written anonymously? What about artists like Pynchon who intentionally never explain what they intend to do? What about artists like Warhol who give purposefully give contradictory explanations of what they intended to do?

Art, I believe, stands independent of the artist. The artist’s artistic intention is just one aspect of many when it comes to criticizing art.


A few other points, then I hope this conversation can go away:

- “I am not against any and all forms of art criticism.” Then, when criticizing other people’s opinions about art, don’t say they use a “rubber stamp”, and don’t say they throttle free expression, because then that’s exactly what you’re doing.

- I see no point in distinguishing between artistic merit and political merit. If a work of art if racist, that affects its artistic merit. I don’t divide the two as separate. Form doesn’t follow function; they’re the same thing.

- If an artist attempts to write a great novel about freedom, but through sheer incompetence ends up sculpting the equivalent of Michaelangelo’s “The David”, is he a failure?

You don’t need to answer, just wanted to make the point.


@ Eric In reply to your last post to me (not to confuse your debate with Fin).

I’m jealous, I live in London, so it’ll be sometime before I get the chance to see Levitated Mass for myself. If you’re in the area, absolutely yes, I’d be interested to know what you make of it.

Yes there’s always the risk of alienating your audience if you push too hard. I’d like to know who Oiligarchy is aimed at exactly.

Playing the game as I write:

There’s a darkly cynical humour running throughout the game, this really makes me think of it in terms of satire. Political satire is a long and old tradition, usually aimed at specific public figureheads (Tina Fey as Sarah Palin comes to mind). Their use of actual places e.g. Iraq, makes it much more political than I thought it was going to be. They could have made up funny names suggesting these places but chose to use real name places. Oiligarchy certainly appears to be an attempt at a direct and unambiguous critique using a particularly cynical form of satire. I think this may explain why some players were turned off by it. It feels more like a political statement than a balanced persuasive argument.

Most of the missions in the Classified area are right out of the crazy conspiracy theory world. For me, any serious argument they were trying to make is made null. That said, it doesn’t replace the (simplified) truths that are also in the game. All in all, it’s a clever attempt at political engagement with people, although the politics is really very crudely done.


@ Dee G – I agree with your assessment. A straight forward game about resource management would have, well, made the case more convincingly. Adding in conspiratorial elements will cause people to pause and say, “Well, I don’t think that” forcing them to question the entire game’s veracity. “If they think X and Y are true, but I think Y is absurd” they might leave the game thinking, X is absurd as well.


@ Eric
Found the Oiligarchy Postmortem via this Guardian article, it’s written by the makers explaining the game in some detail. Fascinating read.

Also have a look at the rest of their site, especially the blog, there are some really interesting projects. These guys are engaged, on the ball and have very strong views. Certainly explains Oiligarchy.