Gamers battling industry disinformation

| 6th September 2019
What Remains screenshot
What Remains
What Remains is a game that draws parallels between industry disinformation campaigns from the 1980s and today.

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What Remains is an 8-bit game, blending visual novel and adventure elements. The story translates real events from the 80's into an epic quest to save the world.

The game lets you experience the fight against industry disinformation, showing you several ways to push back and regain agency by joining forces with others. 

The 80's was the decade in which many of the problems we face today became painfully apparent. The collateral damage of industrial capitalism – acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, global warming – became visible at the same time as the rise of neoliberalism, with its push for deregulation.

Unsustainable technology

During the 80s, several industry disinformation campaigns have been successfully used in an attempt to delay regulation. The game is based on those campaigns, showing strategies that are still used today.

Digital technology, even though it is often portrayed as immaterial and clean, is inherently unsustainable. The mining for minerals needed to build microchips and Printed Circuit Boards is extremely polluting; planned obsolescence and eternal upgrading to a newer model results in an overload of e-waste which for a large part ends up in toxic waste dumps in for instance Ghana and India; the growing CO2 emissions of data centers, web traffic and home use of electronic devices.

So instead of going for the latest gadget, What Remains is developed on reused and repurposed old NES cartridges. 

The game has a female protagonist, Jennifer, who stumbles upon a NES cartridge which contains encrypted documents. She and her best friend Michael start to unravel a conspiracy threatening the whole planet. They start decoding the documents and spreading news about the information they discover.

The game allows the player to actively engage with the topic of disinformation, instead of read about it. Let’s proceed with a description of a few different strategies, and how they are translated in the game.

Controlling the narrative  

The first strategy is controlling the narrative surrounding the industry in question. The most striking example of this strategy in the 80s is the use of PR agency Katzenstein Associates by both the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and the Tobacco Institute.

EEI published an advertisement in the Washington Post in 1982 with a coupon to order the booklet “An Updated Perspective on Acid Rain” written by Allan Katzenstein. It contained falsehoods such as acid rain having a fertilizing effect and an explanation of pH values saying acidity is not all bad, since tomatoes and carrots are acid too: “All have pH values well in the range of the rain that is the subject of scare headlines in the popular media”.

In 1987 Katzenstein worked for theTobacco Institute, giving  62 TV, radio and newspaper interviews, posing as an air quality expert. 

In the game, you learn about Alan Kittenstein of PR agency Kittenstein Associates. He is hired by DNYcorp whose energy branch is worried about acid rain causing a panic among the public.

You also discover that the local newspaper, the Sunny Peaks Gazette, is owned by Fred Robafeller, who owns 80 percent of DNYcorp, the corporation wreaking havoc on the environment in your hometown. You gain the ability to spread the information you received by literally blowing the whistle.

When you do, you spread the information you just learned to other characters in the game. Some accuse you of being a doom-crying opponent of all progress. You need to find different ways to broadcast this story...

Astroturfing

The second strategy is appearing to be fighting for and with the people, by using front groups and astroturf campaigns. This creates the illusion of many people fighting for the same cause: usually corporate freedom – not getting regulated or taxed – made to look indistinguishable from individual freedom. 

Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), an anti-tax think tank dedicated to the promotion of free market economics, was co-founded in 1984 by David Koch, of Koch Industries. It was funded by the tobacco, oil, energy and sugar industries.

In 2002 CSE launched the Tea Party website. The Tea Party, which was meant to be a grass roots uprising for less taxes and less government regulation, turned out to be astroturf, hiding its sponsors until 2012, when internal documents leaked. 

Inspired by the Koch brothers’ efforts to bootstrap the tea-party protests, the game’s Sunny Peaks elections for a new mayor are hit by an anti-tax, pro-freedom, astroturf campaign organized by DNYcorp to get the industry friendly mayor John Donson elected.

You receive information about the scheme and need to convince as many people as possible not to fall for it. You try talking to them about the evidence you’ve uncovered, but the campaign uses slander against you.

You’ve lost trust. Even though you have evidence, you cannot win this battle. Only after infiltrating the secret headquarters of DNYcorp and uncovering a plan threatening the whole world, are you able to stop the spread of false information. DNYcorp defends itself with one last strategy.

Distraction

The last strategy is all about distracting the public’s attention by pointing to something even more concerning that is unrelated to the industry in question.

This strategy has three steps. First, all focus is put on a problem bigger than the one the industry causes. During the 80s this was still communism, which later turned into environmentalism, terrorism and other foreign threats.

Step two consists of offering a technological solution to the problem. Step three is there in case step one and two fail: you stress how people can adapt to the problem you caused.

During the 80’s the cold war was still used as a distraction to push through policies that were a direct threat to public safety, such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), Reagan’s thankfully never realized plan to protect the US against Soviet nuclear missiles with a laser defense shield in space. 

In the game DNYcorp is distracting people with an epic yet fake alien invasion. The solution they propose is to nuke the aliens. This will, not coincidentally, generate a nuclear winter, cooling the earth, neutralizing the effects of global warming so people can continue to burn the fossil fuels offered by DNYcorp.

A technical solution – geoengineering – using the theory of nuclear winter, while simultaneously distracting from the cause of the problem. 

Let’s play!

The game contains more strategies and lets players resist by collectively fighting for independent media, destroying the carefully constructed narrative of a harmful industry.

The game takes place in a pre-internet era yet the strategies used to influence public opinion and delay industry regulation have not evolved that much. The infrastructure used to execute those strategies has though, and this has made wielding influence much easier.

What Remains is a game that explores these issues and lets you experience the different parallels between disinformation campaigns in the 80s and today through the lens of a game console from that decade.

What Remains is a project by Arnaud Guillon, Chun Lee, Dustin Long, Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk. The game can be downloaded here

This Author

Marloes de Valk is a software artist and writer in the post-despair stage of coping with the threat of global warming and being spied on by the devices surrounding her.

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