Notes on Military-Industrial Complex: Finger on the Button

REPVBLIC’s Military-Industrial Complex attempts to pull off the notoriously difficult task of creating a trenchant, coherent and funny political satire in the context of a videogame. It resembles, in some ways, a Mason Lindroth game: aesthetically, it reflects that grainy black-and-white palette and texture typical of Lindroth, but in more of a topical, pop art style rather than the surrealist claymation feel we tend to get with his stuff. This in itself helps set the tone for Military-Industrial Complex’s premise.

The story so far, as game’s site explains, is as follows: “Commander-in-Chief Strom Thurmond and the North Atlantic Protestant Alliance [NAPA] have been at war with Premier Stalintron’s endless cyborg army for almost four years with no end in sight.”

The faceless protagonist of this sort-of-Orwellian, sort-of-Gilliamesque sci-fi hellscape was another nobody, a junior enlisted Aerospace Propulsion Technician, before having their Social Security number selected by a government lottery which then thrust them into the role of Minister of Civil Industry and War Production for NAPA.

This is where the player comes in. It is now your job to sit at a computer console and push buttons that control either war production or other economic growth (in the form of excess commodities and entertainment). On the left, a console displays the “National Emergency Meter” that measures out the rate of civil unrest versus the rate of enemy strength in percentages using two side-by-side graphs. The game provides no context for what either of those things could actually mean, in material terms, outside of these relative percentages. All we’re really given is the fact that when one percentage goes down, the other goes up. This is obviously bad; balance must be restored. The alternative is anarchy, chaos, defeat. The alternative is treason. So you hit the button to make the numbers right again.

It’s relatively easy, and funny, to do thisuntil it gets boring. You placate civil society with a new artificial cheese product or an Alf movie, the next thing you know the numbers bid you to spur production for IEDs and light armoured vehicles. A simple, maybe even slightly facile, relationship between popular consumer culture and imperialist aggression are established. Keep the sheeple distracted, and so on. It isn’t necessarily incorrect, but it’s also nothing particularly profound or revelatory.

Sometimes, seemingly at random, a social or geopolitical crisis will be triggered by some absurd or buffoonish mishapa prominent political agent caught with his pants down, for example. These minor crises can affect either “enemy strength” or “civil unrest”, or neither, depending on the situation. They create a nice little break in the monotony of regulating the meters, and provide snippets of context into the kind of world that exists beyond them. It’s a world distracted by spectacle and consumption, stratified by class, permanently at warthe so-called “free world” itself degraded to little more than a military dictatorship and helmed by a real-life segregationist who argued in 1948 that any victory for Civil Rights would render America a “totalitarian state”and tenuously maintained in a perverse equilibrium by technocratic drones like the one the player must embody. In other words, it’s a kind of funhouse exaggeration of the world we live in now.

Military-Industrial Complex makes its point about the monotony of systematic political violence in a manner reminiscent of Papers, Please, but instead of dealing with the tepid quotidian routine of bureaucracy, the game examines the tepid quotidian routine of technocracy. Worse yet, the player does not even have the honour of seeing the faces of the people whose lives are being manipulated and probably destroyed by their actions. It’s merely numbers on a screen and some funny two-line anecdotes that, eventually, become another stale part of the process too.

It’s in that last part that I think REPVBLIC have actually hit on something interesting here. It’s so easy to fall into a pattern in line with the scenario of the game, one which requires a certain degree of contempt or derision for the people in these imaginary narratives. To hell with the sheeple who want nothing more than their sneakers and Big Gulps while the government finances mass death overseas! They deserve what they get! Well, but that’s the joke.

Eventually you get so bored that you start to wonder what would happen if you let one end of the meter fill all the way up, to 100%. To hell with President ThurmondI’ve done my job and at no point have I been rewarded. To hell with me for being the idiot monkey pushing buttons on command. You start to think, after 10, 20, 30 minutes, “wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what happens when the whole thing fills up?” So you do it.

The game suggests that people need to be just dissatisfied enough to actually revolt. That’s obvious enough, although it’s silly to try to represent that purely numericallyand I suspect that’s part of the joke here too. But the real laugh comes from the indictment of the player. Would I have been content to keep plugging along at my job if there really were a chance of being rewarded by President Thurmond himself? If I did not become bored with the game, and therefore just inconvenienced enough to enact some kind of change, would I be content to keep the abstract suffering of others just beyond my view of the console?  

The late protest singer-songwriter Phil Ochs quipped that a liberal is someone who is “10 percent to the left of center in good times, 10 percent to the right of center if it affects them personally.” That’s something I feel is endemic to liberalism as praxis, which seems to abhor instability and discomfort more than it values equity or justice, and yet it’s a habit that’s very easy to fall into, especially for people who have some power. As the meter fills up and the system enters major crisis mode, I’m shown still images of people revolting, of cyborg Premier Stalintron finally claiming victory in his four year battle with President Thurmond, of the dismantling of the state as it is. I am the architect of the revolution, spun from my fingers not out of any political conviction, but out of pure, unabashed boredom. This is not to argue that an inconvenienced liberal has much interest in revolution, but it is to say that perhaps if I had some guarantee of reward, of protection, of upward mobilitywould I also be swinging 10 percent to the right?

There are ways in which I feel Military-Industrial Complex reduces complex sociopolitical realitiesand the motivations and passions of these abstracted populationsto make its points which are to its detriment. There’s a very pronounced strain of accelerationism in itthat it’s my job to let society go to complete shit before anyone changes a damn thingthat I’m not compelled or convinced by. I feel it’s meddling in that kind of reasoning as a consequence of placing the burden of action on the player, but it also ends up projecting a certain sneering contempt for the great, unwashed masses which seems at odds with the revolutionary spirit I think it wants the player to embrace.

That said, games aren’t generally great at nuance and in a smallish project like this, there’s a compromise to be made between the coherence and focus of an idea and its completeness. Add to that the strategic exaggerations of satire and you end up with something kind of rough, blunt and at times overly caustic. But this game also manages to engage concepts of alienation, violence, technocracy and ideology in an intriguing and fairly funny way, and its creators have even done some impressive work world-building outside of the game itself. This is a strong showing for a political satire game, simple and blunt though it may be, and I think it represents some potential that I was beginning to feel was a lost cause in games writ large. It may be the case that I have my doubts about this game’s ideological overtones, or that I feel that at the very least parts of it could be better elaborated, but well, shitat least it has me thinking.