Notes on Thoughts and Prayers: The Problem with An Empty Gesture

Thoughts and Prayers: The Game  is a political satire game that does exactly nothing, which is what it’s supposed to do. Brought to us by GOP Arcade, a newsgame development studio co-founded by Brian Moore, Chris Baker and Michael Lacher, Thoughts and Prayers: The Game was released in 2016 following the Orlando shooting that left 50 people dead and 53 injured at gay nightclub Pulse. The game takes specific aim at the largely Republican response to the tragedy, which consisted of largely ignoring any tangible policy-making and instead offering “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families on Twitter and in other official statements.

This is, of course, cold comfort, and in many ways an abdication of responsibility for the party’s complicity with the creation of a culture wherein gun violence accounts for tens of thousands of deaths and injuries annually. Thoughts and Prayers: The Game lampoons this glib indifference in the form of a pixelated browser game, complete with a cock rock rendition of organ church music, loud colours, canned sound effects and plenty of really big buttons to click on. It’s deliberately corny and campy, but subtlety has never really been a mainstay of the newsgame genre, and I admit it has its own sort of charm.

A brief text bubble below the embedded screen instructs the player to hit T to “Think and P to “Pray”, although one also has the option of simply clicking on the respectively named blue and green buttons. Those sit atop a red-striped backdrop below a yellow-and-pink gradient map of the United States. After the short intro text explaining how it’s up to we the players to stop the American gun violence epidemic through the power of thought and prayer, we are then given 30 seconds to either think or pray while the aforementioned map is dotted consecutively with red spots corresponding to yet another mass shooting. Each dot is accompanied by a hashtag and a death toll, and as the clock ticks down the game prompts the player to either think or pray harder, demanding that we “EMPATHIZE!!” in large gradient block letters if the buttons aren’t pushed fast enough. After the 30 seconds are up, a grey screen depicts a score with the number of thoughts thunk and the number of prayers prayed, and an adjacent score for the number of lives saved, which is of course always zero. This juxtaposition contrasted with the generally clownish tone of Thoughts and Prayers: The Game give it its bite.

I’m skeptical of the newsgame genre in general, in part because I feel like they tend toward trying to prove why games are relevant and important, rather than using game contexts to explore relevant and important things. But one thing I do appreciate about this game is its insistence on doing nothing, and being openly foolish while doing so. That’s admittedly a perfect encapsulation of the representatives the game is mocking.

But there is one thing that continues to bother me about it. As the timer ticks down, a third, greyed out button will appear between the Think and Pray ones. This one, which reads “ban assault weapons sales”, is clickable, but nothing will come of it. The game will call you weak in the same gradient block text as every other directive it gives you, but that’s about it. The joke, of course, is that Republicans are unwilling to even look at policies that might reduce the actual number of assault weapons people–and especially young, disgruntled men who make up the vast majority of mass shooters–can legally obtain access to. That’s hard to argue with, but like many of GOP Arcade games which strive to make a strong point quickly while always centering Republicans in their critique, they reveal a major blindspot in how they present these critiques to the playing public.

In the direct aftermath of the Orlando shooting, a bipartisan senate group proposed a bill that would limit the sale of assault rifles for people who were on the US government’s “no-fly” list. Dubbed the “No Fly, No Buy”” bill, it was strongly supported by Democrats under Obama but found less popularity among Republicans, leading to an infamous House sit-in protest in favour of the bill by notable Democratic representatives including John Lewis and 170 other lawmakers. The big glaring issue with this bill, as journalist Alex Pareene pointed out, isn’t that it imposes some kind of gun control, but that it uses the no-fly list–a horrendously racist and unreliable database of names which includes some children–to decide who those controls are actually applied to. The bill failed to pass but what remains is the fact that it was never a great, well-thought-out bill in the first place, and the effect it would have had on gun violence is dubious at best.

It’s fair to argue that if the GOP couldn’t support that, they won’t support gun control period. But it’s important not to leave out the conditions that cause this kind of violence in the first place. It’s important not to leave out that most mass shooters are young white men, meaning that a gun control bill designed around the terror watchlist would be useless in stopping the vast majority of them. (It’s not even clear that such a bill would have stopped the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, for that matter.) It’s also important not to leave out the fact that mass shootings, though relatively common in the United States compared with other countries, are still pretty rare, and that most gun violence involves handguns and derives from issues of poverty, local disputes, accidents, and other domestic issues that don’t have all that much to do with “terrorists” or spree killers. Thoughts and prayers won’t do a damn thing to stop gun violence–especially, as the game is right to point out, when so many of these GOP politicians take lobbying money from the NRA–but bills which seem designed to do no more than score political points at the expense of vulnerable populations won’t do anything much either.

Thoughts and Prayers: The Game does make its point slickly and succinctly, but it might be a little too glib. In its simplicity and campiness, it might be diminishing the complexity of the issue a little too much. But the game did strike enough of a chord shortly after its release that it was soon featured on sites like Polygon and Salon, and GOP Arcade has been given a platform by NYT to explore other issues in game form–namely voter suppression in their Oregon Trail parody, Voter Suppression Trail. Perhaps framing these issues in the context of satirical, accessible little browser games has its place, as does taking special care to denounce the GOP. But I think we should withhold some excitement for any piece of media which seeks to essentialize a problem like gun violence without also attempting to make a systemic critique of the liberal democratic society that produces that violence.

Sure enough, with Republicans now fully in power, the simple point this game does make will only become more relevant with time, not less. Republican feigned contrition and lack of solutions will only become more apparent. But as institutions and social relations continue to erode, people will need an explanation, and simply blaming the GOP won’t be enough. Redeeming the Democrats for their own failures to constrain the worst of capitalism and empire will come with even more diminished returns. You can only ask for so long that people keep clicking on a button that wouldn’t accomplish anything even if it functioned, that people keep themselves invested in a great lie, and that they do so in exchange for some palliative that tells them at least they’re the reasonable ones. The darkly wry liberal satirist will need to give way to a greater imagination that does more than just tease the possibility of a lesser evil, but actually fights for good.